Today (17 January 2011), the United States is officially celebrating the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., but I’m unable to go along. I realize that we live in the age of the hagiography of King, and so I understand that many in this country are unwilling to entertain any criticism of the man and his ideas, but in a free society that values learning, everything must be subject to analysis. There are two points about King that make simple celebration impossible.
First, as an academic, I despise plagiarism. It is a corrosive fraud that destroys the trust that students and teachers must have with each other. Why am I raising this? A few years ago, I wouldn’t have done so, because the question of King’s own plagiarism isn’t often discussed. As has been admitted by both the King Papers Project and Boston University, King had a long pattern of using the writing of others without acknowledgement. A significant portion of King’s doctoral dissertation was written by others. Boston University has refused to revoke King’s Ph.D., stating that the dissertation, “makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship,” but I don’t have to go along.
Every semester, I wrestle with students and with administrators on the subject of plagiarism. Today’s attitude held by so many is that cheating is no big deal. This attitude is part of a general decline in the value of education. A college degree is merely a piece of paper that gets a person a lucrative job. If that’s the case, how we get that document doesn’t matter. My problem is that my values come out of an older tradition that believes that critical thinking and telling the truth are fundamental to the process. When I read an essay that is plagiarised, I lose all respect for the person who cheated. The punishment for that fraud ought to be expulsion from the class and perhaps from the school. The student may feel free to apply again, but that person obviously needs to start over and learn academic honesty first. Having said that, I cannot accept King’s degree.
The second point that I want to make here is that while the goals of the Civil Rights movement were laudable, in many ways, the attempts to achieve them have failed.
Look at American schools. I have taught in both urban and suburban high schools from time to time. The city schools are mostly black and Hispanic; the suburbs have primarily white children. When there is a mixture of races in a school, the children segregate themselves in the cafeteria. I’ve listened to black scholars and residents of the inner city who recall black schools that valued educational achievement as a way out of poverty. I’ve taught black students who now see school as “white.”
Look at the question of equality. Liberty and justice for all are fundamental American values, but what about the notion that everyone is equal? The fact is that individuals are not equal. Note that I did not say races, and that is because race has little meaning in scientific terms. By any standard, some one person will be better than some other person. King’s ideal was that we evaluate individuals on their own merits, and that I support, but have we achieved it?
Yes, our society has made some progress. I’ve worked with young people who pay no attention to the skin color, sex, or orientation of those around them. We have a mixed race president. The progress that we have made has been in spite of race, not because of it. Perhaps that’s what King wanted, but he and his message aren’t presented that way today.
The message here is that I do not feel celebratory today. America has a long tradition of earnest persons with good wishes. Some of them achieved good things; others, not so much. We don’t give them national holidays. Washington’s birthday is still a Federal holiday, but who pays attention to that? We acknowledge Columbus Day, sort of. By the standard of holiday celebration in this country–Do I get the day off?–those dates are non-events.
Here, then, is my proposal: How much better it would be to celebrate liberty and justice. That’s something that we can honor without qualification, while feeling the inspiration to move closer to those ideals.