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Mediocrity the only product of copycats  

I was recently invited to speak to a group of new Chinese students about plagiarism: its definition, its moral implication and academic consequences. As a recent New York Times article the China Conundrum exposed, plagiarism has emerged as a problem among the newer crops of Chinese students on US campuses, many of whom are undergraduate students sent to the US to study by their middle class to affluent families, before they have developed the maturity to live and study independently in a totally new environment. 

Faced with plagiarism charges, some play the language card to explain their behavior, but such excuses are getting increasingly lame, as universities have stepped up in their effort to educate international students about academic expectations in the United States. I am confident in students’ change of behavior with increased awareness and better guidance. However, I noticed that sometimes plagiarism does not come from moral choices to lie, but from the failure to be themselves in the work they produce. I heard from students who say that all they did is to use notes by a fellow student who took the course in a previous semester to find out what the “correct answers” are, or how they are correctly written. Their English professor LJ Littlejohn, however, explained that he is interested not in their perfect answers in “perfect English”. It is assumed that they as non-native speakers of English, start with bad English and that’s what language institutes are for. LJ said he is more interested in their own thoughts even if they are expressed in their imperfections.

This led me to think of an issue bigger than plagiarism: do we dare to be original in our thoughts in the first place? To me traits to assert oneself as an individual thinkers are harder to cultivate than language skills. And quite honestly, the need to develop critical thinking is pressing in the United States too. However, there is at least a common recognition of its virtue, and various efforts to develop such thinking habits.

Once people fail to recognize their own uniqueness as individual thinkers, a slippery slope will follow, leading them eventually to mediocrity. In copying someone else’s “correct” answers, how are we supposed to develop the competency to come up with our own answers some day, to address the increasingly complex problems we are going to face?

Believe me, this is not an issue faced only by new students in a different culture. Mature elites in the middle classes in China are all the worse when it comes to originality. I once worked for a leading consulting firm in China and I was baffled by the successful consultants’ urge to copy someone else’s work or even life style, even though most of these consultants have received western education. One of the reasons of such mediocrity is that those people have learned predominantly knowledge and skills in their disciplinary areas without stepping further to examine the environment and process with which some of their accomplishments have been produced.

When I went back to China, I also saw that medium-sized cities are copying things bigger cities are doing, and smaller cities were copying from neighboring cities and on it goes. Today, in the urbanization of China’s countryside, I see leaders trying to do the same, instead of figuring out local strengths and specialties, as well as individual talents each area has to offer. It is extremely upsetting to me as I see places losing their character in such imitations.

I blame it on our educational system that has deviated from traditional intellectual wisdom to lead independent, unique lives, or “the spirit to be independent, and the freedom of thought” as described by scholar Chen Yinque. 

In recent years, there is much debate on the question raised by one of China’s leading scientist Qian Xuesen: why aren’t we producing masters in disciplines? To produce masters, do not try to learn only from the accomplishments of another country. Instead, flip the process and start to create conditions that would produce talents and masters. Shakers and movers of the world are rarely brought up to be copycats.

I believe that we ought to fight a cultural war against mediocrity. There is no use trying to produce the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg of China unless we create conditions conducive to the unleashing of human potential. Creativity and innovation are popular topics in the Chinese media right now, but how are we supposed to have these qualities without recognizing individual strengths and potentials?

As a start, we ought to step out of the comfort zone of standardized testing as a predominant way to teach and test students, future citizens of the society. We get what we measure. With its all advantages, which can still be utilized, standardized testing alone reinforces the mentality that there are one and only answers to complex problems. Such testing fails to allow students to examine phenomenon from multiple perspectives and to come up with solutions grounded in thorough understanding of a variety of perspectives, stakeholders and interests. Complex problems deserve sophisticated interventions. You cannot expect sophisticated solutions to come from people who do not believe in their own unique talents.

Yet I do not think that we are simply victims to this kind of education. Each and every one of us can become solutions to the problem to start to develop the habit of original, deliberate thinking. We can then perhaps influence people we are in touch with. This change will not occur unless we all recognize that we are all unique individuals capable of thinking creatively and critically. Remember, a life as an imitation is not worth living. 

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