This is the story of a father who is estranged from his daughter.
|In the days after his latest encounter with the Provost, Stephen walked around campus like a nervous poodle. He was always on the lookout, afraid of bumping into John Stewart, but at the same time he was trying to pass himself off to the students as the confident lecturer on the Academic tenure track. It was almost hilarious, verging on ludicrous, but sadly, Stephen didn’t realize his behavior to its full extent. It was his colleague Jonathan Hart who noticed and who had the courage to talk to him.
“Hey, Stephen, what’s up?”
They were in the bigger of the two assembly halls the University had built. Some Hailsham Alumnus who had become this famous piano player was on stage, giving an interview and waffling on about Mozart or Bach or Beethoven. Stephen and Jonathan were standing way in the back, near the entrance or rather, close to the exit. Both were there out of curiosity, not out of interest. By chance, they had run into each other. Since the Provost was sitting in the front row, Stephen felt quite safe from being detected.
“Nothing much, how about you?”, Stephen whispered in reply.
“I’m good”, Jonathan said. “Listen, can we meet later? I’d like to talk to you.”
“Sure, why not. Where do you want to meet?”
“Somewhere private, outside campus. How about the Cloak and Dagger bar? You know where that is?”
“I haven’t the foggiest!”
“It’s on 48th street, near the Walter Kerr theatre.”
“Yeah, I think I might know it, actually. Didn’t Sally Fielding celebrate her tenure there last year?”
“That’s the one.”
“I’m giving a lecture now, but after that I’m off for the day.” Jonathan Hart checked his watch. “Twelve-ish?”
“I’ll see you there.”
The two of them stood there a little while longer, but the famous alumnus would just keep on talking and talking instead of doing what he was actually famous for, which was to play the piano.
“Shut up about your private life and play the goddamn piano”, Jonathan eventually whispered into Stephen’s ear. He didn’t wait to see the grin on Stephen’s face, he just left. When he was out the door, Stephen did the same.
Stephen spent the next two hours talking to students during his office hours. Most of the students were having problems with the term papers they were working on and came for specific advice on how to continue or were asking for literature that would help them with their research. Some students were really nice and Stephen enjoyed talking to them, helping them and giving them some more insights. Other students seemed rather dull and ignorant of the task they had been given. During these conversations Stephen discovered that, to many students, French was just something they wanted to do for prestige, not because they really had an interest in the language or the culture. Especially some of the male student body, it seemed, was studying French to impress girls or to use it as part of a pick-up line. Stephen had noticed that people associated the ability to speak French with intelligence, which, to him, was an unfounded hypothesis. He had met really dumb people in his life who spoke more than two languages fluently, but only bloviated in all of them. He didn’t consider himself as very smart, a knack for languages probably was the only remarkable thing about him, other than that he was a real sap. And despite the fact that he had lived in Paris, Bourges and Brussels for quite some time, he was everything but obsessed with French (or Belgian) culture himself. The time overseas, however, had been a great experience: the food, the people, the museums, the art and the movies; but now French had turned into a blunt tool that would allow him to earn a decent salary and to teach students a thing or two about languages. The passion that he had once felt, the enthusiasm with which he had absorbed every scrap of the French language and culture, had disappeared. And Stephen believed that it was his daily routine at university that had made him lose this enthusiasm. Somewhere along the way he had forgotten what it was like to be young and take a deep plunge into a different world and get immersed in it. Teaching the passé simple, giving lectures on francophone Africa, educating the students on the origins of Québécois swearwords such as tabarnac for the thousandth time had made him indifferent towards the language and the culture. What he needed was some time abroad, but he neither had the time nor the money, nor the opportunity to move to a French-speaking country with Jessica. So he just worked his way through life, losing his passion day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. Little did he know that it would be gone altogether sooner than he thought.
When the last student closed the door behind him, Stephen didn’t waste much time. He grabbed his jacket, his key ring and left the building. Outside, he took a split second to decide whether he should walk or take the subway, but since the sky was clear blue, the choice was obvious. He took long strides and looked neither left nor right. It was already five minutes past twelve and he was afraid to miss Jonathan. For some reason, he was really looking forward to this spontaneous meeting. First off, because it didn’t really happen very often that Stephen would meet colleagues outside of campus and second, because he knew that he wanted to get a few things off his chest and Jonathan seemed the right guy to do it with.
As he reached and entered the Cloak and Dagger bar, he found it to be empty except for the waiter and Jonathan. Stephen’s colleague was sitting way in the back, in a booth designed for four people. Looking up from his pint of Guinness, he waved at Stephen. Stephen waved back.
“I’ll have what he’s having”, he said to the bartender on his way down the corridor.
The bartender gave him a nod.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting for me too long”, Stephen said with a grin on his face as he reached the table.
“I’ve waited longer for an alumnus to play the piano”, Jonathan replied jokingly.
Stephen sat down and took off his jacket.
They sat there in silence until the bartender came to place a freshly tapped pint of Guinness on a coaster, along with a small bowl of peanuts. Stephen paid his beer right away.
They toasted. Then silence again.
“So”, Jonathan finally said, “what’s been eating you?”
For a moment, Stephen was inclined to play the clueless colleague that felt just dandy and didn’t have a care in the world. But then, again in a split second, he let his guard down and without further ado, he told Jonathan everything. He told him about Holden Fisher and his term paper, about his first meeting with the Provost on that subject, about the weird second meeting with the indecent proposal and the evasion of the real issue. He told him about his moral dilemma, about his ideals and convictions and about his fear of risking his tenure. He told him literally everything.
During his confession, he had expected to see a growing disbelief in Jonathan’s face, but instead he saw nothing but an expression of acknowledgement and even mild amusement. As Stephen was putting the finishing touches on his oral report, it dawned on him: Jonathan knew! He knew what was going on.
“You’ve been given ‘the treatment’?”, Jonathan said matter-of-factly.
“How do you mean?”
“Oh, we call it ‘the treatment’ because it reminded one of our colleagues of Lyndon B. Johnson. You know, the former President. Whenever he wanted something from a political friend or foe, he would lean in on him, breathe down his neck and apply a tone of supplication, accusation and the hint of a threat. It was quite effective.”
“You mean this happened before? The Provost has done this before?”
“Were you given ‘the treatment’?”
“Sure, many times.”
“But how can you let him do that?”
“Well, he’s kind of our boss, you know.”
“That doesn’t mean he can push us around any way he wants to.”
“It kind of does, actually.”
“But that’s outrageous. You mean to say that you have changed grades of students because the Provost asked you to?”
“Among other things, yes.”
“But why? Don’t you have any principles at all?”
“Now look at you, giving me the high hat.”
Stephen was taken aback. This conversation wasn’t going at all the way he had hoped it would. An alleged brother in arms was in fact a turncoat. He had to restrain himself not to freak out. He took a deep breath and then tried to reason with his counterpart.
“So, you think it’s okay to stoop to the Provost’s level? You’d advise me to change Holden Fisher’s grade despite the plagiarism and take the tenure?”
“Yes, I think you should.”
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to explain that to me.”
“Okay. I’ll explain. The way I see it, students like Holden Fisher and his parents keep universities like ours up and running. We are equipped with everything we need by millionaires like the Fisher family. All they ask in return is a university degree for their offspring. They’re spending millions of dollars on education and all they want is a piece of paper that lends credence to their business. Let me say it differently: Holden Fisher will be filthy rich, no matter what. One day he’ll inherit his father’s company, either with or without a university degree. But to make their business and the inheritance seem more legit, they’ve struck a deal with society or the government or the educational sector or whatever. They’re willing to support the best universities financially on the understanding that their son isn’t bothered with annoying tests and exams. That’s it.”
“But education shouldn’t be bought, it should be earned. It’s the one thing that allows upward mobility to people from all walks of life, from any social class. By consenting to the Provost’s shenanigans you’re betraying the very idea of our values!”
“My values then!”
“Again with the high hat. But anyway, let’s talk about upward mobility. You probably have heard of our scholarship program, like, just the other day there was this article about Emilio Cortez who benefits from this program. He comes from a poor family, there’s no way his parents could pay for his education. But he’s a smart kid. So, who pays for his education? I’ll tell you who! It’s people like the Fishers that spend millions of dollars so that kids like Emilio get a fair chance and can study at our university. If it weren’t for the Fishers we’d have nothing but filthy rich kids, lazing around and doing nothing. And why should they? They have their bed made for them already. We need people like Emilio, kids who are hungry for knowledge and ambitious to do better than their parents did.”
Stephen didn’t know how to respond to that. He had to admit that there was some truth to what Jonathan said, but at the same time the very idea of giving in to these arguments made Stephen’s stomach churn.
“But”, he started without really knowing how to continue, ”but…but then that’s what’s wrong with the American educational sector. In Europe, for example, everyone can study for free, education is funded by the state, there’s no need for this kind of bribery.”
“Mmmh”, Jonathan said, taking a sip from his pint. “Have you seen these universities? Can they compare? Are they as well equipped as our university? Can they offer the exact same opportunities to someone like Emilio Cortez? Last time I heard about European universities I heard about crowded lecture halls, dilapidated faculties and burnt-out staff. And now you’re telling me that that’s the system you want? Come on!”
It seemed Jonathan had an answer to everything Stephen said. It was obvious that he had thought about this longer and harder in order to justify his actions, to justify his corruption.
“What about the plagiarism? You’re okay with that, too?”, Stephen swiveled, feeling like a wrestler in desperate need of a new angle from which to overpower his opponent.
“Okay”, Jonathan gave back immediately, “let’s talk about the paper then. Let’s talk about plagiarism. Was the entire paper just copy and paste, or just parts of it?”
“Well, of course he didn’t just copy an entire paper. I don’t know, I’d say maybe thirty to forty percent of that paper is not his work. Besides, I don’t think it’s my job to establish the extent of his fraud. There are whole pages of quotes from other books that he didn’t mark as such. To me that constitutes fraud and a form of plagiarism, which allows me to call his paper non-satisfactory. Pure and simple.”
“So there’s still a possibility that sixty to seventy percent of the paper is his work, genuinely his work?”
Stephen couldn’t believe his ears.
“Look, I know what you are trying to do, you’re going to tell me that thirty to forty percent of the paper deserve a fail grade but that sixty or seventy percent of the term paper deserve a closer look and should be graded like a normal paper. But the university rules are quite clear on this: Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including requirement to withdraw from the University.”
“Wow, you’ve learned that passage by heart, haven’t you?”
“Indeed, I have.”
For a moment, there was some comic relief, but Stephen also felt that he was getting worked up about the issue and that he wanted to continue the debate, believing in his moral superiority.
“Of course we have rules about plagiarism”, Jonathan said. “And of course these rules must be adhered to. But then again, the exception proves the rule. I guess what I’m really trying to say is this: You’re a teacher, a lecturer at University, and as a teacher you have the right if not the obligation to condemn Holden Fisher’s actions. But you’re also a pedagogue and it is your job to look at the student as a person. It’s your job to do an individual case assessment. Your narrative goes something like this: a filthy rich kid is being backed by his parents and his parents’ lawyers in order to protect him from being sanctioned for his misdemeanor. And in your narrative you’re the upright, idealist teacher who stands up for what is right, who stands up for a moral code and opposes the double standard at our faculty. But, please, only for a moment, consider this narrative: Holden Fisher is an ignorant little kid who has been living under a glass dome most of his life. His parents handed everything to him on a silver platter. Whatever the problems he encountered in his life, he always knew: Dad will fix it. And now, maybe, just maybe, he tried to do one thing right in his life, which was to work hard on your term paper. But then his mother got sick and he didn’t have the time to put the appropriate work into his paper. He had parts of it ready, but he knew that he would never be able to finish it in time. And in his desperation, he resorted to plagiarism.”
Stephen couldn’t stand it any longer. He laughed out angrily.
“Who are you talking about?”, he said through his teeth. “Holden Fisher or Oliver Twist?”
“Hear me out”, Jonathan insisted. “I’m not asking you to ignore the plagiarism, but I’m asking you to show Holden Fisher a way out of his predicament. For example, you could talk to him and tell him that you will not accept the parts that were copied but that you will read the part that’s his, genuinely his. And you’ll give him a second chance to work on the parts that were copied, you postpone the deadline and if he agrees to your terms you’ll forget about the plagiarism.”
Stephen took a big gulp from his pint of Guinness. It was a lot of information to process and again he felt that there was some truth to what Jonathan said but that he got it all wrong at the same time.
“What if Holden decides to hand his paper over to some professional ghost writer? What if he continues his wrongdoings?”
“Well, of course, there’s a possibility that he’ll do that. But then again look at what will happen if you stick to your solution: Holden will be humiliated, he will be forced to leave Hailsham, his parents will stop funding the university and you’ll never get your tenure. For what? For your pride and your ego? For the advocacy of a moral standard? As if we were all without fault.”
“Okay, so I bend the rules. I’ll allow Holden Fisher to redo his paper. But don’t you think that I’d be setting a precedent here? In the future, all students guilty of plagiarism will quote the Holden Fisher case, saying that he got a second chance and that they deserve one, too.”
“Well, of course we shouldn’t shout it from the rooftops, we should be very discreet about it. But even if it gets out, we can argue that it was an individual case assessment and that the circumstances were very particular, in fact so particular that Holden Fisher’s plagiarism was considered a minor infraction.”
Stephen had to lean back into his seat. So this is how it starts, he thought. This is how corruption begins. A colleague and friend, someone you trust, sits down next to you, leans over and whispers into your ear. And before you know it you are deprived of your moral compass, before you know it, there’s a voice in your ear, susurrating: Take the money and run!
“All I want”, Jonathan went on, “is for you to think outside the box. Don’t you ever catch yourself questioning the entire educational system? The way we make our students regurgitate facts that have absolutely nothing to do with who or what they want to be. If I were to decide, I’d abolish grades altogether. If you read the science, you will find that no teacher grades his students objectively. So why not stop grading students altogether? If people are motivated, they’ll learn anyway, with or without grading. Take us, for example. We don’t get any grades, but still our passion our hunger for wisdom motivates to learn more and more and become better teachers and be better at the languages we teach. We are intrinsically motivated but we discard the idea that students work the same way.”
“This has got nothing to do with our topic”, Stephen replied instantaneously. “And, besides, I’m not one of these ‘bigger picture’ guys. Of course, you can question the entire system, you can question the concept of grading, but in the long run, you will always end up with one question: What’s it all mean? And once you come to that question you can question the meaning of life entirely. I see a sense in grades, because they tell our students that sometimes you have to strive for something. I’m intrinsically motivated when it comes to learning languages, but what about math, physics, biology? All these subjects are meaningful but I wouldn’t study for them voluntarily. We all need a push from time to time, a deadline, an ultimatum, the energy of last-minute panic, otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done. Pressure makes us work harder, and grades artificially create this kind of pressure. So, in a nutshell, I don’t spend much time questioning the system, I don’t think ‘outside the box’ very much, as you put it, because either something has meaning or no meaning. I accept the educational system as it is and I make the best of it. And I find meaning in the rule that plagiarism is a serious violation of our standards and therefore Holden Fisher’s paper must undergo an investigation just like the paper of Emilio Cortez would have to. So, whatever you want to say or do to make me change my mind, save your breath, because I’m not buying it.”
Hearing this valediction, Jonathan looked as surprised as Stephen was about himself. Here, in the coziness of a bar, with one of his equals he had managed to do and say what he wouldn’t be able to do and say in a face-off with the Provost. He had spoken his mind and it was clear that he accepted no further contradiction.
They sat around a while longer, exhausted from the debate and unsure of what else there was to talk about. They didn’t know much about each other’s private life that would allow questions going beyond ‘How’s your daughter?” or “How’s your wife?”. At the same time they were mulling what kind of effect this professional discord would have on their relationship. It was clear that Jonathan had hoped to find a more flexible colleague and that Stephen had expected to find more of an idealist in Jonathan. They knew now that both had chosen sides that were diametrically opposed and that this would impact their relationship. So, even though they were physically united in a booth of the Cloak and Dagger bar, they were spiritually divided by their set of rules and values.
And so both finished their beer quickly, left the bar swiftly and returned to work rather hastily.
“I hope this doesn’t affect our friendship”, Jonathan said as they parted ways back on campus.
“Don’t worry, it won’t”, Stephen replied.
Both had uttered those sentences with genuine sincerity, but as they turned away from each other they couldn’t help but notice the relief they felt to get away from one another.