Why Honesty Matters to Us

In the past week the story of Adam B. Wheeler has swept the nation. His unbelievable story of an alleged fabricated academic history has brought on parodies, increased scrutiny of the admissions process, and even comparisons to famous con artists like Frank William Abignale, Jr., famously portrayed in the film “Catch Me If You Can.” While the details surrounding Wheeler’s alleged lies and forgeries are of a sensational nature, academic dishonesty is unfortunately not a rare offense committed at Harvard. In a review of the Administrative Board of Harvard College, the College’s student disciplinary body, the Crimson found that almost a quarter of the students Harvard asks to withdraw each year are asked to do so because of academic dishonesty. Just two weeks ago as well, a faculty panel voted to dismiss a student that had obtained confidential information about his course instructor in order to change his grades through the University computer system. Wheeler may be rare, but his actions unfortunately are not.

Of all the things that could go wrong at a university, it may, at first, seem surprising that dishonesty is the most shattering. Next to racist comments, student violence, and faculty paychecks, Wheeler’s fraudulent background has gained more press than any recent Harvard story of late, and it illustrates that academia, more so than any other field, is built on trust. More importantly, from this trust comes our ability to forge and present our own identities.

Just getting into college provides the first example of this issue. Harvard, like other top-ranked schools, has an extremely competitive admissions process with very high standards. But rather than embellishing our grades or our activities in high school, we present our honest histories. We do this because we trust that others are doing the same, but more importantly, because we believe our actual selves are worth accepting. Honesty on our applications is the first indicator that honesty helps us preserve our identities.

For a student, the admissions process is not the only event in which honesty is critical but rather a sign of things to come. Academic life at Harvard is centered on honesty. We often take for granted that what our professors teach us is true, but our faith in their integrity allows us to approach classes with an open mind to new ideas and different perspectives and to incorporate these lessons into our knowledge of the world. This may seem entirely obvious, but it is this simple notion that makes Wheeler’s case so jarring; we assume at Harvard that we are all being honest. When working together we naturally believe that our classmates are truthful when they explain an answer to a problem or draw a comparison to something from the syllabus. Of course, honesty is important in almost every field, but it is a particularly salient issue in academia because uncovering falsehoods is so difficult.

Whereas in the real world, there are frequently tangible products that can verify someone’s work—like the detail of a painting or the utility of a computer program, in college, our work is often entirely in our thoughts and ideas. Because these things are so much easier to plagiarize, or make up entirely, honesty takes on a heightened importance. With no ability to verify the experiences our classmates say they have, faith in their honesty is the only background check we can make. For the most part, this works; reported grade point averages are accurate, and résumés are valid. Our faith in this system of faith is challenged when individuals exploit others’ trust through misrepresentation. Although Wheeler has allegedly demonstrated that it is possible to fabricate almost an entire person’s background, what becomes even clearer now is that small changes to one’s personal or professional history will most likely never be spotted. It is unreasonable for every employer to fact-check every aspect of every résumé, and even with the accelerating size of the Internet, it probably never will be. This does not mean, however, that Wheeler’s alleged outing will cause fraud and forgery to increase. On the contrary, his story points to reasons why it will not.

With the allegedly fraudulent résumé created by Wheeler and the paper trail he left at Harvard and Bowdoin Colleges circulating widely now, we know a great deal about who Wheeler is not but know little about who he is. Acts of dishonesty in academia, and elsewhere, may bring people like this some measure of success, but it also deprives them of an actual self. In the week before my freshman year at Harvard I participated in an orientation week hiking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and Adam Wheeler was a member of that trip. When the news of his story starting spreading rapidly, I looked back at the pictures of Adam and me in the woods and tried to call up any memory I had of him. With the veracity of his history under fire, it’s now hard for me to tell which conversations I had with Wheeler were real, and which were false. I spent a sizeable amount of time with this man, and yet I cannot say who he is. Honesty allows us to present our actual selves to the world, and without it we cease to have an actual identity.

Marcel E. Moran ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Eliot House.

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