Excellent Jonathan Franzen Story

The current issue of The New Yorker has an excellent story by Jonathan Franzen. I enjoyed reading it (unlike most recent New Yorker fiction, unfortunately) and it’s closely related to stuff I blog about.

It tells what happens after a girl is raped by a boy with powerful parents. Her coach wants her to report it but her parents dissuade her. They are afraid of what the boy’s parents would do to them. The mother is active in the local Democratic Party and says “I wish it had been anyone else.” They have three other children — this one, they seem to decide, is disposable.

The story is so wrenching because the parent-child bond is usually so strong. But smaller abandonments happen all the time. When I was a graduate student at Brown, I was a teaching assistant. One of the papers I graded turned out to be plagiarized. I told the professor about it; he did nothing. I’m sure I know why: It would have been costly for him. Time-consuming, for example. He abandoned the student. Teachers, like parents, should teach right and wrong.

I posted yesterday about a Columbia University valedictorian named Brian Corman who plagiarized part of his speech. Was this the first time he’s plagiarized? Of course not. It’s merely the first time he’s been punished for it. I believe he’s plagiarized many times and in some cases the teacher noticed. The teacher did nothing — thereby abandoning the student — because to do something would have been costly for the teacher. Had Corman been punished earlier, he would (a) not have been valedictorian (it would have gone to someone more deserving) and (b) not face ridicule for the rest of his life, since this episode will be preserved by Google. Likewise, Adam Wheeler — a flagrant liar who almost graduated from Harvard without being caught — will be ridiculed the rest of his life. He too was abandoned by his professors, who surely noticed before now that he plagiarized.

That Brown, Columbia, and Harvard professors put their own comfort ahead of doing right by their students is unsurprising, given the examples set by countless university presidents and underlings. (Examples here.) Why did Columbia University President Lee Bollinger show a shocking lack of understanding of the purpose of free speech? (He’s a law professor whose specialty is freedom of speech.) Because he thought it would be crowd-pleasing — and it was.

7 Replies to “Excellent Jonathan Franzen Story”

  1. There’s an emotional difference between not punishing people when you owe it to them, and not defending them when you owe it to them. There are plenty of parents who will punish but not defend, and plenty who will defend but not punish.

  2. Adam Wheeler should be ridiculed for the rest of his life, but he probably won’t be. Jayson Blair (disgraced former New York Times reporter), Stephen Glass (disgraced former New Republic reporter), Elliot Spitzer (“Client #9′”), and James Frey (author of A Million Little Pieces) all made come-backs to one extent or another. One wonders what you actually have to do in order to disappear from the public sphere altogether.

  3. I worked at a Fortune 50 firm for 25 years and saw many cases of managers failing to address problem employees. Sometimes it was due to conflict aversion; many people just don’t like to get in the midst of conflicts, and improving (or firing) an incompetent employee is definitely full of conflict. It didn’t help that the rules and regulations about firing, which probably came from a few justified lawsuits, made it near impossible to remove someone for just incompetence. My father saw the same thing in the firm he worked for. Eventually, though, bad economic times came, and management ordered a percentage of employees to be dropped, and these people were fired during a recession. These people were mistreated two times; they had ‘jobs’ without producing real work or real results for too many years, and then were dumped into a poor job market without real skills. And the shareholders were ripped off all those years because these people not only didn’t work, they were negative producers; they caused other people to cover for them. Productivity went up after the cullings.

    In summary, it’s not just academia.

  4. “Was this the first time he’s plagiarized? Of course not.”

    Not “probably not” or “in most cases like this, there is a pattern of behavior” but “of course not.” Sometimes Seth just goes over the deep end . . . he has no idea what this guy’s past is. Of course not.

  5. Over a good many years, I have run across a number of women who had been “interfered with” (as the saying used to be) by neighbors, family friends, more distant relatives. In about 90% of the cases, parents, especially mothers, made it clear that family unity or social hierarchy meant that either the girl was blamed, or at least it was hushed up and the complaint ignored.

    This is a subset of the defining moment, particularly for females and particularly in more traditional & authoritarian societies (and I think Franzen is picking up on tribalism in the Progressive environment), when the child realizes that the don’t-make-waves business-as-usual of the collective trumps individual happiness and welfare in the eyes of the parents. So frequent it is difficult to consider it cowardice. Likewise in business. Exceptional heroic myths to the contrary.

  6. The whole notion of date-rape prosecution bothers me. I don’t condone rape, but how can you build a case on one person’s word? I know guys (or I should say, I believe their side of the story) who have had their lives upended by false accusations of rape. We also have the prominent example of the Duke Lacrosse case.

    On Adam Wheeler, I don’t particularly condone what he did either, but you could also view it as acting out against an unfair system that rewards all sorts of unworthy people on the basis of arbitrary or shallow criteria, like accomplishment in sports or “leadership” in the case of a Rhodes or affirmative action (i.e., racisms) in the case of admission to Harvard. I’m always astounded when people have such a black/white view of morality.

  7. In my first year of uni we had a bunch of fellow computer science students steal programs from other students and pass them off as their own. The action taken over this blatant theft? An extension of four days was given (on an original 7-day project) for the thieves to resubmit their own work.

    No punishment, no consequences.

    End of the year and most of the thieves drop out of university entirely. This article makes me wonder if they had been plagiarising their way through high-school, consequence free, until it finally catches up with them where it means a hell of a lot.

    Are kids who are punished strongly but fairly when they are young less likely to commit bigger crimes when they get older?

Comments are closed.