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Katie Davis, Scott Seider, and Howard Gardner When False Representations Ring True (and When They Don’t) IN APRIL 2007, MARILEEJONES RESIGNED AS MIT’S DEAN OF ADMISSIONS after word reached the administration that she had fabricated part of her resume 28 years earlier (Lewin, 2007: Al). W hen she first applied for a job at MIT in 1979, Jones had claimed to have earned degrees from three colleges in upstate New York. Yet, there was no record of her having earned a degree from any of the institutions she named. The revelation came as a shock to the MIT community and to those who were familiar with her work as dean of admissions. During the 10 years since she had assumed the position, Jones had tried to discourage parents and students from embellishing their resumes in an effort to appear more attractive to colleges. In her 2006 book, Less Stress, More Success: A NewApproach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond, Jones urges students to live with integrity and avoid the temp­ tation to cheat. Her message resonated with parents, students, and college admissions administrators and contributed to her popularity in the MIT community. We dedicate this paper to the memory of Charles Tilly, an outstanding scholar and revered teacher, who graciously suggested that we contribute to this issue. The research reported in this paperwas supportedbythe Carnegie Corporation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. social research Vol 75 : No 4 : Winter 2008 1085 Jones’s resignation coincided with a course that one ofthis article’s authors cotaught in 2007 at a selective liberal arts college. The course, entitled “Meaningful Work in a Meaningful Life,” encouraged students to reflect on their approach to work, including critical issues they will likely encounter and difficult decisions they might have to make. The course aimed to provide students with a “toolkit” ofconcepts that would be useful as they embarked on a life of meaningful work. At the time, we asked the students participating in this course what they thought of Jones’s deception. Most of the students asserted that Jones’s fabricated resume did not warrant her resignation. They reasoned that she had done exemplary work while serving as the dean of admissions, and she should not have been punished for an act that has become common­ place. W hen pressed to explain their perspective, our students argued that everyone misrepresents themselves to a certain extent on their resumes. We had not anticipated this response, and we were disturbed to hear the students’casual defense ofJones’s actions. Their attitude did not reflect awareness or concern that the falsification of one’s creden­ tials is grounds for immediate dismissal at any place of employment, nor were they struck by Jones’s clear, if poignant, hypocrisy. The disjunction between our own interpretation ofthe Jones stoiy and that of our students heightened our interest in young people’s atti­ tudes toward self-fabrication. We began by asking ourselves whether all self-fabrications are necessarily wrong. According to Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgic analysis of social life, self-fabrications are normative, not exceptional. We are all putting on a performance to some extent. However, Goffman distinguished between true and false performances, arguing that a true performance is one that is authorized whereas a false performance is not. Since the selfis a “collaborative manufacture” between performer and audience, authorization must be a collective act. Individuals cannot be the sole arbiters of their self-performances. It becomes necessary, then, for interacting individuals to find consen­ sus regarding the parameters of authorization. In this paper we seek to identify these parameters through an examination of the causes and consequences of young people’s various self-fabrications. In so doing 1086 social research we explore the individual and societal factors that both compel and sanction these fabrications. We argue that there are circumstances under which self-fabrications may have beneficial effects and are, thus, authorized representations of the self. In contrast, a false, or unauthor­ ized self-representation is one that results in harm to the self, to others, and to society. THE HUMAN NATURE OF SELF-FABRICATIONS Gofiman (1959) explained that in any given social situation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1085-1108
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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