Two recent events caught my attention and both resonated with the message we send to students regarding their writing, especially application essays. Both incidents exposed hypocrisy in how the written word is valued and evaluated, and both reek of class bias and institutional hypocrisy. One example was immediately exposed, and the other is obscured by a crime so heinous the writing example wasn’t even on the radar.
The Princess Gets a Pass
On the first night of the Republican National Convention Melania Trump read a heartfelt speech from the teleprompter praising her husband as a kind and caring person, a true American, and a hard worker. Then she went on to talk about her own values and her dreams for America’s children in a section she plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech. Plagiarism is the cardinal sin of writing. Fareed Zakaria was suspended from Time and CNN in 2012 for plagiarism, Jayson Blair was fired from the New York Times for it in 2003, and Joe Biden withdrew from his presidential bid in 1988 for it. If schools didn’t feel plagiarism was rampant among students, companies like Turnitin and Grammarly would be out of business.
However, there weren’t any consequences for Mrs. Trump. She smiled confidently and blurted out her stolen text in front of twelve million people, then took a victory lap. Her cheat was exposed within minutes, and she wasted no time barricading herself in silence behind her husband’s wall. The Trump machine and the broadcast pundits immediately exonerated her, saying everything from “don’t believe your lyin’ eyes” (the Trump machine), to “fire the speech writer, the campaign is disorganized” (MSNBC and CNN pundits), even though she had earlier stated publically to Matt Lauer that she had written the speech herself. So of course the pundits concluded that she must be lying about that too; she just couldn’t say publicly she’d received help, so she had to lie. No one was fired for Melania’s plagiarism and she never apologized. She got a pass: a free ride that no seventh grader would have gotten for copying a history report.
Why did Melania get a plagiarism pass? She’s rich, her husband is a mogul presidential candidate who can make and break careers, she’s shy, she means no harm, and she’s unfamiliar with American politics. She’s also pretty and delicate, more Barbie than Barbarella. All of this played into the Melania zeitgeist. She escaped sanction because she’s a member of a special class, a throwback to past decades of sexually objectified princesses; the white, comfortably not smart, protected women of movie stars and captains of industry. And since Trump keeps her locked up in his tower, she is presumably not up to the task of being a good politician’s wife in public. Expectations are low for her and she doesn’t disappoint. She reinforces the image of the dimwitted pageant princess in a bikini and high heels with nothing consequential to say. Anything she does is a plus; even copying someone else’s homework. “Oops, did I say what she said? Is that a bad thing?” MSNBC’s Joy Reid nailed it seconds after the scandal broke commenting on air, “Ask yourself if Michelle Obama would have been given a pass had she done the same thing in 2008?”
But Melania Trump isn’t Michelle Obama; the same standards don’t apply. Melania is in a special class reserved for rich, white, pampered princesses who pose no threat to the status quo. Ethics don’t apply to RWPP’s. But Turnitin wasn’t built to catch RWPP’s. Plagiarism is a serious offense if you’re a kid trying to pass a class, get a job, or get into college. If you’re that kid, and not a Melania Trump, your entire future hangs in the balance every time you think about copying and pasting part of a Wikipedia article. Try explaining the Melania principal to a kid desperately searching for his or her own essay voice.
Melania Trump/Michelle Obama Speech Comparison
Stanford Reprobate Lacks Skills
We almost never get to read the essays of students admitted to prestigious universities. Each year a few excellent essays are published by media, usually touting the life story and achievements of unique or extraordinary students. But for the most part the essays that worked for the anointed few are never revealed. We assume that anyone admitted to an Ivy or other elite institution must be a brainiac over-achiever and an accomplished writer, perhaps even a deep thinker. In January of this year we saw a writing sample of a privileged Stanford freshman, one of only 5% admitted in 2014, that not only undermines that assumption, but exposes the hypocrisy highly selective institutions engage in to serve their own agenda.
The circumstances under which we saw his writing sample were horrific. In January, 2015 he was caught attempting to rape an unconscious woman on the Stanford campus behind a dumpster at 1:00 am. He was a Stanford swimmer, an Olympic hopeful. He was highly recruited in high school and and was reported to be a top student. In March, 2016 he was convicted of three felonies including assault with intent to commit rape. After his conviction the Stanford defendant wrote a letter to the court explaining in his own words what happened and expressing his remorse. His remorse was mostly over excessive drinking and making the poor decision to follow his teammates to a party where everyone was drunk and dancing on tables. He said he was sorry for any harm that came to the woman, who though unconscious and injured, had consented to his actions. He just really wished he hadn’t had so much to drink. He never admitted to, or expressed any remorse for the rape that two good Samaritans stopped in progress.
The Stanford swimmer received a six month sentence which was six years less than the prosecution asked for and thirteen years less than the maximum sentence. The judge says he was influenced by the swimmer’s statement in awarding such a light sentence. When I read this I thought the defendant’s statement must have been a doozy. A jury convicted him of three felonies including attempted rape, for which the judge (a Stanford alum) gave him only six months jail time, so the letter had to be a Pulitzer caliber mea culpa. And then I read it.
The letter reveals a complete lack of remorse for the life altering physical, emotional, and psychological damage he did to the victim, coupled with an insipid, self serving statement about how much he had suffered since getting caught raping an unconscious woman. It reads like a middle school essay on the level of, how I spent my summer vacation. The theme is something like, “What a bummer, man.” There’s a paucity of critical thinking skills. It’s riddled with grammar and awkward syntax that panders to some preconceived notion of what the reader wants to hear. It is inauthentic, wrong headed, misses the point of the exercise, and exemplifies his superficial values.
My first reaction was shock at how clueless the guy is; he really doesn’t get that he committed a violent sexual assault on an innocent woman. Then it hit me that he been admitted to Stanford just nine months before. He writes like an average, or below average, high school freshman, yet he was one of the five percent of applicants Stanford admitted in 2015. But it didn’t matter to the institution because – he swims fast. Stanford received 42,877 applications in his year and admitted 2,144. They couldn’t have known that he was a moral reprobate, but surely his college essays revealed that he had weak critical thinking and writing skills: far, far below what one would expect of a Stanford student. He couldn’t even execute a meaningful, authentic, well written statement designed to save himself some jail time when he had days and days with nothing else to do. If Stanford put a sample of this guy’s writing on their admission website and said, “Hey, do this. This is what we’re looking for,” they’d get a million applications. It’s just one more example of the shameful hypocrisy in selective college admissions. They adjusted their standards down for a guy who’s obviously not the sharpest blade in the drawer, but a guy who might bring the institution some swimming pool glory. The message to all those aspiring to the most selective colleges might as well be, forget about critical thinking and writing well, just do your laps and get your heat times down.
Of course colleges always have, and always will, lower admission standards for athletes; and society will always make excuses for rich pampered princesses. In the meantime, the rest of us will actually have to learn how to think critically and express ourselves in clearly articulated language without plagiarizing. The next time I sit down with a kid who wants to apply to a selective college my first two questions will be, “How fast are you?” and “Who’s your sugar daddy?”
Brock Turner Written Statement to Court