I was very disheartened, last spring, when it was revealed that Marilee Jones, who had for a long time been the Dean of Admissions at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fabricated her academic credentials early in her career. She was one of my heroes! I remember listening to her once when she was interviewed on NPR, nodding my head and smiling, as I drove along, at her common-sense point of view. It was so refreshing to hear someone speaking from the lofty heights of the Ivy League actually trying to tone down the competitive frenzy of college admissions.
Ms. Jones co-wrote the book Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College, with pediatrician Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, and it provides invaluable insights to both parents and teenagers about the pitfalls of too-aggressive tactics for getting into college, particularly when it’s a college that might not even be a great match for you. Not only that, but she’d done a great job bringing more female students to the historically male-dominated M.I.T.; since she was hired in 1979 the percentage of women attending the institution has gone from just 17 percent to nearly 50 percent.
So I hated to find out that this brilliant and successful woman had cheated, and I was so sad to see her lose her job; her career ruined and her great contributions to higher learning tainted by a mistake she made decades ago. I felt sorry for her, too, because I’m sure we’ve all been tempted at times to exaggerate our own achievements, whether to get an important job or simply impress someone at a party.
Lots of public people have fallen from grace because of falsified credentials, and yet in our increasingly competitive society there’s still too much emphasis, it seems, on winning, which quickly becomes winning at all costs, meaning you can lie your way to the top but just don’t get caught. Sometimes we’re even passing this flawed ethic on to our children.
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Recently I was having dinner with a female friend whose two teenage boys have been heavily involved in several high school sports in a city quite a bit bigger than the one I live in. She said the two newspapers in their city would not accept stats on football, basketball, volleyball, or any other high school sport unless they came from the team coach in a sealed envelope. The reason? Too many parents had been submitting stats that were falsified in an effort to create a better record for their kid than the one they’d earned.
Ouch. It’s one thing to lie about one’s own achievements, but when a parent lies about their children’s achievements it’s kind of a triple whammy. They’re cheating the system; they’re letting their child know that no matter what they’ve accomplished, it’s not enough; and that furthermore, it’s okay to be dishonest if it helps you get ahead of the kid next to you. In other words the ends justify the means.
But of course, they don’t, and what’s really ironic is that this kind of micro-management of our children’s lives probably won’t even have the result we all desire in the long run: happy and successful children. As Marilee Jones herself said in a 2003 USA Today op-ed piece, “Parental over-involvement can rob a child of a chance to develop resilience and self-confidence, two key components for a happy life.” It would be better to let our children live with the consequences of how they honestly performed, for better or worse, and to let them know that as long as they’ve done their best, we couldn’t be more proud.
Besides, as Marilee Jones could tell us, you never know when those little lies might come back to get you. Really, really get you.