Intellectual honesty – The goal of education

Education ought to be about teaching children to rely on their own minds to reason things out and form opinions. It starts with emphasis on intellectual honesty from the beginning of their lives.
Intellectual honesty – The goal of education

Stealing someone else’s ideas and passing them off as your own is plagiarism. Copying a classmate’s homework or submitting copy-pasted material from the internet as part of a school project are acts of plagiarism. To use a more familiar word, it is cheating.

What does a student get out of this? In the short term, homework is completed and handed in. In the long term, if this continues to be their way of working, a deeply entrenched feeling that they are a fraud, someone without the brains and ability to do what others of their age do quite easily, will dog them forever. At first they may think they’ve been smart to have outwitted the teacher; in reality they have lost opportunities to perform on their own steam, a skill they will sorely miss when – or if – they go on to college.

The most important purpose of education is to develop the faculty of critical thinking. Children learn to question things rather than learn by rote, a skill that can later be applied in any life or job situation.  They learn to use their own ideas to do their homework and projects.

A teenager who has learnt to reason things out logically may not experiment with substances, for example. In fact Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, says: “When you take a drug, it’s you plus the drug that’s working, right? It’s not just you. I wanted to be judged on my abilities, and that alone”. He firmly concluded he didn’t need drugs, even when other kids told him the drugs would expand his mind and get him good grades.

In our education system (in India and elsewhere), parents and children have simply lost sight of the goal. Therefore, school work has become a relentless, blinkered pursuit of grades and resumé-building activities to give a child an edge over other college applicants in the twelfth grade. All of these place a huge burden on the child and they try to find a way to get everything done, even if it means taking short cuts like assembling information from the internet to complete and submit an assigned project.

What drives people? Actually it is just the fact of genuinely liking something. This feeling – liking – originates in the part of the brain called the limbic system. It sends signals to the forebrain, the part that processes ideas. People do things based on the exciting thoughts generated by the forebrain. The same things don’t interest everybody. So, a child finishing high school may make a wrong decision when, instead of thinking, they copy someone else's thought, because copying – rather than thinking – has become ingrained in them as a normal way of doing things. They may join a college to study, say commerce, only because their friend is doing it, and eventually give up because of stress, depression or failure.

Copying, the easy route picked up during the formative years, can become a habit. Today, people even copy others’ lifestyles without much thought. The copied lifestyles may not work for them, making them confused, stressed out and unhappy. These are some of the people being given medicines for depression, because brain chemistry is altered by excessive anxiety. They also spend hours in therapy to reduce anxiety and find their real selves, trying to cut through the layers of copied selves they have swathed themselves in for years.

Education ought to be about teaching children to rely on their own minds to reason things out and form opinions. It starts with emphasis on intellectual honesty from the beginning of their lives. Integrity and clear thinking can go a long way in preventing turmoil and depression during adolescence and adulthood.

Dr Shyamala Vatsa is a Bangalore-based psychiatrist who has been practicing for over twenty years. If you have any comments or queries you would like to share, please write to her at

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