Homeschooler Says He Didn’t Learn about Plagiarism

Homeschooler Says He Didn’t Learn about Plagiarism October 4, 2012

Interesting story in this morning’s StarTribune. Matt Rustad, a school board member in St. Francis, Minnesota, submitted a column about paperless classrooms to the school district’s monthly newsletter, The Courier. Problem was, the column wasn’t written by him. Instead, he found it in the comment section of a 2010 blog post, copied it, changed a couple phrases, and submitted it.

Matt Rustad

That act in itself isn’t so surprising. People are busted all the time for copying stuff from websites, paying for pre-written term papers, and the like. What is surprising is how Rustad explained his actions:

Rustad said in an interview Wednesday that he had spent little time in traditional schools, and that in home school he hadn’t learned much about plagiarism.

He said he didn’t view what he did as plagiarism, but that he had hoped readers would know whose work it was by a quote at the end of the column. The quote was from the original author, though readers might believe it was from an interview, not lifted from a blog comment. “I see how it would be viewed as that,” he said. “It was ignorance. It was a mistake.”

If I write about this craziness as implicating all homeschoolers, I’ll get accused of painting with too broad a brush, as I did in my other posts on homeschooling. But here’s what became clear in all of the comments and opposing blog posts about homeschooling:

– When I write against homeschooling, I use general and societal arguments.

– When my opponents defend homeschooling, they use individual, personal anecdotes.

So, for example, I say, “Homeschooling is bad for society because it weakens public education, and we’ve decided that public education is one of our most important societal institutions. Every family that is Christian and committed to faithful citizenship should keep their kids in public schools.”

Then they say, “You don’t know what’s best for my family.” “My kids are different.” “My kids deserve a better education than the public school offers.” “I was homeschooled, and I turned out fine.”

But, you see, I’m not talking about you or your kids, and I’m not talking about me or my kids. I’m talking about meta-issues here.

Anyway, if you want to argue personal anecdote versus personal anecdote, I submit to you the case of one Mr. Matt Rustad, for your consideration.

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  • Keith Rowley

    Tony, here is the meta problem with your argument. We don’t agree on a starting premis. You said “we’ve decided that public education is one of our most important societal institutions”. Who is this WE you speak of? I don’t think public education is unimportant I just disagree that I was included in the decision making. I also disagree about what will help improve it.

    If I agreed with your premis I would probably agree with your conclusion.

    • American society has agreed on that. It is inarguable to say that we haven’t. Maybe you didn’t get a vote, but that’s what we decided 110 years ago.

      • Keith Rowley

        That was a quick response I had time for on a break from work. I know it is silly but when I can I like to be the first one to comment on a blog post.

        I will post a more reflective response after I read the comments but for now I still wonder when we decided this and how come I have to be bound by a decision someone else made. I also wonder about the mixing of Christian responsibility and American responsibility you seem to present here. If anyone decided this it was not the Church so why is this a Christian responsibility specifically instead of a more general social one. They are NOT the same thing in my view.

      • Larry Barber

        It certainly is arguable, if we really did put such a high value on public education now, not 110 years ago, 1) school teachers would have a higher social status and be getter paid, 2) schools would be better funded, 3) we would adopt more effective means of education, get away from the industrial model which mainly teaches kid to sit quietly for extended period of time (with a drug assist in many cases) 4) Schools of education would undergo massive reform and could be far more selective in who they admitted.

      • Eric E

        I said this in the comments to the your first post but there is no social contract for public school participation. We have decided that education is important but we’ve given people multiple options – public schools, religious schools, for-profit schools, charter schools, homeschooling, etc.

        The real meta issue is that if you have a strict no-opt-out rule to societal institutions as you seem to have been suggesting in your previous posts it would be horrible for missional-minded Christians because sometimes the way to show Christ-like compassion for others and creation is to not participate in these And in general, withdrawing from one part of society is not the same as withdrawing from society as a whole. I think the best you can say about home schooling is that if parents are choosing homeschooling to avoid having to interact with non-Christians or with ideas that are different than their own or to shelter their children from drugs, sex, etc. or anything of that nature, then your argument kind of makes sense. To be missional is to not run from these sorts of things. But there are many other reasons people choose homeschooling which are totally compatible with being missional.

        (Pardon my self-plagarism.)

  • Keith Rowley

    One more thing. You DO NOT want to get into a comparative fight about the number of people who failed to learn something basic from public school vs homeschool.

    There are public schools in this nation that are on a regular basis producing students who can’t manage basic math, reading, and writing. Every one of those students can be used as a counter example to the one you used above to say public schools are worse.

    • That’s what I’m saying: anecdotal evidence doesn’t work in this argument.

      • If not anecdotal evidence, Tony, then what? If there is to be a pro-homeschooling/anti-homeschooling argument, anecdotal evidence is kind of essential. Otherwise the argument is reduced to just an academic exercise.

        Of all the subjects you discuss, this one is where you are the most unclear in your arguments.

        • Evelyn

          The point is that people who care about their children’s education AND care about being good members of American society should send their children to public school and volunteer their time making the public school better for EVERYONE rather than keeping their kids home and simply putting in their time home-schooling their own kids individually.

          • The problem though, Evelyn, is that Tony doesn’t do a good job of advancing this point at all, in terms of the “whys” and the “hows.”

          • So if a school is failing in ways that are too big for parental involvement to fix then what? I have a kid who I’m homeschooling because he was being viciously bullied by both teachers and students and I couldn’t figure out how to stop it. We went to both the school board and the police and got no help. Should I have waited until my kid offed himself so that I could do my part in making America a better place? Should I have given my life up to a legal and media battle at the expense of my other kids and even my marriage which are already struggling with other issues? Would that be doing my part to make America a better place? America is only as good as its people and demanding that we serve institutions over real, live people is bullshit of the highest order.

            The reason we keep returning to anecdotes is to expose the fallacy of the argument. It’s no different than listening to the voices of actual poor people than making nice, abstract (or meta if you prefer) arguments which are impervious to the needs of the actual people involved.

          • Will

            One of the issues seems to be the irrelevance of public education. Every four years or so, some politician–state level or otherwise–begins talk of reform because our public system fails some irrelevant international test. Public education becomes even more irrelevant furthering the isolation felt by a lot of children and families.

            If children and families were afforded the same freedoms to form relevant cooperative education cohorts within the public school system, then there would not be this divide. In public schools, children are grouped by manufacture date instead of prowess ( The real issue is how responsive public schools are able and willing to be to their customers.

            I am a public school teacher, an education adjunct professor, and a phd candidate. I know the virtues of public education. I also know the opportunity of home-schooling. I know that there are schools that offer relevant, meaningful, inquiry-based education. I also know that geographically–they are no where near me.

            The questions of reforming public education are quite divisive. When schools are rated “excellent” by an agency but fail to ask high-order thinking skills–something is missing. When public schools graduate folks who are barely literate; or homeschooler who are barely literate. These are really a “purpose of education” sort of dispositional argument.

  • Kyle

    Here we go again…..

  • Kyle

    Match struck; fuse lit; bomb goes off in 3,2,1….

  • T. Webb

    Yep, this case completely destroys any arguments for homeschooling. I went to public school, and I assure you that we were well versed in plagiarism. Also, I had to sometimes do homework for a bully or he’d beat me up (true story).

    FYI, I don’t homeschool, I send my kids to a private school where they actually get an education, but I’m sure that’s even worse to you than public school. At least the many thousands of $$$ of tax money I’m paying is going to other kids, so I’m actually helping public schools in that way.

    • kcar1

      But, surely, you had been taught that plagiarism was wrong.

  • From your first post:

    “Like many people who have their first child approaching kindergarten age, I have been thinking about all of our options for next year: neighborhood public school, public French immersion, charter school, private school, homeschool.”

    “But it seems to me that if I am truly committed to living a missional life, then I must enroll my kids in the public school.”

    That doesn’t seem general and societal to me. That seems personal and anecdotal.

  • As a professional writer I frequently draw from material written by other writers. But what’s absolutely key in my work — as it must be in all professional writing — is appropriate attribution. Such as, “According to so and so . . .” and then inserting the relevant content in quotes. Or, more common for Internet and blog writing, linking to your source material within the content of your writing when discussing a particular subject as reported in your source material.

    Re-wording another source’s material is abundantly common. But the sin is in failing to give clear attribution. This is plagiarism.

    As for Matt Rustad, yes he committed the sin of plagiarism. And he owned up to it, though I think blaming his homeschooling as the culprit was a magnificent cop-out on his part.

    But if, Tony, your premise in highlighting homeschooled Rustad’s error is that this one example demonstrates that one of the supposed ills of homeschooling is that it breeds ignorance which could potentially breed plagiarism, then I have to reject your premise outright.

    Homeschooling does not breed potentials to plagiarism, nor does pubic education and secondary education breed virtue against it.

    CNN’s Fareed Zakaria — educated in private primary school (not homeschool), then went on to Yale and Harvard — was recently discovered to have plagiarized another individual’s work in a piece he wrote for Time back in August.

    So putting one anecdote against another, my premise might be that private school (non-homeschool) and higher education breed potentials to plagiarism.

    In fact, it has been my experience that the vast majority of writers who I know to have engaged in plagiarism were educated in public school and secondary schools (either public or private colleges/universities).

  • Marshall

    But the whole point of the controversy is how to balance individual and societal benefits and costs. From where the rubber meets the road, some particular parent making a decision about their particular child, the “anecdotal” situation is very much on the table, with respect to both their unique family and their unique public school system.

    Personally, I believe that the Christian Gospel, that “we are all one in Christ”, we are called to pay more attention than we do to collective benefits and less attention than we do to individual costs. Be a servant! That’s a hard sell as things are, but who said being a Christian is supposed to be falling off a log? So … work to make the local school a place you feel comfortable sending the kids.

    • Keith Rowley

      “From where the rubber meets the road, some particular parent making a decision about their particular child, the “anecdotal” situation is very much on the table, with respect to both their unique family and their unique public school system.” – Marshall from this blog. 😉

      Amen to this comment. The anecdotal situation cannot be taken out of the conversation without deciding all kids are exactly the same and they are NOT!!!!

      • Marshall

        … thanks for support … AND my point is that we ought to be looking for ways to include diverse kids in open program, not looking for reasons to keep them out of it. Which will take boocoo committed parental involvement.

        Death to cookie-cutter education, aka Standardized Tests!

  • As a social issue, I’m ambivalent about homeschooling. To me it is a small nuance in the larger societal problem of American education. There are more profound issues (e.g. public school funding through property taxes). As a personal issue, I’ve met some home-schooled adults, they don’t seem particularly disfunctional. I know several parents that home-school their children, they also appear more-or-less normal.

    But you bring up an important context, the biblical/missional. It’s worthwhile to be thoughtful and undefensive on this question. Is sending your children to public school an act of being in the world? Or is home-schooling an act of preparing children to be not of this world? Does homeschooling promote starker divisions between faiths/culture? Or does it prepare children to enter into those dialogues when ready?

    I imagine the answers my little list of questions is: yes, yes, yes, yes.

    I think one powerful element that drives this discussion is our idea that children are not adults. They are not to be expected to engage fully in the work of adults. It is the adults job to prepare children to do this work at a later time. Through this lens, I can empathize with homeschooling (or parochial schooling), even if it’s a choice I would not personally make.

  • LoneWolf

    That’s strange. I was homeschooled, and my curriculum was very serious about plagiarism.

    Yes, yes, anecdote, I know, but this has to be an extreme example.

  • Keith Rowley

    Your post deserves a more thoughtful response than I could give earlier so here goes.

    I am going to take the following quote and respond to it line by line since I think this is the crux of your argument here.

    “Homeschooling is bad for society because it weakens public education, and we’ve decided that public education is one of our most important societal institutions. Every family that is Christian and committed to faithful citizenship should keep their kids in public schools.”

    “Homeschooling is bad for society because it weakens public education” – Is this true? Or is this just an opinion on your part Tony without evidence to back it up? That is an honest question not an attack. Can you point me to studies that show homeschooling weakens public education?

    I personally, as an opinion without evidence I freely admit, believe educational choice CAN strengthen Public Schooling. Also having less children in the Public School should lower the teacher student ratio and thus allow teachers to spend more time with each child and improve Public Schools.

    “we’ve decided that public education is one of our most important societal institutions” like I posted above who is this “we” you speak of? 😉 But more importantly is that really the decision we made and should have made? Might a better decision be “every child should get the best education possible for their unique self”? This would include but not be limited to our having a strong public education system.

    “Every family that is Christian and committed to faithful citizenship should keep their kids in public schools.” I still wonder about the direct connection you make between being a Christian and a faithful citizen. I think there ARE times when my commitment to being a Christian is in direct conflict with any commitment I may have to my country and my commitment to Christ has to come first. Given the moral environment of the public schools and my duty to raise my children to love God this may very well be one of those areas.

  • What baffles me on top of all of this, is that someone who grew up in a home school environment is on a public school board. It seems like someone who doesn’t know what plagiarism is shouldn’t really be a part of governing the inner workings of a public school.

    But what do I know. I’m just a public school brat.

    • Keith Rowley

      This is actually evidence that Homeschoolers care about the future of public schools and are not abandoning them to decay and Tony seems to think all of them are.

  • Keith Rowley

    My above post was too long already but I had one more point I wanted to make.

    Most homeschool advocates I know will not claim that homeschooling is the best option for every student for the entirety of their education.

    What we will claim is that children are not cars or widgets that can or should all be built (educated) in a factory (public school) where every single one is treated more or less exactly the same.

    Public schools by default give more or less exactly the same education in exactly the same style to pretty much every child. They don’t have the money or resources to do anything differently unless they are forced to in the case of special needs children. (Yes there are gifted programs in some schools but budget problems are seeing these cut in a lot of districts.)

    Children are human beings and every single one is different. They have different interests, different learning styles, different strengths and weaknesses. As such they need to receive a personalized education that takes all of these things into account. Some children will learn best in a classroom setting. Others need a more one on one setting to learn best. Still others learn best when they are set in front of a textbook and left to learn on their own. Beyond that the ideal learning style can vary from subject to subject for a particular student. Because of this homeshooling should be considered one part of our overall national education system with the goal being to give every individual student the best education possible.

    We should be asking ourselves first what is best for each individual student and if we pursue that goal the best interests of society as a whole will inevitably follow.

  • Jeff

    Wow, four posts in and you still show not an ounce of interest in understanding what homeschooling entails, who does it, why they do it, what it’s all about. That’s inexcusable.

    You said “we’ve decided that public education is one of our most important societal institutions”. The most important societal institution is the family, and it is parents, not “society”, that bear primary responsibility for educating their children. So engaging the issue at an individual level is inescapable — selecting the best educational option for your family is intrinsically a family-level decision. Your responsibility to your children supersedes your responsibility to your public school.

  • Keith Rowley

    Jeff sums it up neatly: “Your responsibility to your children supersedes your responsibility to your public school.” This is exactly our point from the homeschool advocate side of things.

  • Keith Rowley

    This is where Tony and I fundamentally dissagree. I think my primary duty as a Christian father is to do what is best for my children and family FIRST!!! Any duty I may have to the good of society comes only a distant third after my duties to God and family.

  • Paul W

    I’m someone who is marginally religious (go to church service more weeks than not, read a couple of religious books a year etc.). I’m not really sure what “missional” means but do attempt to have my faith commitments positively impact my way of life in this world.

    I’ve got to admit that I simply don’t get the emphasis on homeschool here. I agree with Tony’s basic premise that public education is one of our most important societal institutions but that hardly entails that non-public education is a dereliction of our social contract. There is nothing inherent about non-public education (and why are you singling out only homeschoolers) that necessitates a radical break with social norms, societal structures or the public interest.

    Of course educating our youth is one of our most important social commitments we have. But what seems to be missing in this discussion is the recognition that the various non-public educational outlets (homeschooling being just one) are important and strategic to that social contract. Home based education is one of our society’s multifacited approachs to ensure that youth are educated.

    Homeschooling is recognized, sanctioned, legislated, and regulated by our society through the government just like public schools and other non-public schools. It is hardly a withdrawal from our collective societal agreement and the common good if we choose to educate our young through one of the various State-legitimized alternatives. Home based education is one aspect of our society’s commitment to education and as such it isn’t a withdrawl from society .

  • Paul W

    Tony, I hope my disagreement over homeschooling does not make me an opponent. However, I also hope that you can recognized from what I posted above that our disagreement can be based at the level of general and societal arguments rather than with the use of simple individual and personal anecdotes.

  • Until homeschooling is made illegal or unrecognized by the state, the non-engagement argument holds no merit. The very society in which you believe we are called to be engaged in legitimates homeschooling as a valid and recognized option for education. Therefore, to choose it is still a form of acceptable civic engagement.

    No anecdotes here.

    • Eric E

      Exactly. I note that the argument that Tony is trying to make would rule out religious schools and other private schools as well. As somebody who went to Fuller and Princeton, I’d think he’d want to avoid that. By his logic, he should have attended the U of M or some other public, state university.

      • Eric E

        Or at the very least, he shouldn’t be focusing solely homeschoolers. He should include all non-public schooling in his critique or explain why his critique doesn’t apply to the other types of schooling.

        • I still haven’t seen from Tony a convincing argument on this issue. He discusses such things as the “social contract” and how being a “missional Christian” fits into that contract per a God-given mandate (the particulars of which he never discusses). But his support of it is terrible weak.

          I’ll repeat here what I originally wrote on Tony’s blog last month ……. Tony goes into a good deal of discussion on the value of public education in a modern democratic society, the benefits of the social environment in learning, etc. But he doesn’t explain well enough how this relates to his missional life, or what he calls the “Jesus Ethic/Kingdom of God Ethic.” He didn’t define that ethic, which was at the heart of his original premise. He furthermore didn’t explain why the ethic doesn’t let him “opt out” of what he refers to as the “societal contract.”

          He also doesn’t define this “societal contract” and how it relates to his undefined Jesus Ethic/Kingdom of God Ethic.

          And he doesn’t expound upon the “mandate to be the most involved, missional societal participant that [he] can be.”

          He starts with a faith-based premise, but his arguments really end up being just sociology.

          • Eric E

            I believe his argument is (very roughly) this:

            1) There is a social contract in the U.S. that says that we should educate our children in the public school system.
            2) Missional Christians should never opt out of social contracts.
            3) Therefore, missional Christians should never opt out of the public school system.

            I hope this isn’t a strawman. I don’t think it is. It is obviously a very distilled version of his argument but it captures the essence, I believe (correct me if I’m wrong Tony). That being said, 1) is clearly false since the social contract in the U.S. clearly allows for non-public school options. 2) is clearly false because there are instances when missional Christians should opt out of the social contracts around us.

  • Jonathan

    Tony, we’ve decided that the military is also one of our most important institutions. Have you signed your kids up yet?

    Surely keeping your children out of the military weakens it, and surely being missional would require faithful christians and citizens to participate.

    • You make an excellent point Jonathan. One could also argue that government is fundamentally the most important societal institution since it funds and maintains public schools and the military. As such, if Tony’s argument about public schools is to hold water, he may have to say that “every family that is Christian and committed to faithful citizenship” should encourage their children to work in government.

    • I haven’t yet seen any kids arrested for truancy from the military, however truancy from school is illegal. See the difference? Military service is (currently) voluntary; education is not.

      • Jonathan

        But the issue is homeschooling, not truancy. Homeschooling is legal, truancy is illegal. See the difference?

        Honestly, I’m not sure what your point is here. Unless you are equating truancy and homeschooling (which, incidentally, neither the state nor the bulk of society does), in which case you’ve hidden that term of your argument.

      • Eric E

        Can’t decide if you are serious or trolling … I’m kind of hoping the latter.

  • Tony, I’m sending you a lengthy blog response-


  • To make your this incident remotely worth discussing, you really need to compare the percentage of homeschoolers who are ignorant about plagiarism to the percentage of public schoolers who are ignorant about plagiarism. Just because something was taught, doesn’t mean it was learned. Just because someone went to public school, doesn’t mean he learned about plagiarism or anything else, for that matter. Also, one homeschooler does not represent two million homeschoolers. Finally, it may be true that homeschooling weaken public educations, but if public education weren’t so weak to begin with, maybe so many people wouldn’t feel the need to homeschool. I personally feel no obligation to submit my children to the social experiment, otherwise known as public education. As you mention in your comments, public education as a social norm is only 110 years old, I see no evidence that it has provided a better standard of education or socialization than the way things were run for the first hundreds of years of mankind’s existence.

  • Christina Villa

    When you first wrote about this in 2005, you said you had a child approaching kindergarten. By now, that child must be in 5th or 6th grade. Unless and until–and I hope this never happens–your own child runs into a serious problem in public school and you can’t afford private school, you have the luxury of making meta-arguments that square with your practice.

  • Sorry, but your take on this issue is absurdly simplistic and out of touch. Our local schools refused to respond to ANY parental concerns about ANY problems with teachers, policies, etc. When they discovered that they were losing an unusual number of students to homeschooling, they decided to find out why. Suddenly, listening to parents and addressing their concerns became important. The schools and those who attend them have benefited enormously as a result.

    And I’ll see you your homeschool kid who wasn’t taught about plagiarism and raise you my two who were. So I win, right?

    I don’t understand why this has become a hobby-horse for you, but it’s divisive, insulting to many very good people/parents, and every time you open your mouth about it, you just show how little you understand the issue. It reminds me of people who cling to political ideas about how things works while resolutely ignoring the voices of actual people affected by how things work in the real world.

  • Mack

    1. How does a grown man, regardless of educational background, not know of the concept of plagiarism?

    2. Did any of you vote in your last school board election?

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