A sin at St. John's When the pursuit of knowledge is sacred, a case of plagarism is a breach of honor. But is it enough to rethink the way students are taught?

September 29, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Staff

ANNAPOLIS -- At St. John's College, education is an act of faith. Faith in the desire to learn and in the Great Books used to gain such wisdom. Faith in the ability to accomplish this task on your own. And faith in a system that puts its faith in students to do so.

The aims at this tiny liberal arts college seem higher, purer than at most schools. Here, knowledge is pursued for its own sake. Great bodies of work are read in order to be poked, prodded and torn apart; ideas that great thinkers have expounded upon for thousands of years are re-examined and turned upside down. Finally, each student uses all those semesters of learning to thoughtfully write, present and defend a major piece of work during senior year.

It's a system that St. John's has taken pride in for more than six decades, since the creation of the school's revered New Program curriculum established it as one of the most prestigious and quirkiest liberal arts schools in the country.

Which explains why, more than a year since one bright, well-thought-of student showed how easily that system could be fooled, and since others who learned of her deception failed to report it, St. John's is still debating what some have termed a "treasonous" act: the plagiarism of a senior essay, an essay awarded one of the school's top prizes.

With a new semester under way, school officials are adamant that their system remains intact. But a school dedicated to tackling civilization's great questions still seems confounded by a few of its own: Why, at a school where grades are not important (they aren't even handed out); where there are no lectures, no tests and no research papers; and where success is determined by abstract and subjective measurements based on participation and analytical ability, would anyone choose to cheat? And what, if anything, should be done to prevent its happening again?

Like a Greek tragedy

Lynette R. Dowty might have gotten away with it. But, like some fatally flawed character in the Greek tragedies she'd studied, she proved to be her own undoing.

She arrived at the Annapolis campus in the fall of 1993, having come thousands of miles from her home in Granite Bay, Calif., to attend St. John's. Almost immediately she stood out among the school's 400 students.

Physically striking, nearly 5-foot-10 with long, wild red hair, she was bright, talented, charming, slightly cynical. She always seemed to be surrounded by people, the kind of person everyone wanted at their parties. There was her signature laugh, loud and piercing at the end. And her ability to tell stories, making even the most mundane episode hilarious. Sure, she embellished, friends say, but it was no big deal.

"She wanted to project strong," says Kamielle Shaffer, who got to know Lynette in her junior year. "She enjoyed being noticed. She liked being the center of attention."

Not an easy task at St. John's.

"This is an unusual place. It is not for everybody," says William Braithwaite, a St. John's tutor -- there are no "professors" here -- for three years. "The students who choose to come here are highly self-selective, creating a richness of conversation going on here that cannot be imitated at any college or university in the nation."

"Johnnies" are drawn by the curriculum known simply as the Program. Created in 1937, it is a unified, all-required curriculum based on classic works of literature. All students read the same books, in the same order. There are no majors, no departments. Just reading and oral and written debate.

It's the Program that attracts thousands of applications every year for the 100 or so freshman class slots, despite tuition and fees of about $27,000 per year. It has helped the little school to rank with famed liberal arts schools like Oberlin College in Ohio, Reed College in Oregon and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

For students, the payoff is an intimate education with class sizes no larger than 20. These 18- to 22-year-olds will tell you, without cracking a smile, that they are here to learn important things from Homer, Plato, Herodotus, Aristotle, Kant and Nietzsche.

It was in this environment that Lynette Dowty decided to commit academia's worst offense.

Commencement

May 18, 1997. Commencement day for the 90 seniors. Sitting with her classmates in the shade of St. John's landmark Liberty Tree, Kamielle Shaffer found herself crying.

On stage above her stood Lynette Dowty, smiling and waving as she accepted the school's coveted Senior Essay Prize.

"I was horrified. Enraged. Stunned. How could anyone do this and get away with it?" says Shaffer, a soft-spoken, 23-year-old woman. "I was watching this huge wrong that's been done and wondering, 'How do I deal with it?' "

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