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Joan Digby has offered us a wonderful opportunity to think about our students and ourselves in constructing an education for them. Her essay took me back to my own freshman year when I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark.” I think it might have been the first formal paper that I wrote in college, and it left an indelible imprint on my mind: The only truth is paradox. It seems to fit this case. Our students are and are not different than those in the past, and we, their instructors, are neither more nor less than our predecessors. If the classics teach us anything, it is that humans have not changed much over the last few thousand years. Who are we to think that in our present age (a decade?), we have changed when all the others haven’t?
That said, Dr. Digby has a point. Our current college students do seem enamored of imitation, and honors students are by no means immune. I would like to further explore why that might be so. Some of our students might be lazy. Others are probably busier than young people in the past. They begin lessons in everything from gymnastics to social graces from pre-kindergarten days through high school peppered with community service, a varsity letter in some sport, an instrument, a handful or two of AP classes, and a Kaplan course to prepare for the SAT examination. Every evening is “booked.” This is not to excuse the pastiche of sentences and paragraphs that Digby describes, but our students may have lives too full to devote much time to the habits of mind or creative production. Another explanation alluded to by Digby is that imitation is easier now than before because of the Internet. Certainly, the popular and professional literature abounds with stories of plagiarism (the purest form of imitation?), and many of us, unfortunately, have had personal experiences confronting it. Some students who ‘imitate’ in this fashion plead ignorance. Perhaps so. Yet, it is possible that some of Dr. Digby’s students may be using imitation as a time-worn method of learning, practiced intensively today in music and art but also more broadly in every society known to human history.