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The Miseducation of Annette Schavan

Yet another plagiarism scandal is rocking -- well, not really rocking, more like poking -- Germany. This time, with exquisite irony, the victim is the Education Minister of the entire country, Dr. Annette Schavan. She got her doctorate in education in 1980 from the University of Düsseldorf. Someone got a copy of her dissertation, which dealt with the development of a personal conscience, and began looking for unacknowledged quotations and uncited paraphrase of others' ideas. The results can be found on the blog Schavanplag (g), which contains a detailed listing of all the problematic pages.

The Faculty Council of the liberal arts college of the University of Düsseldorf, after lengthy review, voted 12 to 3 to withdraw her doctoral dissertation on grounds of evidence of sustained, intentional plagiarism. They held (g) that Schavan's dissertation contained (my translation): 'more than isolated instances of word-for-word copies of other texts without acknowledgement' and found that '[t]he frequency and the construction of these word-for-word copies, along with the failure to cite relevant literature in footnotes or in the bibliography have convinced the Faculty Council, after reviewing the entire work, that the doctoral candidate systematically and intentionally, throughout the entire dissertation, presented ideas as her own that were, in fact, not.'

Not precisely the sort of thing you want to read about your country's own education minister. But the withdrawing of her Ph.D. is just the beginning: the program she completed in 1980 led directly to a Ph.D without any intervening steps, so once the university withdraws it, she will have no official, earned academic title at all past high school. The final nail in the coffin is her remarks about Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the last conservative politician to have lost his job last year over plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation. Back then, she announced (g) that as someone who had a Ph.D herself and met with many doctoral candidates, she was 'ashamed, and not just privately' about Guttenberg's conduct. Schavan has pledged to challenge the Faculty Council's decision in court, and to stay in office. But Angela Merkel has professed her 'full confidence' in Schavan, which means she's probably doomed.* One German newspaper calculated (g) that any politician who earns Merkel's 'full confidence' has, on average, 18.75 days left in office.

Whenever people ask me to compare Germans and Americans, I first order them to fill me with booze. Once that's done, then I pontificate as follows: 'The average middle-class American is driven about 90% by a desire for more money, and most of these people will come right out and tell you that. A similarly-situated German will be motivated 40% by money, 20% by job security, and 40% by the desire for officially-bestowed, external signs of high social status -- especially involving education or heredity. However, they will only admit the desire for job security, and will half-heartedly deny or rationalize the other motivations'. Perhaps the ultimate status symbol is the doctoral title which, under German law, can be made an official part of your name. The sacred two letters accompany you through life, surrounding you with a diffuse aura of scholarly dignity and good breeding.

Which is often spurious, of course. The social cachet of a doctoral title (which may also entitle you to higher salaries than your co-workers) drives thousands of ambitious young Germans to seek a title. A minority of these students are genuinely intellectually talented and interested in the advancement of human knowledge for its own sake. A majority, in my experience, just wants to find some way, any way, to bolt those two little letters to the front of their name for status/signalling reasons. They may well turn to dubious 'consulting agencies' which work with shady professors (g). One step above this are people who actually write a doctoral dissertation, but do so 'outside' the university system. In the German system only one professor supervises the actual dissertation-writing process, so if you find one who's relatively lax, you don't have to work up much of a sweat to get the title.

From my inbox:

I couldn’t help reading the story on Schavan today and just thinking “reap what you sow, Germany Bildungssystem”. Years of benign neglect to plagiarism, the discouraging of originality, the lack of substantive peer rigor at the higher academic levels and deference to professors who frequently supervise topics they can’t even evaluate the originality of have just resulted in what for Germans must seem like the End of All that is Good and True. Guttenberg was a case of a ‘friendly’ degree offered to someone obviously on his way to a higher political future than the academy, and I think there is a lot of tolerance for that here (and Schadenfreude when it blows up), but Schavan just struck a crippling blow to the whole concept of there being academic merit in this whole absurd title-chasing complex. If the Ministrix of Education loses her degree, that’s as bad as the Surgeon General being found to have obtained his medical degree at the Sweetrose Nursing Academy or the Minister of Consumer Affairs having marketed Vorwerk vacuum cleaners to math club students.

That about sums it up. Schavan is clearly doomed, and her case throws light on a very weak system. The problem is that all the superficial, crappy doctoral dissertations debase the currency. I haven't thought this through, but I envision something like a 2-tier process: you can either work with one professor to write a short, workmanlike survey of a particular area in 18 months-2 years (which doesn't need to be published), or you can opt for a 'real' doctoral dissertation, which must be more substantial, and which will take 3-4 years, and be supervised by a commission of three professors. In fact, this latter option could then replace the 'Habilitation', another German academic institution which may well have outlived its usefulness. I suppose this reform would end up with the German system looking much more like the American system. But comparing the number of plagiarism and/or fake-doctor scandals each system generates, switching to something more like the US system might be just what the doctor ordered (sorry about that!).

* I'll be adding this to my other maxims of human behavior:

  • Any politician who says he won't resign three times will resign. (M. Kinsley, I think)
  • Whenever anyone says it's not about the money, it's about the money.
  • Any woman who has to emphasize that she's a lady isn't one (M. Thatcher)
  • Any profession that launches a promotional campaign to convince the public that it's important and worth saving is doomed.