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COMMENTARY—February 23, 2002

Educators who Act Like Law Enforcement Agents

The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle

to those who want to learn.  


In early twentieth century Japan, a highly regarded educator named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi exemplified the ideals of teaching.  He was a teacher who loved his students and was always concerned about their well-being.  For instance, Mr. Makiguchi made a habit of paying for food out of his pocket and preparing lunches to feed poverty-stricken students. 


Mr. Makiguchi was an elementary school teacher and principal, and he proposed revolutionary changes in education.  He denounced the “force-feeding of knowledge,” and he called for “education to have the happiness of children as its fundamental purpose.”  [1]  Moreover, he deplored the conditions under which Japanese school children in the 1920s faced intense competition, had difficulty getting into good schools, and struggled to find jobs after graduation. 


Instead, he perceived education to be the means by which children would learn to realize their great potential as human beings.  Mr. Makiguchi espoused and practiced humanistic educational philosophy.  He had no doubt that each student could manifest his or her unique greatness as an individual through correct education.


In contrast to Mr. Makiguchi, increasing numbers of educators today are not nurturing the growth of children but acting more often as law enforcement agents.  According to such teachers, teaching children to obey rules is the most important aspect of teaching.  These teachers fail to see that while they are busily advocating rules, they often forget the true meaning of education, which is to nurture and foster the growth of children.


A good example of a teacher antithetical to Mr. Makiguchi’s philosophy was described in a February 14, 2002, article in the New York Times.  Journalist Jodi Wilgoren reports that a tenth grade biology teacher in Piper, Kansas detected plagiarism in projects turned in by 28 of 118 high school students.  The teacher automatically handed out zeroes to these students, thereby jeopardizing their ability to pass the course. 


The students’ parents raised objections to the school board, and the board responded by lessening the severity of the teacher's punishment.  The board’s intervention, however, created uproar in the community.  Objections were made on the teacher’s behalf, arguing that the teacher was unable to act independently and professionally.  In the meantime, the teacher was hailed as a hero to many in the community, and the school has been subsequently branded as a haven for cheaters.


One might opine that this teacher upheld high standards of ethics by enforcing rigorous rules against plagiarism.  In support of such a view, Wilgoren notes that the teacher issued a contract to the students on the day she handed out the project assignment.  The students and their parents had to sign the contract, which delineated the rules governing this project.  It included a prohibition against plagiarism and turning in someone else's work. 


Ostensibly, the teacher offered the contract in order to prevent students from committing plagiarism.  Yet once the teacher began to detect something amiss with the students' projects, she did not warn them further about the rules against plagiarism.  The teacher first became suspicious of some students’ work in October 2001 when, according to Wilgoren, they made oral presentations that were “filled with big, unfamiliar words.:”


The next month, after the students handed in their work, the teacher investigated their reports by visiting a plagiarism detection Web site.  She was informed that one in four students had turned in work “laced with lifted material.”  She promptly gave these students no credit for their projects, and since the project constituted 50 percent of the course’s overall grade, these students risked failing the course.


As far as I could tell from this article, this teacher never took the time to approach the students either as a class or individually to make sure that they understood that she would not tolerate any use of published material without attribution, even after she suspected they were doing exactly that.  It also appears that this teacher suspected all her students of misdeeds since she had all 118 written reports analyzed for plagiarism. 


If this teacher was truly interested in educating her students, then one might believe that she would have been interested not only in reviewing the final product of their projects but also helping the students learn the process involved in accomplishing the projects. 

In other words, one would think that this teacher should have helped her students write their projects. 


The teacher, however, seems to have preferred playing a passive role in their education with respect to these projects.  It was assumed that the students were capable of amassing the data and writing the reports on their own and without help from their teacher.  I understand that tenth graders are expected to know a great deal and to accomplish much, yet I wonder about the educational value of this project.  Very importantly, did the teacher actually teach her students anything related to this project? 


This article could not explain every detail of the case, but it seems fairly evident that this teacher’s views on education centered more on teaching students how to follow rules rather than teaching them how to learn.  If anything, this teacher spent a great deal of time policing her students’ work after it was handed in. 


In truth, she must have spent a great deal of time doing research on the Internet to obtain evidence of cheating.  Fundamentally, this teacher questioned not only the students’ work, but more significantly, their integrity.  She was quoted by Wilgoren as saying the following:  “You’re teaching them to be honest people, to have integrity, to listen, to be good citizens.”  

She perceived her role as an educator to be more about instilling values than it was about simply teaching biology.  Yet she was a biology teacher whose job was to teach the children biology and to oversee their projects.  Despite this responsibility, it appears that she did little to help her students learn how to avoid the charges of plagiarism she later leveled at them.  She was far more interested in judging them than she was in teaching them. 


It seems this teacher believed that she knew better than the students the meaning of honesty, integrity, and citizenship.  Yet one has to wonder why she assumed from the beginning that her students would cheat and they would need to sign a contract that was full of rules regarding the project.  It was almost as if this teacher expected her students to do wrong.  Did her students, however, really commit egregious errors of judgment?  Isn’t there a possibility that there were other reasons why the students produced the work they did?


First, it is possible that some students wrote brilliant reports that perhaps even the teacher herself could not write as well.  Second, perhaps most students do not have the ability to fully analyze everything they read, particularly in a subject as complex as biology, and it was inevitable that they would lift text from reference sources.  Third, perhaps the expectation of brilliantly written reports from fifteen-year-old children is just too high.


In recent weeks, two well-known and bestselling historians have been subjected to intense scrutiny for plagiarism.  Both Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have admitted that they failed to attribute certain passages in their books, as many as dozens in one of Goodwin’s books.  This means that even among seasoned professors who are professional writers, the possibility of plagiarism exists. 


There is no excuse for flagrant plagiarism.  There is, however, a concept of leniency and understanding given the fact that the alleged plagiarizers in Kansas were young students and not professional scientists or writers.  These students were in the process of learning, so why were they not given the opportunity to learn?


Instead of assuming the students’ guilt, the teacher should have tried to help them write better reports in their own words if that was her main goal.  When she first suspected that some students were not properly attributing their sources during the oral presentations, she could have intervened.  She could have emphasized the strictness of her policies, yet she relied on the students to remember Number 7 of their initial contract, the one that stipulated that plagiarism will result in failure of the assignment.  It is, unfortunately, much easier to set guidelines for students than it is to actually educate them.


The most terrible aspect of this entire cheating scandal appears to be this teacher’s apparent disinterest in educating her students.  Did this teacher display any of the concern or compassion that the educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi showed his students?  Mr. Makiguchi believed that each student had the potential to learn.  This teacher in Kansas believed that each student had the potential to lie and cheat.  There is a vast difference between the attitudes of two such disparate educators.


Wilgoren mentions that this teacher never had any intention of staying on as a high school biology teacher.  She had already planned to open up an in-home day care center, and she resigned soon after the school board intervened on the students’ behalf.  It is sad that this woman continues to work in any profession concerned with children, no less babies.  This former teacher lacks the heart to be a truly excellent educator.  It is not the responsibility of an educator to be merely a law enforcer, however ethical or principled she believes herself to be. 


In this case, I believe that the school board did its job judiciously.  They determined that this teacher had been far too punitive.  Unfortunately, many townspeople disagreed with the school board’s decision.  In fact, most of the letters that were written to the New York Times in response to Wilgoren’s article indicated that most readers sided with this punitive teacher. 


Out of four letters to the Editor published by the New York Times, three praised this teacher for her integrity and her ability to establish high standards of conduct.  They wrote of the need to educate not only these students but also the students’ parents about the difference between right and wrong.  In situations like this, the general public is often quick to bully both the parents who, of course, can do no right and the children who, naturally, are not permitted to make mistakes.


In contrast, the writer of the fourth letter was sensible.  Judith Luber-Narod wondered about the meaning of education and why the students were not permitted to repeat the assignment.  She wrote that children are learning the skills to live in the adult world.  She suggested in her letter, dated February 19, 2002, that the students be permitted “to learn consequences without abusive punishment.” 


I agree with Ms. Luber-Narod.  Instead of offering a dogmatic view of education, this letter writer offered the compassion and insight that would have given these students an opportunity to learn something.  In other words, this letter writer is more of an educator than was the teacher who gave out zeroes.


Mr. Makiguchi was a lifelong educator who dedicated his life to education reform in Japan.  His former students still retain vibrant memories of Mr. Makiguchi as their teacher.  His compassion and consideration had long-lasting positive effects upon his students’ lives.


Unfortunately for the students who were accused of cheating at Piper High School, the only memories of their tenth grade biology teacher will be one of regret.  They must wonder how any teacher could so mistrust her students.  In addition, what exactly did they learn from her?  Sadly, the education children receive from schooling today is not at all what great educators ever hoped it would be.


Revised April 13, 2006



























[1]Ikeda, Daisaku. 2001. Soka Education. Santa Monica, California: Middleway Press, 9.

Copyright 2006 The Nurturing Mother. All rights reserved.
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