Tuesday, September 04, 2012
Maybe the best news about the Jonah Lehrer story is that he got caught.
Lehrer was (past tense) something of a phenom in literary journalism, a kid who was able to climb the professional ladder in incredible ways--just 30 years old and a staff writer at the New Yorker, for instance. But his meteoric career fizzled--well, Sarah Palin is "fizzling," so let me restate that. . .But his meteoric career went up in flames when he got caught "cribbing" in a number of ways--from himself, first of all, but then from others. He is, in a word, a plagiarizer, convicted to be so by a jury of his peers.
His book Imagine is likely still on the NY Times Bestseller list, although it won't be for long since the publisher has now officially begun to withdraw copies from distribution. What a number of fact-checkers and various editors--not his own!--discovered is that he simply wasn't telling the whole truth and nothing but. He was passing off knowledge as if it were true and as if it were his own. It wasn't, in both cases.
If you're interested, you can find a comprehensive report on Lehrer's literary iniquities here, an article in Slate; but you don't have to look far for references elsewhere. He was (again, note past tense) a superstar in the making. No more.
The information age is a joy really, especially for someone like myself. Google brings vast libraries right into this century-old Iowa farm house sitting comfortably on a lazy river so obscure it barely makes a map. All I need to do is key stroke a name, an idea, a question--like yesterday, "what's a VOM file?"--and just like that I've got dozens of resources. Somewhere, not long ago, I read a quote I wish I could get right just now--something that went like this: When Eisenhower gathered together his cabinet, he didn't have anywhere near the information any kid has on his or her smartphone.
But one of the downsides of all of that info is it has become, for all of us, much more difficult to determine what's true and what isn't. When the air is full of words, discretion becomes more tedious, more difficult, and, quite frankly, more impossible. Lehrer's misquoting of Bob Dylan, for instance, could only have been discovered by some Dylan freak familiar with the famed musician's every last utterance.
The internet has made plagiarism seemingly less sinful. These days, students have to be told that they can't do it. Once upon a time, lifting a quote from a library book felt altogether nefarious. Today, cutting and pasting is second nature, so ordinary it can't be sin.
The good news of the Lehrer story is that he's caught the punishment he deserves--he's a thief. He's robbed others of their integrity, not simply by using their words as if they were his, but also by fabricating quotations to buttress his arguments. He lied and he stole to deliberately deceive his readers.
Higher education is becoming, these days, vastly more technological. But in the flood of information we now have at our fingertips, determining truth may well require the kind of education that is more well-rounded, rather than less, more about wisdom than technique.
Lord knows getting the truth has never been easy. Google, bless its holy name, only makes it tougher.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:45 AM