Let’s Celebrate George Washington’s Birthday by Telling the Truth

Barry Lenson

George Washington’s BirthdayThere are lots of curious facts about George Washington. Did you know, for example, that he had two birthdays? George was born on February 11, 1731. But that birthday was recording using the Julian calendar. When England and its colonies (that was us at the time) tossed out that calendar in 1752 and started using the Gregorian calendar (which we still use today), his official birthday got changed to February 22, 1732. That’s right, old George got almost a year younger in just one day. Heck, he didn’t even exist during the first year of his life! Maybe that explains why his teeth fell out and he got some fancy dentures made. Maybe it also explains why he went and what the heck, threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, according to legend anyhow.

There’s another legend about George Washington too. You’ve heard this one. It seems that George, when he was just a little boy, took an ax and chopped down a cherry tree. Why, we do not know. But when George’s father confronted him, George reportedly manned up and replied, “I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my ax.” Why he was capable of chopping down a nice little tree but incapable of lying about it seems mysterious. Any ideas?

Bear in mind, those were the days when kids played with axes, not with tablet computers or smartphones. Today, George’s famous confession would probably be, “I cannot tell a lie, father. It was I who deleted Google Maps from your iPhone 5.”

But George was apparently committed to telling the truth. That makes me think about the whole issue of truth in higher education. How much do America’s educational institutions tell the truth? How much are they committed to that “I cannot tell a lie!” philosophy? It seems to me that although most of the people who work in and around higher education are fundamentally honest people, systematic lying has taken hold in many ways.

Here are just a few examples  . . .

  • Colleges lie to increase their rankings in US News and elsewhere. I won’t take the time to document all the colleges that have found to be lying in the last few years. Just Google the words “college lies to US News” and you will find dozens of stories on your own.
  • Students lie on their college applications. They submit essays that have been edited (dare I say rewritten or even written) by professional essay “coaches.” On their applications, some students claim that they worked for years in soup kitchens feeding the homeless when they only really worked one Saturday. And then there have been lots of scandals in the last year or so about cheating. Students have hired other students to take the SAT for them, for example, often with the knowledge of their parents. If George Washington were alive today, he’d be wondering why people no longer tell the truth in the country he helped to create.
  • Colleges lie about courses that are available. You look at hundreds of course listings that the college puts on its website. But when you arrive on campus, you learn that some of those courses will not be offered until next year, or until the year after that. Unless you plan ahead carefully, you could end up coming to your college for a fifth year to get a course that you have to take before you can graduate. How honest is that?
  • Colleges fib in many other ways too. Okay, it’s only natural for colleges to keep the names of famous professors on their faculty rosters. But if those professors never set foot in a classroom, would you call that lying? It’s only natural for colleges to show all the brand-new buildings to students and parents who are touring campus for the first time, and to steer clear of buildings that are old, moldy and seedy. But would you call that lying? It’s only natural for colleges to claim that 60% of all applicants receive some form of financial aid, when a lot of those students are really taking Federal or bank loans to finance their educations. But is that honest?
  • Parents lie to get more financial aid for their kids. If parents plan well ahead of time, they can hire “college finance consultants” who recommend all kinds of “strategies” for getting more scholarship dollars from the U.S. Government and colleges too. If your kid inherited money a ton of money when a relative died, for example, you shouldn’t put that money in a bank account with your kid’s name on it. Stick it someplace else so you don’t have to report it on your FAFSA, like in an account you set up under Grandpa’s name. If you’re pulling in a big salary, find ways to hide part of your income by rolling it into retirement accounts, into trusts, or even into offshore bank accounts. The more money you can make disappear, the better your chances of getting a scholarship for your kid. Forget about the other less fortunate kids who really need financial aid to finish college. Let them figure out their own ways to work the system and pull in more money. Is that lying? You decide.

As a student today, how can you cut through the lying and find the kind of instruction that you are looking for?

It’s really simpler than it seems. First of all, know what you are paying for. If you’re taking an online course, for example, exactly what will you be buying – how many classes, how many units, how many hours with a course tutor? Second, know how much you are going to pay for the educational product that you are “buying.” If you’re not sure how much your education is going to cost, you’re not starting out from a position of strength.

If you’d like to learn more about George Washington, this would be a good time to take a course in American History. If you figure out how George managed to be born a year after he really was, please let us know.

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