Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Integrity: a graduate course

Mike Adams writes a column in which he pillories a student who indicates "surprise and disappointment" upon receiving a low grade. The student gives a melodramatic list of woes that had befallen him, and dismisses as "a few," the 28 classes he missed. Adams proceeds to go nuclear, holding up the student as an exemplar of shoddy character: he must be a liar and a weenie -- my paraphrase.

In my day most college classes met twice a week, so 28 missed classes are by no measure a "few". The verbiage by which we attempt to lessen our culpability when under pressure is understandable. I don't however know that weakness is a sign of a lack of integrity -- was Jesus weak when he wept in the garden? I don't know -- I do know it's not weakness to feel emotion. But Adams oversteps himself when he uses the one evidence of a misstatement to dispute every other point. To write a whole, very sarcastic column based on that seems insufficient. And by publicly castigating the student on this basis -- for all that he is anonymous -- Adams undermines himself. It were a thing best done in private. Will the student not burn with embarrassment, earned or not, when he learns of this? And what if such reproach was not earned?

Adams’ theme is integrity. For shame. What if all those excuses were true? Of course the proper course of action for the young man would have been to contact Adams and make an arrangement. Ask for extra credit. That sort of thing. Would Adams have been open to that? In any case, while shaming has its uses, so does a hand on the shoulder and a firm but gentle tone.

When we speak of integrity there is something incumbent upon us more than simply making a series of negative assumptions based on a single mischaracterization of fact. Integrity must have a higher standard. Is this boy a weasel? We might privately think so. But to publish his email, however anonymously, is unwarranted, based on the evidence that Adams has given.

Some who read the article seem to think the student was asking for a better grade. No. “Surprise and disappointment.” Just feelings -- the gold standard of the bluestate moral economy. We, of course, understand that a grade is like a wage: earned, for work done. The student has every right to ask for a better grade. Better to wonder on what grounds he asks. He asks on the grounds of the many horrible things he claims happened to him. Adams dismisses them all as lies, based on the student’s calling 28 missed classes "a few." Not an unreasonable assumption on Adams’ part, but not one that makes recourse to the quality of integrity, the theme of his column.

Integrity has to do with standards. This isn't really a debate about the student, who blew his integrity when he failed to contact Adams to make arrangements -- thus his single known misstatement of fact might justify an infinity of presumptions. Alas, integrity does not presume. Integrity is rigid. It goes through proper channels, just as the student did not. Again alas, neither did Prof. Adams. Think of it as scientific research: there are protocols, which if neglected render the findings suspect. Think of it as logic: there are rules, which if avoided render the conclusions invalid. When working outside the moral sphere of integrity, perhaps such leaps are appropriate. We might call them intuition. But when dealing with our fellow, flawed humans, to point a boney finger at someone else is a grave thing, and our houses best be in order. Did I mix metaphors there? This should be straightforward:

Integrity is not about the other guy.

The student, we can privately assume, is a fool. But because the subject of Adams’ column is integrity, he must exhibit a highest degree of the same. Adams did not do so. I'm sure he's an honorable man. We all make mistakes, though, and it is not inappropriate that they be pointed out. Adams felt free to do so, publicly, with his student. Might we not do the same?

Adams wrote convincingly of the case of Justin Park, the student who has been suspended from Johns Hopkins for “racial insensitivity.” In the present instance, however, Adams seems to have engaged in precisely the same sort of heavy handed and unjust response. I won't elaborate. Either you get it or you don't.



Jack H said...

For the sake of order, I've moved A's comment here. This posting is the response.


Anonymous said...

Forgive me for not reading your column (I promise I'm not flaming or anything, I just don't want to lose focus on my intentions for coming here. Given the amount of comments on Adams' website, I fear you might not see this if I post it there. That said, I disagree with you about his column. If it were meant simply to ridicule that particular student, then yes, he would be wrong. But can you not take a lesson from this? The student missed, according to Adams, the last 28 meetings of class, and then complained about his/her grade. Regardless of the legitimacy of the absences, that's a lot of missed class time. Why should that student get a better grade? Furthermore, what right does that student have to ask for a better grade? If he/she does not understand the material, should he/she be given a grade based on how bad the semester was? Answer: no. The reaction of the student has a direct correlation with society. Something happen to you that you aren't happy about? Cry about it and we'll give it to you. That's the point. The idea of going hunting and giving food to a real underprivileged person/family is meant for teaching humility. I've actually met Dr. Adams (he spoke at Auburn University, where I am a student, not too long ago), and everything he said resonated with me. Talking to him afterwards made me think that he really is genuine. Yes, he uses these examples to make a point, and he seems harsh sometimes, but would anyone who disagrees with him take notice otherwise? Maybe he is a fraud who has no integrity, as you suggested, becaues I have been wrong before (trust me), but something tells me that if you look at things from a slightly different perspective, you'll agree with him. I don't have a blogspot here, but if you would like to respond, I'd be happy to debate this or any other point with you. My e-mail address is


Anonymous said...

I appreciate the moving of my comment here, as it certainly pertains to this entry much more than the previous. In your e-mail to me, you said you are open to discussion more than debate; I think we're talking about the same thing, because debate, to me, is something entered into by two people who respect the others' opinion without agreeing. That said, I do disagree with your premise. If it were merely an isolated event then Adams' accusation of a lack of integrity would, indeed, prove his own lack thereof. But this isn't an isolated event. I said in my previous comment that I'm a student at Auburn University, and that is true, but in addition to that I have attended Auburn University at Montgomery and Southern Union State Community College. The reason I've gone to both is because I had my share of troubles at AUM, and they were because of my own lack of attending class. I got bored in class and depressed outside of it, and I quit attending. That's my fault, and I make no excuses for it. That said, I have had several friends at all three colleges who felt that, because the material of the class didn't relate to their course of study, they shouldn't have to put forth the effort to make a passing grade in order to actually get one. It's a problem that is paramount to the future, because it's my classmates and me who will shape that future. There is a reason that colleges and universities require that we get a well rounded education. As much as I don't want to have to study literature, and as much as it has nothing to do with my applied discrete mathematics degree, it's still something I have to get through if I want a degree from Auburn University. I understand that. It took me two and a half years of flapping in the wind at AUM to figure it out, and I spent a year at Southern Union paying for my mistakes, but I understand it now. Unfortunately, there are many, many students who feel they have the right not just to feel slighted if they aren't automatically given the grade they want, but also to appeal for that higher grade. And based on the structure of today's government, they think they can get away with doing nothing and still get that grade. We reward not having a job with unemployment checks. We reward a single mother who doesn't have enough money to feed herself with welfare checks that increase with each child she has. We reward people who got burnt by coffee at McDonalds because they didn't have the good sense to be careful with millions of dollars. So why should I, as a student, not ask for more than I have earned? And if Adams, a professor at a major university, does not stand up and speak out about the wrongs that we are teaching our children, who will? I've not heard a very loud chorus coming from anywhere else. He didn't name the student. He didn't even give enough information that any of the student's classmates could identify him/her. All he did was show us an example of how things are wrong. Again, I welcome any dissent, and my e-mail address is posted above.

Jack H said...

Greetings A --

I’m not implying that Adams has no integrity. I’m saying that he hasn’t lived up to his own standard, here. Who among us does? No condemnation. He does lay himself open to a charge of hypocrisy, but it would easily be struck down -- there can be no deceitful intent. The salient point would be the irony. With insufficient evidence he blasts a student. On questionable grounds the administrators at Johns Hopkins suspend a student -- for which Adams is rightly indignant. I am not indignant, but I will point out the irony.

The personal details you give are along the lines that many of us could relate. I dropped out several times, before I discovered I had a reason to get a degree. The *why* is about motivation. The *how* is about integrity.

Re a well-rounded education, I agree. Different functions are governed by different parts of the brain, and by studying a variety of disciplines, we stimulate and develop -- in a literal and measurable way -- the actual structure of our brains. You are inclined to mathematics, so the study of lit or philosophy will benefit you, no matter how boring. I am inclined to words and images, so I have the occasional practice of working advanced math problems. Eventually I’ll teach myself calculus.

We are on exactly the same page, about deserving what is earned, and about not meriting what we simply want but will not work for. At issue, as I see it, is not the behavior -- whether slothful and self-indulgent and disingenuous, or beset by tragedy -- of the object of Mr. Adams’ contumely. The issue is Mr. Adams response, which was one of condemnation without bothering to fact-check.

The appropriate course of action would have been to require a meeting with the student. As a professor, Adams has that authority. There, Adams could have made competent inquiry into the situation. Documents would have existed to demonstrate the truth of the student’s claim. The refusal to produce such documents would have stood as evidence of deceit. That would have been the course of integrity.

Mr. Adams elected not to follow it, but rather he shot from the hip and (perhaps) traduced the student.

It is wrong, and it is shameful. It’s no big deal to you or me, or to Mr. Adams. But there may have been an innocent victim, and it would be a big deal to him. That he remains anonymous is incidental. A little thought on the matter should suffice to demonstrate the point.

Perhaps it’s easiest simply to shrug it off. After all, integrity is such a hassle. It would be like studying a boring subject. Who could be bothered.


Anonymous said...

I agree that we have similar views, but something about your issues with Adams' column have bugged me. I can't agree that writing that column showed any kind of a lack of character because it was meant to show what America has come to, not to humiliate the student. I can't agree that his reaction to that student showed a lack of integrity, either. You say he should have met with the student to hear him/her out, yet the point is that the student in question missed far too many days to have legitimately expected a better grade in the class. It doesn't matter what the excuse was. It doesn't matter how legitimate the excuse was. Adams said he suspected that the student was lying about all the problems, but what other conclusion should be drawn? If the student reasonably wanted to make a better grade in the class, he/she should have made arrangements with Dr. Adams before the final grade came out. To say that Adams, in order to uphold his integrity, needed to have a meeting so that the student could explain his/her absences is absurd. Regardless of the reason, the student still deserved an F, just as I deserved an F in several of my classes at AUM when I decided not to go. Yeah, he was a bit harsh with the response to the student. I admit that. But sometimes I wonder if the students Adams mentions in his columns are real or just the culmination of all the problems that exist within the American school system. Even if this was a student who wrote the letter mentioned in the column, and even if Adams did actually reply that way (as opposed to using satire in his column to make a point while actually being more gentle to the student), why is that a lack of integrity? Isn't integrity all about standing behind what you believe, no matter what anyone says?

Our differences of opinion on this topic aside, I do rather enjoy reading your comments on townhall. I hope you understand that this is not an attack on you, simply me explaining how my view is different from yours. I hate that I have to explain that, because I feel pretty sure that you do understand it, but too many of my friends, who know me personally, have taken my opinions to mean I'm mad at them for me to simply anticipate acceptance. Please do send me a brief e-mail to let me know if you reply to this, as you have been doing, so I'll be able to read your response. And feel free to e-mail me if you want to discuss anything else...I'm always up for debate (or discussion, whichever you want to say) about things like this. It seems that the only college students willing to get into these things are either too far gone one way or the other to understand my points or too new at the game to have thought of things from more angles than their own, so I have only the internet to broaden my horizons. :-)

Nathan (That's my real name, by the way)

Jack H said...

Greetings N --

I would hope that nothing I've said is actually disparaging against Adams. I'm sure he's a great guy. Really. You've used the word "harsh" a couple of times, regarding him. I'm fine with harsh. If you've looked at a sampling of what I've posted here, you'll see that right off. And I have no patience for whining.

Again, my point has been that Adams NEGLECTED HIS DUE DILIGENCE. Due diligence is that minimum of research or preparation or whatnot, that a serious person must undertake to be considered serious. Adams did not do this. It is a failure on his part. No condemnation from me on this. We all fail. Those of us who aspire to some small measure of wisdom are willing to be corrected, when we fail. I would hope Adams would hear with patience what I've said, and if he saw my point, I'd hope he'd resolve to take pains in the future to avoid the failing. This is what we would want for ourselves -- that we learn and grow -- that we benefit from our own mistakes, and that we learn from those of others.

Does Adams lack character because he used a real person as an illustrative point of sniveling cowardice -- without doing any fact-checking? By that standard, we all lack character. Alas, we all do lack character -- since on the continuum of human character, none of us will be located at the terminus of perfection. As people go, however, I'd suppose Adams is pretty nifty.

Whether or not Adams meant to humiliate the student, it would be humiliating. As an issue of justice, I cannot say, since not I, nor Adams, have the confirmed facts. But isn't it well that we should strive to be just? Isn't this pleasing to God and to every descent person? That we should at least try? Adams didn't. Yes, this is a failure of character. But so what. Perfect people get to start their own universes. Everyone else is stuck in this one, where injustice rules until some final and far-off reckoning before a Great White Throne.

My point about meeting the student wasn't that the grade issue might be resolved, but for Adams to check his facts. If there were a real hardship, perhaps compassion would have a place. Perhaps not. That's Adams' call, and not my business. You say, "It doesn't matter how legitimate the excuse was." I will not dispute that. I will only say that with the passing of the years, my heart yearns more and more for gentleness. My faith informs me that in this imperfect world there is a place even for grace. Unmerited favor. Go figure.

You point out that "Adams said he suspected that the student was lying about all the problems, but what other conclusion should be drawn?" The operative word in that sentence is "suspected." If he merely suspected, the issue would have ended there. Adams did more than suspect, however. He acted. He acted by publicly holding a real person up for ridicule and disapprobation. He did this on the bases of a suspicion that he could easily have transformed into a certainty. And he did not bother to take those necessary steps. That's really all I have to say on the matter.

"Isn't integrity all about standing behind what you believe, no matter what anyone says?"

No. That's called stubbornness. Integrity is not about what you believe. It's not really about you at all. Integrity attempts to live up to a standard. It aspires to embody those highest virtues of justice and compassion and truthfulness. It takes the extra steps that such aspiration requires. No matter, frankly, how inconvenient. No matter, in fact, how high the cost.

I certainly understand that yours has been no attack. I know what attacks feel like. Nope, this isn't one. Feel free to browse through my many hundreds of thousands of words. I love the attention. Just can't get enough. I'm wonderful, you know.