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Melania Trump and the culture of cheating in Eastern European schools

- July 20, 2016

On Monday night at the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump, the wife of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, delivered a speech that contained lines that mimic a speech delivered by Michelle Obama as she endorsed her husband eight years ago at the Democratic National Convention. Roughly, two paragraphs, or one minute of Trump’s speech, closely, almost verbatim resembled ones delivered by Obama.

Many have blamed the apparent act of plagiarism on the Trump campaign, which apparently decided not to use a speech drafted by two former speechwriters for President George W. Bush.

Melania Trump told NBC’s Matt Lauer that she had written the speech herself. If we take her at her word, then it is helpful to look at the post-communist educational system that Melania experienced growing up in Slovenia. In that system, what is typically considered plagiarism or cheating was exceedingly common and even encouraged.

(For the record, Melania Trump has made no statements since delivering the speech, but the Trump campaign has denied the accusations of plagiarism, saying the similarity of phrasing was due to common themes.)

Although she did not complete her degree from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, she still obtained most of her education in the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The post-communist educational system at that time was a place where the line between original work and plagiarism was often hard to discern and the issue of intellectual ownership was never discussed.

Scholars who study plagiarism associate it with the dominant mode of learning. Learning via rote memorization, rather than the critical questioning of ideas, is more likely to lead people to appropriate others’ intellectual work. If memorization is how academic performance is judged, students will do better when they merely replicate what they have learned.

Memorization was an important component of education in post-communist Europe. This was a legacy of communism, when the dominant subjects — Marxist Ideology, The Foundations of Leninism, The Fundamentals of Socialist Economics, and so on — could not be criticized in a classroom setting without raising the suspicions of the authoritarian secret police.

After the fall of communism in 1989, subjects like Marxism faded from curriculums, but the educational model developed under communism persisted. There was much memorization of historical facts and minimal debate about various theories. In part this was because the faculty and teachers were largely the same as during communism.

Another important element of the post-communist educational experience was the prevalence and acceptance of cheating. My own admissions exam to Warsaw University in Poland is a good example.

Roughly 200 students were packed into a lecture hall on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, the university’s main campus. We had been assigned to one of three groups, each taking a different version of the exam. This meaning that I was answering a different set of questions than the students on my left and right. Moreover, 20 faculty and teaching assistants and faculty were proctoring the exam. In this context, cheating would risk your chance of getting into the university. But it was common. If someone asked for an answer, people would give it to them. My entrance exam was not an exception.

The very fact that college entrance exams were called for, merely two months after the standard test taken upon graduation from high school — the Polish equivalent of the SAT — suggests how widespread cheating was. Cheating on those high school exams was so prevalent that teachers themselves would frequently pass on the correct answers to their students to increase the students’ chances of college admission.

How did does such a norm set in? First, cheaters weren’t called “cheaters.” They were called “borrowers” and were considered street-smart. Neglecting to study for an exam but passing it by whatever means possible was considered a greater achievement than passing the exam after careful studying the material. In fact, it was those who reported cheating who were ostracized and considered to be “collaborators.”

I left Eastern Europe more than 15 years ago, but I am skeptical that much is different. Culture changes slowly. As Grigore Pop-Eleches and Joshua Tucker argue,”You can take the boy out of Eastern Europe, but you cannot take Eastern Europe out of the boy.”

So the potential to cheat remains great even now. A friend who graduated from my university seven years after me described how her cohort had their final theses scanned through anti-plagiarism software that only scans for content appropriated from the Internet. It cannot detect plagiarism of material available only in hard copy or not on the Internet.

Nor can it check for appropriated content that has been translated. For years now a popular format of courses at Polish universities is the Konwersatorium. The idea is to assign readings in a foreign language, typically German or English, and have classroom discussions and presentations on the readings, translated into Polish. Notes from these courses can easily wind up in summaries for thesis preparation and eventually land in the thesis itself. This form of plagiarism is made possible if not encouraged by the mode of learning.

To be clear, the provenance of the plagiarized portions of Melania Trump’s speech remain unclear. Perhaps she plagiarized them directly, or perhaps the responsibility lies with Donald Trump’s campaign staff. But if Trump herself was responsible, we can begin to understand the origins of the problem by looking at post-communist education. If plagiarizing is seen as “borrowing” and not cheating, then it makes the striking parallels between Melania’s and Michelle Obama’s speeches all the more understandable.

Monika Nalepa is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago.