Are We An Honest People?


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.

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?

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13 responses to “Are We An Honest People?”

  1. Don Huffman says:

    This blog addresses a universal and serious problem which most of us have encountered time and again in our experiences, and educational areas are certainly not exempt from dishonesty. One could spend hours in enumerating instances.
    “To err is human,” includes the dishonesty of both white lies and more damaging dishonest acts. Professional studies indicate that it is likely the case that all humans are less than fully honest. The reasons include wishes to avoid hurting other’s feelings,the idea that the dishonest act harms no other person, including the prevaricator. As a college/university teacher I admit to having witheld full details and transparency of the knowledge of some student cheating on exams,term papers, etc. but felt compelled to confront the student when clear evidence of plagarism, copying from classmaters, etc. was evident. My belief is that confrontation of dishonesty is the most likely means of helping one learn the necessity of honesty in all of life’s phases.
    Those of us with children know the routine very well. It is not east to confront family members or close friends or colleagues with dishonesty, but it is likely a necessary function in a “society of laws.” No area in life is devoid of some degree of dishonesty, and one is forced to accept that it is likely a universal aspect of humanity; likely an inherent part of one’s genetic and social heritage.
    Fortunately, forgiveness and acceptance are also part of one’s inherent nature. It is these qualities that make work worth doing and life worth living despite the presence of imperfection in all of us.

  2. Jess Jackson says:

    I would ask that readers consider the idea that honestly is a product and not a thing in and of itself. Society banters about words such as integrity, ethical behavior and honesty. In my world these attributes are the result of something deeper and more important than what is inculcated by society at large. I learned in physics that entropy is increasing. Look it up it is fascinating. I’ve seen in the 30+ years since I graduated college that societal entropy is also increasing. What is the source that creates honesty, integrity and the willingness of individuals to do what is right, rather than what is easy? For me it is Christianity. I believe in a Jesus that is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. Those who I know and have observed from other faiths that focus us beyond ourselves have the same character. Allow me to call it honor for lack of a better term. Regardless of the whims of society and culture, the fact that I serve God allows me to live at a level where my wants and desires are surpassed by the need to please the Jesus that I worship. In cultures, beliefs and societies where it’s all about the individual there is little room for honesty except when it is convenient. A hundred years ago the education system of the USA sat on the foundation of scriptural truth and the belief system it commands. Neither my 28 years in the Army as an officer with millions of dollars of equipment and hundreds of soldiers that I was responsible for; or the responsibilities of parenting 4 children have caused me to be honest even when it damages me. It is my belief that obedience to a Jesus that will reward me for sacrifice and heal me when I’ve been taken advantage of, that helps me be honest, have ethics, and hold to the truth regardless of the costs. I admit that I may get lost in the nuances of tactfulness but if you want an honest answer, days work, or friend then look me up because that is what you will get. I would not only fail the thief but give them a semester away from school to emphasize the point.

    • Don Huffman says:

      Dear Jess,
      Your comments remind me to acknowledge that what may appear to be antithetical are actually two different sorts of knowledge which contribute to our understanding of human behavior and traits. These sources of knowledge; 1) scientific or physical, and 2) spiritual are complimentary, but not the same because they have entirely different ways of gaining knowledge.
      Scientific knowledge requires observation, hypothesis forming, experimental/observational design and data collection, with statistical analysis to support a theory. Science can make no final statement of truth, and all scientific/physical knowledge is subjected to challenge and change as more knowledge is accumulated.
      Spiritual knowledge is derived by inspiration/revelation,and I believe is of ultimate concern to humans, but totally lacking of any physical explanation. Many persons accept both, including myself, and insist that both are integral to understanding of human behavior and its basis. Neither is very useful in examining the other means of aquiring knowledge about human traits such as honesty,integrity etc.
      Acceptance of both should not be prejudicial to the other, and both are likely inherent in humans.
      Don Huffman

      • Daniel Ginn says:

        Don, having the existence of both real spiritual and real scientific knowledge requires a philosophical basis in epistemology broad enough to encompass both of these things and philosophical axioms which transcend and/or undergird both of them. I daresay the material world is instrumental in learning and teaching spiritual truth, nor do all the things generally classified substantively as scientific knowledge meet each of the criteria you mentioned (observation, hypothesis forming, experimental/observational design and data collection, with statistical analysis to support a theory). Some of these aforementioned components are means by which spiritual truth can also be learned. The line between scientific and spiritual truth is not so easily drawn, and there is some necessary overlap as well since inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning are used to conclude toward both types of truth claims.

        • Daniel Ginn says:

          But without a prior ethical commitment to accurately report the data and premises related in both of these things, neither retains its worth.

          • Don Huffman says:

            Thank you for your comments. It is true that not all science follows all of the steps of the “scientific method,” and both spiritual truth and scientific truth have overlap.
            Actually, much of the research work in science which I’ve done is descriptive, though I’ve also done some research involving each step in the methodology usually stated. To my thinking, the most important aspect is the submitting of research for publication and the critique of other other competent scientists in the same area.
            I also agree that there are overlaps between spiritual and scientific views. The archeological digs which which give us information on religious writings and specimens are very helpful in interpreting and establishing “truth” in spiritual areas. And, very importantly, without adherence to the spiritual values of “truth and behavior”, ie. in the ten commandments of Christian, and in many other religions of the world,there could be no expectation of honesty and integrity. However, for the understanding of human behavior, I accept the views of Tillard de Chardin, the priest/anthropologist who discovered Peking Man, and who wrote a very interesting book, The Phenomenon of Man, in which he develops the “Point Omega” God concept. Some prominent scientists have called his book “better poetry than science” but it is a fascinating group of ideas in examining the ways in which knowledge is gained, but where all of them converge at Point Omega.

  3. Gwen Krueger says:

    Fight truth decay.

  4. Fascinating, but way”over my head”, and having to stretch my mind is good.
    I look forward to more of these offerings.

    Gwen: Crest?}

  5. don huffman says:

    Dear Mark,
    I’m addressing this to you since others seem to be finished with their responses, and you will appreciate this item from Columbia University, re honesty.
    When Maxine and I were at Columbia Univ. -1961-63-, for my PostDoc in mycology, and she for her second doctorate, we often used the Columbia U. library. It was nearly always found that any article dealing with sexuality and related areas in any of the periodicals carried there was cut from the periodicals and stolen, apparently by graduate or undergraduate psychology students according to the librarians. Interesting that those students studying human behavior should be the dishonest ones in spoiling the library holdings. The librarians told us the same occurred in bound volumes and book holdings!
    Are we an honest people? Probably not if observatins by many people are accurate, and one suspects they are.
    Don Huffman

  6. Greetings friends,

    This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.

    TIC (tongue in cheek)

    Thank goodness. (not TIC)

  7. Ed Ver Hoef '54 says:

    In the long run, honesty is its own reward. You follow its dictums because you know it is the right thing and because you realize that unless most people didn’t do so most of the time, life would be chaotic. You would be have to be skeptical of everything you couldn’t verify independently and who has the time to do that?

  8. Ed Ver Hoef '54 says:

    Another comment re honesty, it is its own reward. You don’t have to try to remember everything you say or write so as to not contradict it later on. And, best of all, you have a clear conscience!