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Published in Print: January 13, 2016, as Stick to the Truth

Commentary

Truth Telling Is Academia's Privilege (and Obligation)

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My advice for scholars wishing to contribute to public discourse during this election season is simple: Just tell the truth. One might think it unnecessary to urge scholars to be honest, but it is shocking how easily education researchers are tempted to deviate from the truth in the hope of gaining influence, affecting outcomes, and obtaining greater status. The hard reality is that scholars always have limited influence, cannot easily anticipate or control outcomes, and are forsaking the greatest benefit of academia if they bend the truth for the illusion of status.

It should be obvious to anyone who entered academia that the greatest benefit of a scholarly life is the ability to search for the truth and describe whatever you discover. In no other occupation can one similarly feel free to pursue the truth. If you work for a company, you can't say that their products are lousy without expecting to be fired. If you are a lawyer, your obligation is to your client, not the truth. If you are a politician, winning elections generally takes priority over the truth. Virtually every occupation you can imagine is constrained in the types of questions one can ask and the answers one can communicate—except for academia.

"Scholars have nothing but the truth to offer. And if they abandon that, they have lost everything."

But scholars too frequently throw away this benefit. Researchers involved in the Gates Foundation's "Measures of Effective Teaching" study from 2009 claimed the study found that teachers are best evaluated using a formula that combines multiple measures when the research actually found no such thing. And as Rick Hess noted in a blog post in the fall of 2014, researchers advocating for the common core claimed that the standards are internationally benchmarked, evidence-based, capture college and career readiness, and follow the example set by leading nations, when in fact these are at best half-truths.

How Does an Edu-Scholar Participate in the Public Sphere?

In the tense political environment of the run-up to the 2016 election, how does a scholar who focuses on education policy and politics contribute to public discourse in constructive ways? Read the responses:

Even if you are not persuaded by these examples, all of us can think of instances in which scholars shade the truth in the hope that their delicate "messaging" will produce a desired outcome or please a powerful patron. At the very least, we can all think of instances in which scholars remain silent as their work is misrepresented in public discourse.

I don't mean to suggest that scholars who distort or conceal the truth are insincere or ill-intentioned. They simply appear to be driven so strongly by the desire to produce what they believe to be good outcomes and exercise influence that they deviate from what is supported by evidence. They bend the truth for what they may believe to be a greater good.

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But no good will come from this type of strategic abandonment of truth. Politicians may distort evidence to advance policy goals, but scholars have no comparative advantage in devising the right messaging to win political battles. Even most politicians fail at this, which is why they have to change policy positions so often. And if scholars are caught messaging or flip-flopping, they lose credibility the next time they hope to influence policy. Politicians can get away with it because at least they possess power and patronage. Scholars have nothing but the truth to offer. And if they abandon that, they have lost everything.

So I urge scholars to remember why they became academics. If you wanted to lie for power, influence, and status, you could have become a politician. But you aren't a politician, so stick to what you are especially well-positioned to add to policy discussions: the truth.

Vol. 35, Issue 17, Page 25

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