Suzanne Fields

Words! Words! Words! I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?

If Hillary Clinton gets a starring role this year at the Gridiron dinner -- the satirical revue by and for politicians, correspondents, columnists and assorted bigwigs in Washington -- she should touch up the words of Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady." The ghosts of Lerner and Lowe might scold her for plagiarism, but Hillary could use humor to needle herself for her part in the silliest campaign contretemps of the season (so far). Nancy Reagan laughed at herself and her enthusiasm for taking expensive threads from high-fashion designers with lyrics taking on the persona of Rose and her "second-hand clothes."

Wordgate -- the fuss over whether Obama actually lifted phrases from Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King and FDR, and pasted them into his own speeches -- is a ridiculous tempest in a pastepot. But it's instructive for calling attention to what we mean by eloquence, which has been getting a bad rap this season, as well as the abused science of plagiarism, which is rife on campus.

An enterprising teacher could ask students to analyze the contents of this frivolous controversy to see if they've got the critical ability to understand what it's about. Could they, for example, identify the source of the quotations lifted from the pages of history by Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, and Barack Obama? The words are famous enough: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" and "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

This could transform a silly argument into a serious enterprise, coming after the Intercollegiate Studies Institute study that exposes the decline of "civic literacy" at our finest universities. In a 60-question quiz given to 14,000 students at 50 colleges, great numbers of freshmen and seniors flunked. A majority of them could not even say where they could find the phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident " Some, choosing from multiple choices, thought the source must be the Communist Manifesto.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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