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Sunday, November 14 2021

Teaching Truth Seeking

The current malaise that is sweeping the democratic societies is the question of truth, if we want future generations to understand truth or more precisely lying, schools must be part of the student’s education.  In 2008 the governments of Australia combined to determine the goals for children’s education; the result is known as the Melbourne Declaration.  This has become a foundational reference for all decisions regarding what subjects should be taught that directly affect children’s learning.  This Declaration includes Goal 2 which affirms that ‘all young Australians become active and informed citizens’ and to achieve this, schools need to teach them how to ‘act with moral integrity’ and be ‘committed to national values of democracy, equity and justice, and participate in Australia’s civic life’.  This statement articulates that our current form of government is a democracy and that democracy depends on moral integrity.

Teachers who undertake the task of delivering these declared goals would find it hard to unearth any political scholar who would pretend that any existing democracy could provide real evidence that they model ‘moral integrity’.  Our Australian Government has become a consummate example of how truth and politics are almost mutually exclusive.  In our current political conversations, lies have come to dominant in all forms of political management. 

In the USA, the country that continues to assert their leadership of exemplary democracy their ex-president has according to the Washington Post been detailed as telling 30,537 lies during his time in office.  Of these the biggest lie was that their last election was rigged and this has been continued without any evidence to support such a claim.  Closer to Home our own PM, Scott Morrison is described as a liar at an ever-increasing rate.  The news outlet Crickey has documented 16 lies and falsehoods.

The art of lying for political purpose is the skill professional ‘spinners’ bring to both major parties.  Both Labor and Liberal employ spin doctors who are generally graduands of the advertisement industry.  Their expertise is to modify the existing state of affairs in such a way as to appeal to the majority of the electorate.  This can be done by shining the most positive light on the government’s planned agenda, if this doesn’t work the message can then be bent, introducing terms like alternate facts and to support this they let slip information that encourages conspiracy theories and finally they just tell lies.  These steps have become the accepted form of political manipulation. 

The other technique is to refer to highly trained experts who monopolise the business of presenting the ‘truth’.  According to the latest Wikipedia entry there are 45 active Think Tanks that are funded to promote particular versions of the truth.  They serve particular vested interests and in 2019, the last available data there were 11,894 registered lobbyists who have close access to all politicians all of whom represent either one of the think tanks or a particular enterprise.

 The result of this manipulation of the truth means we are at the stage where what is the truth is at least confusing.  We are at the stage where the general population almost expects politics to be corrupt and their politicians to be liars and of current evidence our leaders are living down to those expectations.

The question for teachers is how do we teach our students to understand the current conditions in our political landscape and for them to ‘to act with moral integrity’?  If, we are implying that a healthy democracy depends on moral integrity, we need to teach our students about lying and truth and this is not a simple task.

I have addressed the issue of student’s lying at school in an essay found in my book ‘Insights into the Modern Classroom’, Chapter 12 – ‘Children of the Lie’ which I will post in the resources page of Frew Consultants Group.  However this essay deals more with how we teach our students to be truthful rather than how to expose lies others tell.   To achieve this first we must examine what lying involves.

Lying as an art of deception, is not unique to humans. It is a practice that is used throughout the natural world and has evolved because it gives an advantage to an individual.  The basic premise of evolution is that an unusual characteristic of a particular plant or animal, which made it either more equipped to survive or more attractive for breeding, ensured that this characteristic was passed down from generation to generation.  For example, some plants have learned to deceive particular insects by giving off the odour of the female insect’s pheromones. The scent attracts the males who are trying to identify potential mates. Through this deception, this lie, the plant gets to distribute its pollen on the desperate male, who will deliver it on to the next receptive plant. The lie the plant tells ensures the species survives.  

For us humans, when it comes to attracting a partner, deception is the name of the game. Much of human activity, particularly during the breeding age, is dedicated to making us attractive partners. Look at the world of fashion, make-up, plastic surgery, membership at the gym, etc. Is this not evidence of our willingness to deceive to attract a mate?

In his article ‘Natural Born Liars,’ published in Scientific American Mind, David Livingstone Smith cites research that has shown that, as in nature, the best liars have a competitive edge in the mating game. It is evident that there is a high and significant correlation between social popularity and the ability to deceive. The most popular adolescents are those who lie best.

In fact, statistics taken in the United States show the following:

  • 98% of students believe ‘honesty is the best policy’ lie.
  • One in every four students believes it is OK to lie.
  • 84% believe you need to lie to get ahead.
  • 80% in a high-achieving school believed it was OK to cheat on exams.

These are US statistics. Arguably, there would be a similar finding in Australia. Perhaps a test of our own honesty would be how we respond to the same enquiry.

Scott Peck, the American psychiatrist and philosopher, describes three types of lies. These are white lies, black lies, and evil lies.

White lies are those we tell to protect or avoid embarrassment for others. ‘Do these slacks make my bottom look big?’ asks the wife. To tell the truth may be a dangerous tactic, so the husband replies, ‘Of course not,’ (thinking, why do you always blame the slacks?). So we accept the white lie; we don’t want to crush someone’s esteem with the truth.

Black lies are those you tell to avoid the consequences of your actions.  It is the use of these black lies that is the major concern for schools.  Children have learned to use the famous Bart Simpson defence: ‘You didn’t see me, and you can’t prove it. I didn’t do it!’ Even adults use a version of this. When people are pulled up by the police, the common wisdom, cultivated from legal advice, is to deny and keep denying until either the police give up or start to doubt their own perception.

The use of these black lies is more likely to be developed in families and schools where punishments are too harsh.  At lots of meetings I have heard parents boast about how hard they are on their kids to make sure that they don’t lie. What they don’t understand is that for the children of these unforgiving parents the truth is a poor option. Rather than developing honesty, they force the child to tell a lie.   This is where one of our slogans is applicable – ‘100% rejection of inappropriate behaviour and 100% acceptance of the child’.

Finally Peck describes the evil lie. According to him, such a lie may be truly believed by the person who tells it. That is, he or she considers this account of a situation to be accurate, to be the truth, despite evidence to the contrary.  This is the most difficult to deal with and when confronted with these liars it is important you have all the facts because you won’t be able to convince the child but you will have to justify your actions to your supervisor and perhaps the student’s parents.  Truth is an account of perception, and so for these people, the evil lie is the truth.

So how do you teach kids to be honest? There are four steps:

  1. Expect honesty from them all the time. Spell it out. ‘At this school we respect and expect honesty. This is the way we are.’
  2. Make it easy for the child to tell the truth. Acknowledge that they, like all of us, make mistakes. They have made a mistake— they are not a mistake.
  3. When they tell the truth, celebrate the fact that they have shown their true character and it is good. Give them plenty of credit.
  4. Model the truth. This is the key to developing the truth in your kids. It’s hard to do, but then again, most worthwhile things are hard.

Time is running out for the children who live in an age when lying is modelled throughout our political system. Through self-deception, the lies we as a nation and a world have told and have been told, coupled with the inability of our leaders to be honest, has provided a toxic legacy for these students to deal with.

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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