Related: Education, Faculty, Higher Education, Honor Code, Politics, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues, Students

Teaching Ethics in the Age of Dissembling


Consider the cases grabbing headlines this past weekend:

Sure, we don’t know all the facts in any of the cases that have grabbed headlines recently, and we Americans always like to give the accused the benefit of the doubt.

So, maybe Councilmember Thomas paid for his own dinners at Hooters and bought those fancy cars from his own pocket.

Maybe Sandusky really does love all children in the proper way, with no taint of depravity.

Maybe Cain is right that four women made it all up about sexual harassment and a long extramarital affair.

Maybe every accusation against these men is a lie.

Or maybe some are lies.

Maybe some are true.

And here is the crux of the problem:  whatever is going on in these and other notorious cases riveting our attention these days, somebody is lying.  Truth is taking a real battering.  Deception seems rampant.  Accepting responsibility for bad actions seems quaint.  Doing the right thing from the start seems other-worldly.

Teaching college students how to make ethical choices, to accept responsibility for personal conduct, to do the right thing all of the time — this is the essence of Trinity’s Honor Code.  Every student at Trinity signs a pledge that states:

“I realize the responsibility involved in membership in the Trinity College community. I agree to abide by the rules and regulations of this community. I also affirm my intention to live according to the standards of honor, to which lying, stealing, and cheating are opposed. I will help others to maintain this responsibility in all matters essential to the common good of the community.”

What could be simpler than this pledge?  What is more complicated than choosing to act with honor in the face of today’s news about the scandalous accusations against prominent figures who should be examples of integrity?

Where there’s smoke….. A big part of living a life of integrity is avoiding situations that pose even a hint of corruption or dissembling.  That’s a challenge in contemporary corporate and political life, where image is everything, communication is a facade, group-think pressures even righteous people to cut corners.   The contemporary culture has come to treat self-dealing as somehow morally normative (see:  compensation consultants).  No wonder that some people decide to treat themselves to a little extra, heck, isn’t that all part of the package?


Public scandals rooted in moral failures can make our own educational concerns over honor and integrity seem small.  They’re not.  Teaching students how to act honorably even in small matters creates patterns that build moral muscle for the big temptations.

Consider plagiarism:  I recently reviewed a case in which the student claimed that the plagiarism charge should be dismissed because what she copied was material for a quiz, not a “real” term paper.  The student’s position was that unattributed copying for class assignments should not incur the same kind of penalty as cheating on a final exam.

Wrong.  Cheating is cheating, whether on a quiz or final paper.  There are no relative degrees of cheating or plagiarism based on volume, any more than a politician on the take can claim that he only took a little bit of the grant money intended for children’s programs.

In another case, a student claimed that while it was true she copied material from an Internet source, the problem was really the instructor’s fault because the assignment was vague.  But the Honor System is about individual responsibility, not assigning blame.  While we can and do investigate complaints about teaching problems, they do not excuse cheating.  We see too many public examples of people who try to blame everyone else as a way to deflect criticism of their own behavior.

The Honor System says you have to own your actions.  Period.  No blame game.  No excuses.

Is Trinity’s Honor System outmoded?  Read the headlines.  Far from being old-fashioned, the need for ethical education is more urgent than ever.

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One Response to Teaching Ethics in the Age of Dissembling

  1. Antoinette Sgarlata Wiseman '61 says:

    I’m glad to see the Honor System is alive and well. Are the students also still required to append a signed pledge or a short excerpt (“Without assistance) to their work? Doing that every single time was a constant reminder and required putting oneself on the line each time.

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