John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

I Shall Not Tell a Lie

John N. Gardner

For many of us Americans, I suspect the biggest outcome of the recently completed Republican national convention is to get us to think about the ubiquity of not telling the truth. And this leads me, predictably, to mentally link this to the environment where I have spent most of my adult life: college and university campuses.

Sure, we all know politicians must lie, distort, prevaricate, dissemble, obfuscate, exaggerate to some degree. But what is so stunning is the extent of intentional fabrication, distortion,–outright lying that we have all just been treated to. And it’s not like the people telling the lies are stupid. No, these are very, very smart people, with world-class educations, obtained at world-class American universities, I am sorry to note. Even for those of us who may be the most cynical observers of our political process, the amount of lying we have just heard and read is truly remarkable.

It’s like the Fourth Estate has just woken up to the extent of this phenomena. It’s about time. If they don’t protect our democracy who or what will? College professors are trying but we aren’t enough. And we are under attack from the right too as our budgets have been slashed. I find noteworthy in the few days after the convention ended, the extent of press reporting on the falsehoods uttered by the party aspiring to be completely in power, with the poster leader liar being the Vice Presidential candidate, a very bright thinker we all agree.

The stage managers of these messages must be assuming that the only truly undecided voters left are just truly so stupid, uninformed, uneducated, able to be manipulated, that truth telling is not something they need to offer.

Didn’t these all American guys learn from their parents the fable about George Washington being asked by his father if he cut down a prize cherry tree, and the son, our first President, confessing: “I cannot tell a lie.” I learned this. And now that’s what I want to hear more of in our country: “I cannot tell a lie.” I still want this even though I learned in a college American history course that the cherry tree tale was just that, a fable, introduced into a much later edition of a multi-edition series of biographies by one of Washington’s early biographers, Parson Weems.

Maybe it’s just that we all know that we are constantly being lied to by organizations and individuals using the media to get their message across. We are inured to this. We just have all given up on any expectation that we will be told the truth.

As I look back on m 32 years of campus-based higher education service, and in particular reflect on my leaders, I can say that I found all but one of them to be truthful—truthful to me as an individual, and collectively to my university family. I recognized and appreciated that. It inspired my confidence, pride in the institution, and a desire to conscientiously emulate the practice. I would like to think that those I have mentored, if asked to describe my behavioral practices of leadership, would put high on the list my honesty.

Four decades later as I run a small, non-profit organization focused on the support of higher education, I interact with many—hundreds and hundreds over the course of a year, of fellow educators who are in search of the holy grail, the solution to the problem of student retention. I know that many of them have been lied to by a variety of purveyors of products and services. The lies are packaged in panaceas. They are all looking for the silver bullet. They want a simple solution to an enormously complex problem and they want it now, in a one-screen e-mail message!

And in this context, I find myself, only once, in agreement with our recent former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who told reporters that winning in Iraq was going to be a long, hard, “slog.” My organization offers to fellow higher educators a process to improve retention. And my staff colleagues are all imbued with our organizational culture of telling the truth—always telling the truth—that our process is all about a long, hard, “slog.”

I shall not tell a lie. In that respect I am proud to be an American academic, out of step with the mainstream American culture. I am thankful for the academic freedom my university gave me to empower me to live a professional life based on integrity.

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