Related: Education, Honor Code, Social Issues

Teaching Truth in Days of Deceit


On the same day we learned that numerous baseball “greats” achieved their glory through cheating, I had a conversation with some academic colleagues about a problem that occurred during a freshman exam. Seems that some freshmen were using notes when they shouldn’t have in the unproctored exam room. So, now we consider proctors. This came on the heels of an earlier problem with text messaging in exam rooms, leading to a ban on cell phones in exams.

What is this world coming to? That’s a very old question. I can still hear the despair in Sister Bridgetta’s voice — my kindergarten teacher, who, upon catching me and some other 5-year-old girls in a lie, gave us a stern lecture that ended with a rhetorical question: “Am I being true or am I being false?” Being five, I had no idea what the word “false” meant, but it sounded like a much more important word than the simple ‘true,’ so I replied, with bravado, “You are false, Sister.” The consequent long months of recovery from that vocabulary fiasco taught me a whole lot about what is true, and what is false. I managed to escape kindergarten in one piece, but now, 50 years later (can that be true?) I find that I continue to plumb the meanings of those simple words each day, as new and once-unimaginable forms of human behavior bend all prior definitions.

What does this have to do with Roger Clemens taking steroid shots and freshmen texting notes?

We like to believe that everyone understands the difference between true and false, honest answers versus cheating or plagiarism, playing clean versus playing dirty. In fact, as each day’s headlines remind us, we should assume no common platform for ethical conduct. We should be increasingly alarmed by news that suggests that too many people have less than a five-year-old’s grasp of the meaning of true and false.

Trinity’s venerable Honor System is an educational process designed to teach students about ethical conduct in all matters. Teaching students how to live honorably and behave with integrity in the contemporary climate is often a challenge. Sometimes, we tend to romanticize the past success of the Honor System, citing an era when students could be trusted to self-schedule exams and plagiarism was rare. We sometimes tend to point to changing student characteristics as reasons for a rise in cheating cases.

In fact, we need to look out the window and see what’s happening in the larger society beyond Michigan Avenue. Let’s examine our oft-unspoken stereotypes against the reality of contemporary culture.

We want to forgive instances of cheating as consequences of poverty.

But consider the case of Bernard Ebbers, now in prison for fraud and conspiracy in defrauding WorldCom investors of more than $11 billion. He was a very wealthy man. So was the late Kenneth Lay, convicted of fraud in the notorious Enron case. Indeed, the most notorious cases of lying, stealing and cheating occur at the highest levels of wealth and power. Some of the most honest people on the face of the earth are those who own nothing but their honor, and they would not trade it for even a loaf of bread.

We tend to suggest that powerlessness is a source of dishonesty.

Consider the case of the once-most-powerful-man-in-the-world President Bill Clinton who lied about his affair with a White House intern. He sounded no smarter than a vocabulary-challenged kindergarten girl when he told the grand jury that “it all depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is…” Consider the case of Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, convicted of perjury — plain old lying — in the case involving disclosure of a CIA agent’s identity (President Bush commuted Libby’s sentence). Power, in fact, seems to make people think that they can act outside of normal rules of conduct, when, in fact, the ethical temptations of high office require even more scrutiny of every action.

We might say that cheating is a result of unemployment.

But the head of the Washington Teachers Union was certainly gainfully employed when she embezzled millions from the dues paid by hard-working teachers to furnish her home and stuff her closets. The staff of the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue were at a sufficiently high level at work to be able to sign checks, which led some of them to steal more than $20 million from D.C. tax revenues. The former head of the D.C. Public Charter Schools is now serving time in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars and steering contracts to her friends. In fact, the workplace is a dangerous landscape for the ethically challenged.

Some say that cheating might be sourced in underperforming K-12 schools, in the poor preparation of some students for collegiate work.

Consider the sad case of Historian Joseph Ellis, professor of History at Mt. Holyoke, Pulitzer Prize winning author of such notable works as Founding Brothers about the American Revolution and American Sphinx on Thomas Jefferson. Great learning, a high academic position, extraordinary professional acclaim — none of these rewards of high literacy prevented Dr. Ellis from committing one of the most rudimentary forms of deception, lying about his past. He claimed service as a soldier in Vietnam that turned out to be a myth. Another famously literate Historian Stephen Ambrose somehow could not avoid plagiarism. Sufficient numbers of other literary luminaries, university presidents and even pastors have run afoul of plagiarism and ethics rules (and common sense) to lead to a clear conclusion that no amount of education can substitute for the fundamental value of honesty.

Speaking of pastors, we might also privately think, but dare not say aloud, that the changing religious characteristics of our student body have something to do with more challenges for the Honor System.

Consider the Catholic Church’s own scandal with cover-ups in child abuse cases. Even bishops wrestle with the demons of deception.

For all those who pointed to Barry Bonds and Marion Jones to infer insidiously that cheating might somehow be a character flaw of one race, consider now: Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Eric Gagne — White ballplayers, all pitchers, listed with scores of other players in the Mitchell Report on steroid use in baseball.

Cheating in sports, as in life, is a function of the human condition, not a result of race or religion or poverty or power or any other characteristic or context.

The ability to live a consistently honorable life is a value cultivated first through good home training, through parents and schools that work together to form conscience and values in the young, through friends who confront each other when tempted to cross the line, through communities that value virtue while working for justice. Honor and integrity cannot be purchased, or elected, or appointed, or hired, or rewarded in any way save through the comfort of having a clean conscience every single waking moment.

So, how does Trinity persist in teaching about truth in these days of deceit?

The Honor System is a simple teaching tool, a way to talk openly, directly and continuously about the importance of doing what’s right every day, in all circumstances, whether anyone is watching or not.

In spite of occasional temptations to scrap the Honor System and replace it with a Big Motherish system of even more administrative procedures and vigilant eyes watching everyone all the time, we have to realize what’s at stake: our belief that trust is more powerful than suspicion, that honor and justice must be shared values in the community, that integrity can be taught even if it needs occasional purposeful consequences for failure.

In this ethically-challenged culture, the fact that students try to cheat should raise no eyebrows. But it would be stunning for a value-centered learning community like Trinity to retreat from the persistent and passionate commitment to the values expressed through the pedagogy of the Honor System. We can certainly change administrative procedures and judicial processes to meet the needs of the times. Let’s not confuse procedural adaptations with the fundamental philosophy and values of Trinity, namely that the values of honor and integrity are essential to justice, and that we can teach every student to accept her or his responsibility to uphold those values and to help others to do the same.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: