Ethics at Work: The Importance of Academic Honesty in Our Schools, Part I

by Wendy Fischman

Recently, an egregious scandal erupted in higher education. For perhaps the first time, several dozen parents have been exposed for blatant wrongdoings—paying others to change answers on standardized test scores; fabricating identities and resumes of their own children to disguise them as top tier athletes; paying coaches on the side to “recruit” their offspring. Questions have swirled about the degree of student knowledge and cooperation in their parents’ decisions and behaviors. How did these activities—unethical and illegal—come about?

While many were shocked about the allegations, some of us were not surprised—especially those of us who have been investigating young people’s beliefs, values, and goals with respect to work and education. Indeed, this scandal joins together two lines of work in which my colleagues and I have been long engaged.

In this blog, I review some of our early research on how young people—in school and in the first few years of their careers—describe their views on unethical and dishonest work, which includes cutting corners, lying, and blatant cheating. In subsequent blogs in this series, I highlight emerging findings from our national study of higher education about the importance (or lack thereof) about ethics and academic dishonesty on college campuses. In conclusion, I put forth suggestions for how to address these issues in educational contexts.

The Good Project

For the last twenty-five years, my colleagues and I have been investigating what it takes for individuals to carry out “good work.” We define this concept as foregrounding three Es: work that is at once excellent (high quality); ethical (considers the impact on others); and engaging (meaningful to the worker). We portray good work through a “triple helix of ENA” because all three strands (excellent, ethical, and engaging) are inextricably linked. Indeed, in more than 1500 in-depth interviews with professionals across nine different domains of work, we found that if professionals are to carry out work that is appropriate for the particular profession and in service to the wider society, the individual needs to care about the work—it needs to matter—otherwise the challenge may be too great.

As an example, consider the print journalist faced with a dilemma: Should she knock on the front door of a home in which a mother just lost her son, in order to be the first to get a story? Her personal beliefs instruct her not to intrude; but at the same time, these values come in to conflict with her role as a budding professional, her ambition to become known (get her name on the front page of the newspaper in the morning), and the pressure from her editor to break the story (“if it bleeds, it leads”).

Or, consider the geneticist who struggles about whether or not to patent a gene which he has not fully investigated—the patent may lead to considerable personal profit, but at the same time, it may also yield misleading information and prevent others from conducting further research.

Such cases underscore one of our major findings: “good workers” need to navigate competing responsibilities—to self (both one’s values and ambitions), family and friends, workplace and domain, and the wider society. Indeed, we wrote a book on data collected from just one of our interview questions: “To whom or what are you most responsible in your work?”

As part of the larger study of good work, we also studied the “origins of good work.” Specifically, we focused on adolescents and young adults who were passionate about a certain area of work, often considering it a “calling.” We sought to understand the formation of “good work” and “good workers”—the early influences and experiences that lead (or fail to lead) individuals to carry out work that is at once excellent, ethical, and engaging.

Revealingly, we learned that though contexts can differ for workers at different stages in their careers, young people experienced many of the same conflicting responsibilities that mature workers must navigate. For instance, an aspiring high school journalist, who espoused values of objectivity and truth, struggled with the dilemma of printing a story about an alleged rape on campus—especially after a school administrator told her he would not fund the edition of the newspaper if she proceeded. A young geneticist in graduate school lamented his mentor’s pressure to “go public” with findings before they were triple checked, thereby violating one of the pillars of scientific research.

The similar stories and reflections about dilemmas and difficult decisions were not the major surprise, however. Members of our research team were shocked that so many of these young students openly and directly told us how they often cut corners, lied, or cheated in order to get what they thought they wanted, at the time. Equally surprisingly, none of the students asked us to turn off the recorder (back in the days of a “tape recorder”!); nor did they give any indication throughout the interview that they were nervous or embarrassed to admit their wrongdoings (e.g. they did not whisper, preface the story with reasons why they had no choice, nor asked us how we planned to use the information).

And the reason? Students apparently felt justified to make their own rules. They reasoned that they had worked hard and deserved to be at the top. After all, others cheat and get away with it, so why shouldn’t they?

Most striking to us, however, these young students said that one day, when they are in positions of power and authority, they wouldn’t have to cheat, lie, or cut corners. Then, but only then, they will be able to “do the right thing.” In a book called Making Good, we highlight examples of these wrongdoings and their consequences for others.

Which leads us right back to the offending parents—individuals who have status in American society—certainly fame and resources—to get what they (and/or what their kids wanted). In many ways, they reflect the “kids” we interviewed nearly twenty-five years ago—those who believe that their actions should be, or could be, legitimized in some way—those who may never have been stopped or questioned by a teacher, mentor, a supervisor, or family member. It’s quite possible that they feel that their earlier misbehaviors were justified and there is no reason to change course.  As Augustine memorably exclaimed in his Confessions, “Oh Lord, make me chaste, but not quite yet!”

The scandal brings about important questions about the role of education in developing character—elementary school through higher education. For example, what are the responsibilities of educators to inform students of ethical boundaries of academic work? What are educators’ responsibilities when they come across academic dishonesty? Similarly, what are the responsibilities of administrators in terms of setting institutional policies, and of peers in reporting observances of academic misconduct?

In the next blog, drawing on our large, national study of higher education, I focus on preliminary findings on academic dishonesty on the college campus: its incidence, its perceived importance, and its interpretation on the part of various constituencies.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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