Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reinventing the wheel

My friend Stefan Hagemann spotted a familiar metaphor put to new use in two articles in Monday’s New York Times. An article about teachers who buy and sell lesson plans online quotes Alice Coburn, a vocational education teacher, who explains her purchases like so: “I hate reinventing the wheel.” And an article about members of the House of Representatives whose House speeches on health care were written, in whole or in part, by corporate lobbyists quotes Stanley V. White, chief of staff for Representative Robert A. Brady (D, Pennsylvania-1): “There’s not much reason to reinvent the wheel on a Congressional Record entry.”

There can of course be great value in reinventing the wheel, in thinking through a matter and coming to conclusions for oneself. The saddest thing to me about Coburn’s statement: its unstated assumptions that such effort is of no value and that whatever a teacher might come up with would be mere repetition, no better than or different from what anyone else has done. As for White’s explanation, its implicit contempt for the Congressional Record is astonishing.

Says Stefan Hagemann, “I guess the next time a student hands me an essay lifted from SparkNotes, I can nod approvingly. No sense reinventing the wheel.”

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