"If Men Were Angels" by Head of the Middle School and Assistant Head of School John Gifford
Most Class V students understand that governments exist. Few have ever considered why they exist. That is the first question that we consider in my Civics class, at the start of each school year. We take them for granted now, but what is the need for governments? Part of the explanation is found in the words of our fourth president, James Madison. In Federalist No. 51, Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
Madison’s point, of course, is that men are not angels and a structure is needed to control tendencies for selfish behavior that disrupt community. It is tempting (and typical) for adults to shake their heads and wag their fingers when children lie and cheat. Some voice outrage and wonder, what has gone wrong? But professor Dan Ariely from Duke University, who has made an academic career of studying honesty, feels that it is more amazing that dishonesty of all types doesn’t happen more.
Ariely recently stated in an interview, "One of the frightening conclusions we have is that what separates honest people from not-honest people is not necessarily character, it's opportunity." In other words, we all are susceptible. We have all, in small ways or large, done it before.
This doesn’t mean that we should accept it or condone it in any way. Dishonesty can undermine a community, leading to resentment and distrust. It can slow the development of the individual if they cut corners. But excessive shock, dismay and condemnation about an act that is a part of normal development can also do damage to a community. Thus, when dealing with these teachable moments, I hope to find balance.
On the first day of school I start talking about personal and academic honesty. I do so because I want it to be clear that Nobles will always aspire to be a environment where people strive to act honestly. Our school mission and community principles hammer the importance of honesty and describe our efforts to be honest in our dealings and honest with ourselves. We do this because it helps. By reminding the community of our high expectations, we support individuals to remain honest. Ariely performs countless experiments, and has shown that simply having individuals say they are going to be honest before completing a task (like their taxes) has a significant statistical impact of their likelihood of doing so.
But we also must be looking at Ariely’s “opportunity.” We need to constantly reevaluate our systems and tweak the ones that make dishonesty too easy. Government is always adjusting the dance. The current administration is looking to roll back regulations on big financial corporations that were created after the “cheating” that took place in 2007 with the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
One of the reasons I care most about minimizing opportunity comes from another of Ariely’s studies. It seems that cheating can become easier. This is probably intuitive to most; the more one cheats, the easier it becomes to do so. Ariely has hooked up study participants to a polygraph.The first lie shows an area of the brain thought to regulate honesty to light up like a proverbial Christmas tree. Subsequent lies show diminished brain activity. The brain is always adjusting to its environment. When we first walk into the bright sun after being indoors, our brain struggles to see easily, but we adjust. The same, unfortunately, can be said for becoming comfortable with dishonesty. If we can minimize the likelihood of dishonest acts, we can make such acts out of the ordinary and thus more “uncomfortable” for our brains. At Nobles, we will always be looking for the areas that need to be tightened up.
Acts of dishonesty will continue to happen. When they do, they will be dealt with in a stern but compassionate fashion. I’m not sure that public shaming contributes to improved behavior (I’ll need Ariely to study that). We do know that individuals are constantly running a “cost / benefit” analysis in their heads, either consciously or unconsciously, and it is appropriate to raise the stakes if the dishonest behaviors persist.
In the end, however, we are dealing with young people who are only just formulating their character, developing their habits of mind and body and evaluating how they should conduct themselves. Errors in judgement are very much part of that process and students should certainly be held accountable when they make mistakes. Middle school students are not angels, but they are also not devils. Like all individuals, they struggle to remain honest, and will receive our expectations, our guidance and our support as they fight the good fight.