Email #66, Subject: our new Secretary of Education

I teach at Washington and Lee University, your alma mater. As you know, our school has a tradition of championing honor. We hold our students to a high standard. And you have told me that you believe elected officials should be held to the “highest standard.” So then can you explain to me why the new U.S. Secretary of Education is being held to a lower standard than the students in my first-year writing seminar?

Betsy DeVos wrote on her Senate confirmation questionnaire: “Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment where they can learn, thrive, and grow.” Vanita Gupta, President Obama’s  head of the Justice Department civil rights division, wrote in a 2016 press release: “Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment that allows them to thrive and grow.” That’s plagiarism. 

There are a variety of rules about the limits of verbatim language, some as strict as three consecutive words, some as lenient as seven. Indiana University, for example, identifies “word-for-word plagiarism” when “seven or more words are copied from the source, and quotation marks are missing.” DeVos more than doubled that limit. Her statement shares fourteen words with Gupta’s, the first eleven consecutively. Regardless of verbatim word choice, she also and more importantly did not acknowledge the source of the words.

As you know, any Washington and Lee student who submitted a paper that contained the uncited and verbatim passages that DeVos used would be brought before our Honor Council and likely expelled. And yet Secretary DeVos now oversees the department of Education.

As a former student of Washington and Lee, do you agree with her appointment?

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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