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Ventura County Perspective

Living Life in a Culture Where the Greatest Sin Is Getting Caught

With the current public moralizing, a private self-examination is in order.

October 11, 1998|ALICIA A. REYNOLDS | Alicia A. Reynolds teaches English at Oxnard High School

"I knew a woman, lovely in her bones . . . " my student began as he haltingly read the first lines of a poem he swore he had penned himself.

I called this young man up to my desk after class to confront him about his obvious plagiarism. A Theodore Roethke fan, I had instantly recognized these lines from one of his most famous poems. To my amazement, even after I showed my student Roethke's poem in my anthology, he still insisted that he had written the poem.

"Gee," he blankly stated, "that does sound just like my poem. What a coincidence."

Of course his defiant refusal to admit wrongdoing not only cost him a passing grade but also my respect. However, I wonder if losing a teacher's respect means anything anymore.

His attempt at cheating was not very clever--laughable, really. Yet others who are more intellectually adept no doubt have pulled the wool over my eyes.

When I catch students in a lie it is my desire to have them admit to their deceit--not to humiliate them but to give them an opportunity to expunge this act from their character. I believe that the longer a person chooses to defend a lie, the more that lie speaks the truth about that individual's core sense of self.

Plagiarism and lying are, of course, universally deplored by educational institutions. Many schools give much credence to imbuing students with ideals of duty, honor and country. Yet our district, like many others, has removed citizenship marks from its report cards. Students are graded solely on academic performance, with a column for comments. Comments reflecting poor citizenship don't determine a student's eligibility to participate in activities such as sports or dances.

What is important is grade point average, not good citizenship. Colleges are not as interested in whether a student is honest, kind and respectful as in whether a student can make the grade.

For the cunning--who are so often rewarded in our society--what makes my student's bit of plagiarism so offensive was not so much the nature of the act but the stupidity of its execution. Not getting caught has become the primary motivator in a culture that no longer believes in personal redemption. The idea of "coming clean" about one's behavior as a first step toward purging oneself of unwanted characteristics seems old-fashioned.

With the sabers of moral outrage rattling nationwide, we need to take an honest inventory of our own habits if we wish to truly see what we value as a society. How invested are we as a people in nurturing the convictions we espouse? Why is it that as a nation we financially support so much of what we claim to despise? Industries both legal and illegal trading in drugs, sex and violence take in billions of dollars annually. In a culture that publicly professes one thing while privately doing another, those who sate our personal appetites are rewarded handsomely. That a number of my students would lie and feel little or no shame for doing so should come as no surprise to me when so many have been given such conflicting messages.

It is my hope that as we watch our president grapple with his public shame, we as a nation will come to terms with our own private hypocrisies. In doing so, we will show our children that personal integrity does not begin and end with finger-pointing or convenient rationalizations, but with the sometimes painful examination of one's own conscience.

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