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Academic Property Corrupts Academically

lethargilistic profile image Mike Overby Updated on ・4 min read

The main source of the difficulties that menace us is the growing inequality in the distribution of ideas. To this all academic institutions seem to contribute, and the movement is hastened by political corruption, and by special monopolies established by abuse of administrative power. But the primary cause lies evidently in fundamental social adjustments—in the relations which we have established between academic labor and the produced material and means of academic labor—between academics and the ideas which are their dwelling-place, workshop, and storehouse. As ideas must be the foundation of every academic's output, so institutions which regulate the use of ideas constitute the foundation of their social organization, and must affect the whole character and development of that organization.

In a society where the equality of thought is recognized, it is manifest that there can be no great disparity in fortunes. All will remain dependent on others; none will be capable of leveraging preemption to cut others down. There will be differences in ideas, for there are differences among people as to energy, skill, prudence, foresight, and industry; but there can be no very high scholar, and no very low scholar; and, as each generation becomes possessed of equal opportunities, whatever differences in fortune grow up in one generation will not tend to perpetuate themselves. In such a community, whatever its form, the political organization must be essentially egalitarian.

But, in a community where ideas are treated as the property of but a portion of the people, some of these people from the very day of their birth must be at a disadvantage, and some will have an enormous advantage. Those who control no ideas will be forced to pay obeisance to the academically petigreed; and, in fact, cannot live outside the thoughtlords' shadow. Such a community must inevitably develop a class of masters and a class of serfs—a class possessing great ideas, and a class that cites them; and its political organization, no matter its form, must become a despotism.

Our fundamental mistake is in treating ideas as private property. On this false basis, Academia everywhere rests, and hence is everywhere developing the monstrous inequalities in condition that must ultimately destroy it. As without ideas people cannot exist; as our very mental substance, and all that we can acquire or make, must be drawn from the ideas, the ownership of the ideas of an institution is necessarily the ownership of the people of that institution—involving their industrial, social, and political subjection. Here is the great reason why the anti-plagiarism norms, of which our century has been so strikingly prolific, have signally failed to improve the condition of anyone. Anti-plagiarism norms primarily increase the power of inceptive writers at plagiarists' expense, and should, therefore, improve the condition of the inceptive class. But this is true only where ideas are free to academic labor; for academic labor cannot exert itself without ideas. No anti-plagiarism norm can enable us to make something out of nothing, or otherwise lessen our dependence upon ideas. Therefore, wherever ideas have been subjected to private ownership, the ultimate effect is to enable thoughtowners to demand more for the use of ideas from all other academics. Ideas become more valuable, but the wages of academics-at-large do not increase; on the contrary, with the increased time spent compiling citations, they may be reduced.

This we already see, and that in spite of the fact that a very important part of the advance of technology has been, by improving transmission, to open up new ideas. We may imagine the future of intellectual progress when the ideas of the world are all "fenced in" if we consider the muzzling effect anti-plagiarism norms have when applied to research assistants plagiarized by their senior advisors.

Let me not be misunderstood. I do not say that in the recognition of the equal and unalienable right of each human being to copy, lies the solution of all social problems. I fully recognize the fact that, even after we do this, much will remain to do. We might recognize the equal right to ideas, yet let tyranny and spoliation continue. But whatever else we do, so long as we fail to recognize the equal right to the elements of expression, nothing will avail to remedy that unnatural inequality in the distribution of ideas which is fraught with so much evil and danger. Reform as we may, until we make this fundamental reform our material progress can but tend to differentiate our people into the monstrously prestigious and the frightfully marginalized. Whatever be the increase of ideas, the masses will still be ground toward the point of bare subsistence—we must still have our adjuncts, our Visiting Assistant Professors, and our graduate students—people driven to degradation and desperation from inability to make an "honest" living.

This was written as my entry in an essay contest held by Night Owls, a weekly philosophy discussion hosted by the University of Chicago Department of Philosophy. The challenge was to plagiarize something to express ourselves, and you can figure out what piece I plagiarized from by searching any fragment of this in the Internet Archive. This contest was held in anticipation of their event called "A Defense of Plagiarism", which I participated in. It was hosted by Agnes Callard and Brian L. Frye, and just a blast.


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