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Rejecting Personal Responsibility Is No Way to Promote Educational Equity

I was surprised—shocked, really—the first time someone told me they had a problem with the phrase "personal responsibility." It was six or eight years ago, and I was speaking at Columbia University Teachers College. We were engaged in a roll-up-your-sleeves back-and-forth on issues of school improvement. I was making a point that learning is always a partnership—between teachers and students and between schools and families—and that both sides need to take responsibility for that partnership to work.

A woman in the audience objected, civilly enough, to my use of the phrase "personal responsibility." She said it sounded like another way to blame the victim if students were struggling in school.

She had a point. I said that we were on the same page if she was suggesting that we couldn't excuse schools or teachers by just using an incantation of "responsibility." We absolutely do have to guard against that temptation. Indeed, if that was her point, I observed, we were in wholesale agreement.

Nope, she said. That wasn't what she had in mind. She didn't care if people were sincere or insincere in talking about responsibility. She thought the whole notion reflected a power dynamic and a kind of cultural imperialism. "Who are you to tell these children and families to be responsible?" she asked.

I disagreed. Abolishing the notion of responsibility would mean putting the full weight of learning on teachers and schools and asking them to make students learn—without any expectation of partnership from the child or the family. That isn't how learning happens, I said, and that's not how education works.

After a couple more exchanges, we kind of shrugged at one another and left it there—and the discussion wandered elsewhere.

And yet, the remarkable thing to me is that what once was an Ivy League conceit seems to have become firmly planted in the world of education advocacy and research. Every so often, when I'm teaching graduate students or would-be reformers, I'll do a quick word-association exercise just to gauge the temperature. Of late, I tend to ask about words or phrases like "equity," "works hard and plays by the rules" (Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign catechism), and "personal responsibility."

Everyone loves "equity." No surprise. Where things get interesting is when advocates and aspiring ed researchers are asked to react to old-fashioned notions of individual accountability. When it comes to Clinton's mantra (which hardly any participants recognize anymore) and "personal responsibility," I've found that there are frequently more negative associations than positive ones.

When we chat about their reactions, it becomes clear that the responsibility skeptics see "responsibility" as a construct used to justify racist, classist hierarchies. They see a clever strategm designed to blame victims for their plight. When I push, they inevitably wind up shying away from the truly nihilistic implication that no one should ever be held responsible for their actions—but they, nonetheless, bridle at the notion that "personal responsibility" is a value we should embrace. And this bleeds into their thinking on everything from graduation requirements to school discipline to student loans.

I find it remarkable that so many intent on improving education have gotten to this place. After all, if you work in or around education, it's hard not to notice that—when it comes to parenting and preschool, to communities and colleges, or to churches and child care—pretty much everything rests on the expectation that each person will do their part. If you aren't comfortable asking caregivers, college staff, church pastors, or their charges to be responsible for their actions, it's hard to see where you go from there. Fearing to tell students they're responsible for doing their part, doing their work, or owning their decisions is to set them up for failure.

I'm admittedly a simple guy, but the suggestion that it's unfair to expect certain students and families to manage their part of the social compact seems to me the rankest kind of prejudice. Presuming that some students or parents are such passive victims of circumstance that it's unfair to expect them to be responsible for their actions is to deny these individuals their agency, and to strip them of their dignity. Plus, the no-responsibility stance quickly goes to pretty ridiculous places. After all, if responsibility is too much to ask, then it stands to reason that we can't hold students responsible when they engage in racist actions or even sexual violence. (And I'm quite sure that none of my students intends to argue for that.) 

Look. A bedrock mission of schools is to transmit culture and the things we hold in common. Obviously, in 2019, it can be hard to find a lot of things that unite Americans. One of them has to be the expectation that we're responsible for our actions. Now, just what that means may indeed look different in different contexts—and that's important, and well worth wrestling with. And this is decidedly not a call to turn a blind eye to the staggering challenges that some children face. But the premise that individuals are accountable for their own actions has to be the foundation of any effort to find common ground.

I'm happy to seek common ground on school improvement, college access, early childhood, and all the rest with those who see things differently. It's okay if we have heated disagreements about vouchers, metrics, federal involvement, funding systems, or affirmative action.

And I welcome serious talk about structural impediments to success and how to extend and expand opportunity and the blessings of liberty. But it's little more than nihilism to preach a doctrine that suggests to students that they're not responsible for their actions. That doctrine is bad for students, schools, and communities.

Happily, there's much cause to think that the responsibility skeptics are out-of-step with the nation, even in 2019. Indeed, last year, a national Grinnell survey reported that 88 percent of Americans—including hefty majorities on left and right—believe that taking responsibility for one's actions is part of what it means to be a "real American."

I'm hopeful that the time will come, before too long, when this small but influential crew of naysayers and nihilists will come to their senses. In the meantime, the rest of us need to remember that helping children grow into responsible adults and citizens is the beating heart of healthy schools.

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