President’s Day: Where Has the Honesty Gone?

Because both Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were born in February, we celebrate Presidents Day on the third Monday of the month each year. Not only were both of these revered presidents born in February, they were also both known for their honesty, which may be one reason why they stand out in American political history.

Abraham Lincoln, also known as “Honest Abe”, earned his nickname early in life. As a young man, Lincoln worked in a general store. One evening as he was counting out the money, he discovered that he had accidentally short-changed a customer by a few cents. Lincoln walked a long distance to return the money to the customer – customer service at its best. On another occasion, Lincoln realized that he had given a woman too little tea; he put the remaining tea in a package and personally delivered it to her. Later, as an attorney, Lincoln became known for his unwavering honesty – in fact, Lincoln preferred to lose a case than to win through deceit.

Likewise, George Washington is admired for his reputation as an unswervingly honest individual. Though the famous story of the boy George Washington readily admitting to the crime of chopping down his father’s prized cherry tree is likely fictional, it illustrates the popular idea that Washington could not tell a lie. Later in life, during his Farewell Address, Washington said, “I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs that honesty is always the best policy.”

But would these men be as honest if they lived in our modern times, or would they succumb to the dishonesty of the modern age?

It is plainly (and painfully) obvious that today’s politicians have made lying into an art form. They’ve become so good at it that there is now an entire group of websites dedicated to chronicling and refuting political untruths. The largest of these sites, Politifact.com, even holds an annual “Lie of the Year” contest, and their competitor, factcheck.org, compiled a list of the biggest whoppers of 2011. In modern American politics, lying has become a way of life. Voters are never confused when a candidate says one thing while running in a primary race and something entirely different when running in the general election – it’s simply the way things are done. But why?

One reason is the expansion of technology. Once upon a time, before the internet and TV, it was easier to be honest because political news wasn’t as sensationalized. Today, in the era of 24-hour news networks and 24-hour internet coverage – complete with hundreds of thousands of citizen journalists in the form of bloggers – political news coverage takes up so much time that there aren’t enough new stories to fill the gaps. Instead of reporting truth and fact, networks and news writers have no choice but to report conjecture, lies, and opinions disguised as facts.

We can lament the modern age of politics endlessly, but there is no going back. And the realm of politics is hardly the only arena that has become less honest as a result of modern technology – our students have learned to lie as well.

In 1940, only 20% of college students admitted to cheating. Today, various studies show between 75% and 98% of students admitting to cheating. Statistics on academic cheating are dismal:

Perhaps more terrifying than the prevalence of cheating is the fact that students don’t seem to believe that cheating is wrong. One survey showed that 51% of high school students did not believe that cheating was wrongAnother survey revealed that even when students recognize a given act as cheating, they are willing to do it anyway. Moreover, many students don’t seem to recognize what cheating is.

  • 89% of students said that looking at someone else’s answers during a test was cheating, but 87% admitted to doing it anyway.
  • 94% of students said that providing the answers to someone else during a test was cheating, but 74% admitted to doing it anyway.
  • Only 47% of students consider providing test questions to a student who has yet to take the test to be cheating. 7 in 10 admitted to doing it.
  • Only 39% of students consider writing a report based on the movie instead of reading the book to be cheating.

Once again, a large part of the blame for this dishonesty can be placed at the feet of modern technology. Not only has modern technology helped to make lying a way of life in politics, but it has also helped to make cheating easier than ever before. Several major news outlets, including USA TodayUS News and World ReportPC Magazine, and Higher Ed Morning, have produced articles detailing the various ways in which students utilize technology to help them cheat:

  • Plagiarizing by copying and pasting material from the web
  • Storing notes and cheats in graphing calculators or cell phones
  • Texting questions and answers
  • Using cell phones to photograph test papers and then circulating the exam questions
  • Purchasing cheating kits that turn cell phones or iPods into personal cheating devices
  • Using smart phones to search the internet for answers
  • Purchasing plagiarism-free essays off the internet

We would like to be able to say that educators are appalled by the prevalence of cheating in their classrooms, but the bevy of cheating scandals centered on teachers and administrators shows us that many educators cheat, too. Have the days of honesty passed? Is lying and cheating the new norm? How can we teach our children that cheaters never prosper if that maxim is no longer true?

Click here for information on the President’s Day Event at C2 Education.

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