Responsibility? You've Got to Be Kidding

Recently, an elementary child brought home the school newsletter announcing the celebration of the Character Counts! pillar, "Responsibility". (Celebration is an educational technique?)

Slogans and Lists

What followed were a few ideas that were supposed to be related to responsibility for parents to discuss with the student at home:

- Do what you are supposed to do
- Persevere: keep on trying
- Always do your best
- Use self-control
- Be self-disciplined
- Think before you act-consider the consequences
- Be accountable for you choices

Overall, the ideas expressed in this list are so reliant on cliché and so devoid of context and reasoning as to be nearly incomprehensible. Of all the possibilities, why is this list proposed as concepts relevant to responsibility? Even then, without definition or qualification, the sort of person this list defines is not what many parents would wish on their children.

By way of contrast, a wonderful TV show is "The Magic School Bus". It has one consistent behavioral theme: "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!" This is entirely antithetical to the notion of "responsibility" as characterized in the slogans of the school newsletter.

Reading through the list, one cannot help but ask: Why? Why? Why? What is the context? Where is the reasoning for any of these "ideas" that would recommend them for discussion in our homes? Nowhere is there the hint of a means of balance or moderation. No method for prioritizing competing goals. No acknowledgement of the complexities inherent in every choice.

Each item in the school's list of slogans is problematic, and many in the same way:

Do what you are supposed to do.

  • According to what manual for conduct? Is the goal here to create some kind of submissive employee, or unquestioning citizen, a person who supports traditional rules of behavior (e.g., religious or conservative values)?
  • According to whom? Your boss who tells you to fudge the accounts or hide some test results? Your commanding officer who orders you to commit a war crime? The law that tells you it's OK to make children feel excluded by their school and nation because being able to participate in the official patriotic exercise requires belief in God?
  • With what priorities? Who wins when there are competing priorities? Your boss who wants you to work late or your marriage that needs you to spend more time at home? Your religion that preaches pacifism or your nation that asks your support for war?
  • What about independence and innovation in culture and science, the keynotes of greatness in American society? These qualities are almost always in conflict with business as usual.

Persevere: keep on trying.

  • How is this remotely connected to responsibility?
  • What if you have got it all wrong? How, for example, does this apply to gambling?
  • Isn't a central tenet of responsibility to understand when you should reverse course and cut your losses?
  • Isn't the disaster in Iraq, or the stubborn drive to cut taxes at any and all cost, enough to caution anyone that staying the course, purely for it's own sake, regardless of changing conditions, can quickly devolve into driving oneself off a cliff?


Always do your best

  • It is an impossible goal, one that is absolutely undesirable in the context of achieving a well-rounded life. No one can do their best in one area without sacrificing excellence elsewhere. Are we not all sorely conscious that we have limited time and resources to bring hardly any of our activities that compete for our time and resources to full-fruition? How many lives were ruined in single-minded pursuit of success?
  • I don't know how many times I have heard people say, "Well, I did my best" to mean, "It was as good as I could do (considering that I put little, if any, research, extra training or effort into it)." When employed meaninglessly like this, it readily deteriorates into a less reproachable way to say, "Well, I tried."
  • This is right up there with, "Of course, you're entitled to your opinion," another perfect example of the typical kind of paradox that results from institutionalizing principles that suffer when made static. Unquestioned sloganeering becomes an unassailable wall used to deflect criticism, shirk intellectual integrity by not having to respond to criticism, and discourages excellence by making mediocrity OK.

Use self-control.

  • Whose version of self-control? Yet another way to state the first message, "submit to and internalize authority", this one hits at the emotional level.
  • Literally, the whole concept is preposterous. Since when don't people control themselves?
  • How much self-control? At what times? Certainly, there are times when humans require impulse control. But that is not a simple matter of repression. Whether a person becomes joyfully alive or a neurotic shell hinges on appropriateness: reasons and context are everything when imposing social restraints on natural impulses.
  • Why not teach self-awareness? Instruction in how to negotiate competing drives? Teaching a child to recognize symptoms of the stage of emotional growth they are in, so that they can insert some rationality into their emotional reactions, would be more to the point of helping them to find balance and avoid discomfort when up against conflicting inner drives. For instance, a 6 year-old's emotions become stronger due to brain growth in that area. Distraction or helping them become aware of their new feelings is the approved psychological approach to relieving their distress (not yours). There is a similar approach for teen-age hormonal years. Even then, youth is the age of great discovery and creativity for this very reason. In many cases, imposing social restraints on natural impulses is counter-productive to the inquisitive, creative, explorative phases of life.

Be self-disciplined.

  • Again, what model of education proposes that a child should "stay within the lines" and "think inside the box" as opposed to being explorative and experimental?
  • If there were a logical, practical reason for a child to behave in some specific way, why would it require any kind of discipline, self or otherwise? Why not simply provide an easily understood explanation of detailing how it is in the child's self-interest?
  • Missing caveat. On the other hand, if there is no good reason, discipline and punishment make perfect sense. Threats and abuse are how slaves are made to comply with unjust demands. Why are we asking citizens in a free society to arbitrarily discipline themselves? To do what? Recite their lessons, speak only if spoken to, don't dance?
  • In reality, we all know that the underlying idea here is that if the authority isn't around to check on you (boss, parent, teacher, God or Santa Claus) then you must conduct yourself as if they were still there disciplining you (what a phrase!)  Otherwise, lacking a good reason why would you comply?

Think before you act - consider the consequences.

  • This one actually does define much of what real responsibility is all about. But there is a glaring omission. One can only understand consequences with a thorough understanding of factors and the mechanisms of cause and effect. This requires a robust education that provides logical and critical thinking skills and a perspective into the long-ranging effects of one's actions. (It's not hard; the Magic School Bus does it every day.)

Be accountable for your choices.

Huh? What is this supposed to mean? Accountable? How? To whom?

The Real Agenda: Conservative, Coached, Constricted Social Units

There is a theme that runs through each of these ideas - call it the dark side of "responsibility". It is the attempt to play on banal truisms in order to convince children:

  1. That there is a very narrow course of action for all eventualities, a course that comes with few contradictions or complexities.
  2. That the past is the best model for the future.
  3. That one's options have already been set and are not one's own to best determine.
  4. That one's primary motivation should be not joy, but guilt.

It should be no secret to anyone that the intended sense of the word "responsibility" as promoted by Character Counts! is actually "duty". In other words, subservience to authority and tradition. These are the principles of military organization, which suits the purposes of religious and political conservatives just fine. Yet, this kind of training has no place in the public schools of a free, groundbreaking nation.


Adults Taking Responsibility

We could be doing SOOOO much better than "pillars".

Under the current system, contradictory conditions and competing expectations make it impossible for educators, themselves, to offer a consistent ethical face to their students.

For example, how many times have parents and students heard from the school in response to complaints about the Pledge of Allegiance, "Well, it's legal." "It's not within my authority (e.g., not my responsibility)." "This is what we are told to do. Until we're instructed to do otherwise, of course, and then we'll change - just like that".

Unfortunately, the character lessons kids are learning from this are the great American lessons about how to avoid personal accountability by defending oneself with legalities; not being able to take an ethical stand because it's not my job; and that, in America, the majority religious belief (the one that also just so happens to be held by board members, principal and teachers) is the only one that will be acknowledged and given the opportunity of patriotic expression on an everyday basis. A reverse lesson in responsibility, citizenship, integrity, respect and fairness, eh?

Public schools are paid by everyone's tax dollars and many parents certainly don't want to have to pay for something that seems, in most cases, to actually argue against values that they want for their kids.

Ultimately, this wild experiment of character education on our children should be discredited once and for all. In the alternative, schools should be encouraged to implement programs that support children in: exploring the long-ranging effects of actions over time and across the earth; maintaining intellectual integrity; understanding the nature of social contracts and their internal contradictions; comparing the advantages and disadvantages of competition, cooperation and compromise...

In other words, real education that supports children in reaching their full potential as ethical beings in a rapidly changing world.

Another Way - Starting points

It should go without saying that first we have to make sure that the system is fair. No amount of rhetoric or stories or role-playing is going to have any impact when it is not supported by reality. The first place to start with that is the school and classroom. After that, if lessons and examples are still needed, the following framework can replace the homilies, slogans and list

1) Tell them why - not what

There are sound theoretical reasons for keeping silent when it comes to "shoulds", "oughts" or "have-tos" both at school and home. And as a practical matter, when conditions change on us as adults, we can avoid contradicting ourselves and in the process behaving arbitrarily like tyrants: "Because I said so". On the other hand, "Why" is instinctual in every human over 4. It is really a simple concept. When encouraged and nurtured, it flowers in children of all ages. Even very young children can understand having permission to say, "That's not a good reason."

There really is no reason any child should take the school seriously, if good reasons for recommended behavior do not accompany every lesson. Reasons are unaccountably absent in character education lessons - which is absurd. No person does something just because they should - not unless they are slaves or otherwise under threat if they don't. In fact, it would seem that if you just tell children "why", there is no need for the "what" - the pillars and the slogans, or lists presented in the form of commandments! (Really! "Do what you are supposed to do"?) Relevant explanations with sound reasons are sufficient unto themselves.

2) Watch the politics

In the public schools of a diverse and democratic society, conservative social ideals and moral principles are hardly appropriate for pillars. But if they cannot be avoided, they must at least be balanced with contrasting liberal concepts. Fundamentally, a balancing dose of liberal ideals would shift the focus away from placing the entire burden on the personal flaws in individuals (the conservative and religious viewpoint) to placing it on working to improve the flaws in the structure of society. Lessons on these principles would include demonstrating how improving social conditions eliminates the causes of inequities and injustices that produce social discontinuity and how equal opportunity and the common welfare promotes cooperation and sense of community. Under these social conditions the need to make personal choices less "strategic" is automatically reduced.

Indeed, without adding fundamental pillars of equality and mutuality (fraternity), the other pillars become altruistic, utopian and dangerous. Confronted with imbalances of power and opportunity, the effective defense - besides trying to work within the system to change them (as we are here) - is to respond with equally unfair behavior. Choices people make are really not about right and wrong; they are practical. A simple demonstration is that when the economy is good, crime goes down. On the other hand, if people are poor, marginalized and not integrated in society, you get riots. No moral instruction needed, one way or the other, thank you. Unfortunately, as things stand right now, practical is pretty ugly.

In order to bring students' attention to dysfunctional structures of society, they can be encouraged to research the roots of social dissonance, explore the basis of socio-economic conditions and contemplate how to correct and improve them. In today's America, where the system is still too obviously rigged, it will seem in many ways "fairer" to cheat, lie and pilfer; indulge greed and pride; use money, anabolic drugs, or cronyism to get ahead - instead of merit; avoid intellectual honesty like a plague; use marketing manipulation to make your point, and finally, decide who is right by who is the know the hallmarks of American society as seen by the rest of the world in the early 21st century.

It is perhaps telling that, in the most harmonious societies (those where the murder and imprisonment rates are not those of 3rd world dictatorships), the social contract offers assurances of social safety and health, and equal opportunity, and the population and government are overwhelmingly not religious (e.g., moralizing seems to have an inverse effect on a nation's character). Again, it would be much simpler just to chuck the whole thing and keep politics out of education, but if we can't, let us at least present a more balanced political perspective.

3) Balance and moderation as key

A fundamental principle of character missed by every character education program is the call to cautions for moderation and balance. Aristotle was one of the earliest philosophers to seriously think about character. Character education and Character Counts!, in particular, seems not to take him into account at all. When it comes to character, Aristotle's conclusion is: moderation is everything. For instance, courage is a good trait to be able to call on, for too little courage will keep one defenseless, preventing learning and progressing. But too much courage results in foolhardiness in the face of danger. Trustworthiness is also handy to pull out when you need it. Too little of it and you will not be able to gain the confidence of others, too much and you will surely be taken unfair advantage of. Likewise, caring may have long-range social benefits, but works against you if not moderated so that you become a slave to others' needs.

In this respect it is also important to caution that there must be balance in any relationship where ethical behavior is expected. If a person expresses any of these traits under conditions, which are less than reciprocal, any action other than immediate self-interest is immoderate and will only feed the imbalance.

4) Account for individual differences

In the actual practice of moderation, the fact that each individual is unique must be taken into account. People are not the same. The optimal degree to which a trait is moderately expressed in a given individual is relative to her abilities and experience. The same act of courage in one person becomes an act of suicide in another with less ability or experience. The same taking-on of responsibility in one person, in another, enables her manipulation by others.


The real question underlying all this is not the good or bad character of students; it is about on what basis one should act. We would argue that making appropriate choices requires very little in the way of any specific character enhancements. Equally inert is the attempt to indoctrinate impossible to define behavioral axioms (i.e., "Use self-control."). Appropriate choices require no more and no less than well-informed critical thinking with an eye to long-range consequences.

Rather than spend time and money investing in fixing children - character education - we can offer them real decision support by investing in academics - NOT the 3 R's - but science, history, government and through teachers and administrators providing model behavior and egalitarian conditions at school. Our children are the ones who are growing up to benefit or suffer from the long-range consequences of our actions. And yet, they are the ones, given the education and the opportunity, who are charged to preserve or change, not themselves, but their world in their own time.

Students are exposed to an unacceptable risk of getting it wrong when ideal behavior is presented in the form of unfounded, unreasoned rules and clichés, in simple absolutes to be exercised without caveats for individual circumstances or without consideration for unfair or arbitrary conditions. In a word, presented in the terms of character education, as we know it today.

On the other hand, the risk in personal and social choices is minimized when character education invokes the breadth and depth of reason by explaining "why", when it takes into consideration an even social playing field, and when it invokes moderation according to individual differences.

But that isn't character education at all. It is just education.