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Are We an Honest People?

News-Herald Guest View: Mark My Words

April 1, 2013
By Mark Putnam - President, Central College , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

The mystery surrounded a missing book. The professor for the course placed a rare book on reserve in the library at the beginning of the semester for exclusive use by the students enrolled in his class. According to the syllabus, each student had the responsibility to complete an assignment that relied on the material in the book. The book was not to be removed from the library at any time. This was not the first time he had given this assignment for this particular course, but it was the first time the rare book had simply disappeared.

There were few options for the students or the professor. The book was no longer in print and was not something that could easily be obtained through interlibrary loan. At first, the assumption was that the book had simply been misplaced in the library. The shelves in the reserve section behind the circulation desk were searched carefully, as was the area surrounding the library office. Frustration grew as what was first assumed to be a simple mistake grew into assertions of dishonesty.

As the semester passed, the professor widened the search by informing faculty and administrative colleagues about the situation. He continued to raise concern in class sessions gradually becoming persuaded that someone had stolen the book. Eventually, he adjusted the assignment to ensure students could complete the course appropriately. I worked with the professor at that time and I remember his profound sense of disappointment.

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Mark Putnam

Honesty is as complicated as it has ever been. There are occasions when too much honesty is socially risky and not enough is a violation of trust. There are balance points where upon we honor diplomatic skill and yet we decry any lack of transparency. We value candor and directness when applied with sensitivity in the service of others, but abhor a self-interested use of deception, misdirection or outright lying to achieve our aims. We evaluate honesty by the intent of a statement or action in relationship to the impact visited upon individuals and society as a result. In assessing honesty, there appears to be a measure of our motivation and a calculation of the consequence. Simply put, "Will anyone get hurt?"

For some, dishonesty or lying is an art form. We have a very impressive term for this pseudology. You don't often hear someone describe an aspiration for becoming a pseudologist, but they indeed exist. The light-hearted versions are those who entertain us with lies that do nothing more than elicit humor. That seems OK, most of the time. There are other pseudologists, however, who use dishonesty deliberately in a manner that is destructive of society, community, organization and individual. Recent examples reflect the tapestry of society including politicians, government officials, sports heroes and even church leaders. Few categories, if any, are exempt. But, what about the educational context? How honest are we?

In just the past few months we have witnessed cheating scandals among students at our most prestigious universities; falsification of data submitted by well-known colleges, universities and law schools to guidebooks and ranking organizations; tampering of test data in local school districts; discoveries of plagiarism among honored doctoral recipients; and the listing of educational credentials never earned. Most of these lapses begin with rationalizations such as:

"I know I could get a high score on that test; I just don't have enough time to prepare."

"The data we are reporting reflect the true standing of our institution among our peers."

"I need to protect my job, and this test isn't fair anyway."

One wonders where occasionally blurring the lines of honesty eventually leads us to an overall pattern of pseudology.

The end of the semester arrived and the book reappeared as if by magic. It had been removed surreptitiously by one of the students in the class, who was least suspected. He was an older international student and very well regarded by his professors and classmates. When confronted by his professor he explained he was sorry it was necessary to take the book, but in his culture, it would have been more wrong for him to risk doing poorly in the class, than to steal the book. His response set us all to thinking.

Did the student have some justification for taking the book given his cultural backdrop?

Was the course poorly designed by forcing students to compete for time with the book?

Should the student fail the course for his actions?

What role should cultural sensitivity play in the interpretive context for honesty?

I can't help feeling that our threshold of expectations for honesty have been eroding as our tolerance for dishonesty has been growing. As we criticize societies around the world for rampant corruption, I wonder if we should pause long enough to engage in a little self-evaluation. Are we an honest people?

Mark Putnam is president of Central College in Pella.



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