Field Notes


Psychologist Rene Diekstra, a world-renowned expert on suicide, was until recently the closest thing the Netherlands had to a public intellectual. He was a distinguished and highly visible practitioner of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy‹which focuses on present rather than past conflicts. Through a steady stream of best-selling pop-psychology texts, a syndicated newspaper column, and frequent television specials, the professor of clinical psychology at Leiden University displayed a gift for translating his research findings into easily digested sound bites.

Alas, Diekstra's penchant for translation seems to have gone a bit overboard. Last fall, a pair of reporters at Vrij Nederland, the country's most influential newsmagazine, determined from a tip that Diekstra had plagiarized American psychologists in his 1996 best-seller Het onderste boven ("Upside Down"). The book borrows word for word, without attribution, eight pages from How To Deal With Depression, by best-selling American authors Harold H. Bloomfield and Peter McWilliams.

But that was just the beginning of the scandal. Another forty-eight-page chunk turned out to be lifted from Caring for the Mind, by authors Dianne Hales and Robert E. Hales, professors of psychiatry at UC-Davis. Yet another sixteen pages were ripped off from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, by Hawaii-based therapist Edmund J. Bourne. In this last case, Diekstra's borrowings were not quite word-for-word: He took care to change the names of the American patients Susan, Cindy, Steve, and Mike, to the more Dutch-sounding Suzanne, Monique, Stefan, and Sebastien.

Soon the media began combing through Diekstra's entire corpus for evidence of further wrongdoing. They weren't disappointed: Diekstra's patchwork approach is also on display in 1996's Als het leven pijn doet ("When Living Hurts"), which contains twenty-six pages that originally appeared in the appropriately titled When Living Hurts, by Tel Aviv­based psychologist Sol Gordon, formerly of Syracuse University. Even a passage describing Gordon's traumatic youth appears wholesale in Diekstra: "In my own childhood I had conflicts for years, loneliness that I did not understand, homesickness that I did not ask for and parents who often did not respect or understand my feelings."

Not surprisingly, the Dutch media responded to these findings with indignation. (only diekstra's methods are original, sneered one headline.) When contacted by Lingua Franca, however, Diekstra maintained that he is more a collage artist than a crook. "If you acknowledge that part of the book is based upon, inspired by, someone else's work," he asked, "can you still call it plagiarism?" He pointed to a footnote on page ten of Het onderste boven that reads, "This publication is based on and inspired by Caring for the Mind by the duo Hales." And as for the lift from When Living Hurts, Diekstra cites his foreword, which explains, "My book is crowded with thoughts and formulations taken from Sol Gordon's work." As to the claim that the two shared identical childhood experiences, Diekstra chalks it up to "pure coincidence."

A Leiden University task force was charged with investigating the myriad allegations. The inquiry soon focused on an incident involving Pennsylvania-based psychologist Gary McEnery. McEnery wrote a self-help book for teens in 1987 tentatively titled "A Teenage Guide to Suicide." Because the topic is so charged, he was unable to find a publisher. When Diekstra offered to take a look at it, McEnery obliged and sent him the unpublished manuscript. Diekstra immediately offered to form a partnership in which their names would appear jointly on the cover and Diekstra would pen the introduction and secure a publisher in the Netherlands. When the book was published in Holland, in 1991, though, McEnery wasn't informed. Worse, only Diekstra's name appeared on the cover.

Diekstra claims the publisher knew it was co-written and that "for some reason" (marketing, presumably) they chose to leave McEnery's name off, although McEnery was mentioned on the title page and in the joint copyright. Diekstra recalls being upset upon seeing galley proofs and asking to have McEnery's name added. When the publishing house said it was too late, Diekstra gave in. "Because his name appeared on the title page and in the copyright, I thought it was not that important," Diekstra says now. "But I should have told the publisher, ŚYou have to reprint it.'" According to Diekstra, this matter was patched up back in 1992, when a German edition was released that did include McEnery's name on the cover. McEnery even received royalties. So what's the big deal?

Indeed, Diekstra feels he's been branded unfairly by the press. "I am a very public figure in the Netherlands," he says. "It was a trial by media." Ironically, the reporter credited with the Diekstra scoop felt similarly beleaguered. Diekstra supporters plastered pamphlets all over her house, called anonymously at all hours, and built a blockade around the entrance to her magazine. "He is like a guru," she says. "Some of the students, especially girls, really admire him."

In December the Leiden task force found Diekstra guilty of plagiarism in six of the eight cases that it examined. Diekstra, buttressed by copyright-law experts, is planning to challenge the verdict this summer. Even so, the day before the university's task force was to announce its verdict, Diekstra resigned his professorship. While he claims his department asked him to stay, Diekstra says he needed to get out of the media limelight.

Meanwhile, the psychologist continues to do what he has always done: practice psychotherapy at a community mental-health center, advise on youth policy in Rotterdam‹and "write" books. Chances are, though, that the next time around, Diekstra will get the frame of reference right: His new project is a memoir about living through accusations of plagiarism. Let's just hope he doesn't blame his troubles on his crappy childhood. Or on Sol Gordon's, for that matter.

Martin Boer


At most colleges, they're called bull sessions -- those intense late-night arguments in the dorm over the meaning of Kant's categorical imperative or who you'd save in a burning house. But at the U.S. Naval Academy, where shooting the breeze is a busy sailor's pipe dream, the bull session -- and all the ethical hairsplitting that goes with it -- is a "working dress" scheduled affair.For the last two years the entire brigade of 4,000 midshipmen at Annapolis has been instructed to make room in their crowded schedules for a monthly afternoon of authorized soul-searching. Divided into groups of fifteen, the mids engage in freewheeling discussions of everything from Crime and Punishment to the moral justification for crimes of passion. In an environment where plebes are taught that there are only four answers to any question ("Yes, sir," "No, sir," "No excuse, sir," and "I'll find out, sir"), the freedom to speak your mind doesn't come easily. But these ungraded "integrity development seminars" are only one aspect of a new effort to introduce concepts like moral ambiguity into the midshipmen's rigidly prescribed vocabulary.

The final component of the sweeping new morality program fell into place last December, when Professor Nancy Sherman was named to the Naval Academy's Distinguished Chair in Ethics. The chair comes courtesy of a $1.5 million private endowment from a 1955 academy graduate and his business partner and will crown the school's recent moves‹in the wake of a series of sex and thievery scandals‹to implement a full-blown curriculum in character development and ethical training. Sherman, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of The Fabric of Character: Aristotle's Theory of Virtue (Oxford, 1989) and Making a Necessity of Virtue (Cambridge, 1997), began teaching a core course in January titled "Moral Reasoning for the Military Leader." She'll also supervise military faculty in the Division of Ethics, Leadership, and Law and act as principal ethics adviser to the academy's superintendent, Admiral Charles Larson. Larson hopes that Sherman or her successor will eventually oversee the institution of a Center for Ethical Studies at the academy.

In a profession where the moral implications of one's actions are potentially a matter of national import, it may seem a bit late in the game for a service academy to be inaugurating courses on the fine points of ethical behavior. But the Navy had long taken for granted that its officers were, ipso facto, honorable creatures--that is, until 1991 brought both a major cheating scandal at the academy and the infamous Tailhook episode. Since then, academy officials have had to reexamine the assumption that college-age kids--even those who've pledged to give their lives for their country--necessarily come prepared to follow a higher code of honor than their peers. As Sherman notes, "The mids are clearly there to put themselves in harm's way, and they need to learn that ship comes before shipmate. At their age, that's a hard lesson to learn, and some take it on a bit naively."

So how do the mids learn these tough lessons? Through a combination of formal study in ethics and the chance to ponder real-life situations. In class, Sherman uses the example of the submariner who is forced to sacrifice the life of a buddy on the lookout bridge when the sub comes under fire: "The best thing for your crew is to push off and move on, but the man up top dies." Sherman stresses that the important question in these circumstances is not only "should one do it?" but "what feelings do you have?" Being good, she notes, is "not just a matter of acting well, but of having appropriate emotions."

But are "appropriate emotions" something that can be learned--especially by students on the verge of adulthood? Sherman admits that character formation is a mysterious process but believes that "there's a lot of moral growth between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two." How do you foster such growth? Give midshipmen, Sherman says, "the opportunity to reflect coolly and calmly" on conflicts they are likely to face in combat, as well as the chance to defend and argue cherished ideals in the classroom.

It may seem curious that, given the military's traditionally closed culture, a civilian was chosen to guide the Naval Academy toward ethical enlightenment. Academy spokesman Captain Tom Jurkowsky says, "There's no one in uniform who has [Sherman's] scholarly credentials." But it's also worth noting that after new scandals shook the academy last spring--including a court-martial decision on drug dealing and arrests for car theft, pedophilia, and rape--it's been widely perceived that an outsider is just what the Navy needs to set the institution back on course.

Jurkowski says that plans for a civilian appointment to an ethics chair had been under way since Admiral Larson took charge more than two years ago: "We envisioned the appointment coming somewhere toward the end of his term, but the arrival of the endowment has happily accelerated the process." Both Jurkowski and Sherman point out that the academy had already initiated a core ethics course as well as the monthly seminars, which are led by both naval personnel and civilian faculty and staff.Still, it will be interesting to see whether a culture known for its rigid hierarchy and strict adherence to rules can accommodate a philosopher's penchant for moral ambiguity‹and whether the whole program isn't merely a nod to the academy's critics. Sherman is confident that the Naval Academy is sincere about exploring complex questions, such as who owes loyalty to whom.

And what if the answer lies in following a higher authority than the Navy's? "It's a challenging problem to ask leaders to follow regulations and at the same time question illegitimate sources of authority. Admiral Larson is very keen on creating leaders who will make the right decisions--even if it means breaking the chain of command."

Linda DeLibero

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