Politicians do it. Journalists do it. Even Harvard students do it. Dissembling, stonewalling and outright lies all pass for political discourse these days. The culture of deceit appears to be not only pervasive, but quite acceptable as a way of doing business.
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Politicians do it. Journalists do it. Even Harvard students do it.

Lying, cheating and stealing words and phrases, ideas and secrets from each other. We live in a pervasive culture of deceit in which the real news is not another cheating or plagiarism scandal, but rather, the guy who makes it from one end of the day to another without so much as fudging on his marathon time.

A modestly-informed American watching television these days must absorb a veritable liar's feast of distortions and half-truths, if not downright lies in the guise of political ads. When the voiceover comes with the candidate announcing his name and saying, "...and I approved this ad," I want to call the deceit police and have that liar arrested posthaste. Truth-challenged advertising is not owned by one political fashion; all parties are guilty of twisting the truth in the pursuit of votes.

Lying, cheating and stealing -- the "big three" crimes of dishonesty that are cited in our Honor Code at Trinity and many other similar codes of honor -- have their regular practitioners and even great defenders.

Oh, sure, we still hesitate at bank robbery -- but what about shaving a few points from reality on your tax returns? Or cribbing paragraphs from another writer's story because it's better than anything you can throw together on deadline? Or giving your players bonuses to hurt guys on the other team? Or copying the competition's software to market a competitive product as your own? Or moving priests from parish to parish to cover the tracks on child abusers? Or letting campaign operatives pay off a guy to badmouth your opponent? Or claiming that your political opponent's plan will have an economic impact that all rational analysis proves is simply not true? Or completely dismissing fact checkers as irrelevant? Don't let Truth change the course of a campaign!

The pervasive culture of deceit has many victims, perhaps none so worrisome for the future as the children who grow up thinking that lying is perfectly acceptable, that cheating is quite normal, that people who express concern about plagiarism are just really old-fashioned biddies who probably still read actual books and write longhand notes in marble composition books.

In college, those children often get a rude awakening when faculty attuned to problems with academic dishonesty level plagiarism or other cheating charges against students who feel somehow wronged even while admitting the illicit acts. One popular defense to a charge of plagiarism is that this is the very first time the student has heard that copying material is wrong -- "I've been doing this for years and getting A's, why are you accusing me now?"

From the "It's always worked for me before" defense, it's a short step to the, "My professor didn't teach me properly" line of argument.

There's an old story they tell in law school about the guy who murders his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he's an orphan. I think of this story when a student tells me she cheated because the teacher failed to instruct her properly. (It's not just college students who glibly blame the teacher -- bright students at Stuyvesant High School in New York, exposed in a cheating scandal earlier this year, use a similarly lame excuse to dismiss cheating on a French exam as no big deal.)

Lying, and then blaming someone else for the lie, is a rampant cultural problem. How can I teach my students to live honorably when prominent people appear to lie quite a lot, often with favorable results?

Sure, everybody makes little fibs from time to time, especially about things like age, weight and whether your friend (spouse, partner, mother) looks good in that.

Lying about your mother's jeans is one thing; lying about your mother's future with Medicare is quite different.

Dissembling, stonewalling and outright lies all pass for political discourse these days. While tall tales and negative hyperbole about the other guy have always had a role in American politics (read Founding Brothers) our modern mudslinging contests reach far broader audiences than ever before, arguably with more pernicious results when the culture of deceit appears to be not only pervasive, but quite acceptable as a way of doing business.

The fact that a large group of Harvard students engaged in cheating is hardly shocking, since the best schemes of deception are often the products of brilliant minds with flawed souls. In a culture that seems to reward deceit quite routinely, the smartest collegians in the country may think they are simply practicing the dark arts they will employ later on as politicians, campaign advisors, corporate titans or maybe intelligence agents.

We have tough penalties for cheating at Trinity since we really do believe that a college degree must stand for something more than a consumer transaction. We expect our students to do their own work, formulate their own ideas, present their own analyses and conclusions when confronted with thorny problems on assignments or in life. If higher education gives in to the popular idea that plagiarism is no big deal, that downloading other people's ideas and assembling them into papers is the wave of the future, then we really should stop charging tuition immediately, since there is nothing left to teach or to learn.

But well beyond preserving the integrity of the collegiate diploma, as well as protecting higher education's real purpose as the engine of new knowledge and ideas and not simply a place to regurgitate all that is already known, higher education also has a large role to play in the moral formation of citizen leaders who can think and act consistently with truth and integrity. Developing the capacity for telling the truth is not some quaint exercise in old manners. We need look no further than today's headlines to know that among the many leadership needs of the nation, the ability to tell the truth consistently is an urgent necessity.

(For the record, my first and only marathon time (Marine Corps, 1980) was five hours plus an unknown number of additional minutes. I never ran again.)

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