educational Horizons, Summer 1995

Who Is Responsible?
©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 9/2/11


Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him.
-- Booker T. Washington Up From Slavery

To what extent is any person responsible for what they do or who they are? Despite generations of psychological research and eons of philosophical speculation, this issue remains unresolved. Strange, then, that so many educational arguments hinge on fanciful and uninformed assertions about responsibility.

Consider the following extract from Other People's Words: The Cycle of Low Literacy by Harvard Associate Professor of Education, Victoria Purcell-Gates; "...if even one child does not learn what we believe we have taught, then we have not learned how to teach that child. The responsibility rests, ethically and pragmatically, on the shoulders of educators."1 Let no one mistake what Purcell-Gates is asserting -- if the child has not learned, the teacher has not taught. Responsibility rests exclusively on the teacher.

What does this astonishing revelation require us to believe? Here is one possibility. Students have no freedom of will, no purposes, no desires. They are so inert, so puppet-like, that their volition is utterly irrelevant. This is, of course, monumental foolishness. Students are not rocks or vegetables. (Although some do offer a pretty good imitation.) Anyone who has been around a two-year old for five minutes knows that kids have a will of their own. And because they possess this volition, youngsters necessarily share responsibility for learning.

Admittedly, there is the terribly difficult question of how much responsibility any particular student should justly bear. Maturity is obviously relevant, as is a healthy, fully-functioning, cognition. Faulty nurturance must also be considered. Many youngsters are routinely neglected and/or abused at home. How much learning should they be held accountable for? Probably not as much as the child who is loved and affirmed because self esteem and emotional security are important to making well-reasoned choices. There are, in short, conditions that limit responsibility; but few children are so damaged that they are totally without choice and, hence, beyond responsibility. And if a child is that badly damaged, no stratagem will make him or her learn in any meaningful way. Granted, educators might be able to "shape" such a youngster's behavior in the same manner that Skinnerians once trained pigeons to square dance. But I doubt that is what our Harvard professor has in mind.

One hopes that Purcell-Gates and those who take similar positions will grant that children have volition. How, then, can she declare that, "The responsibility (for learning) rests, ethically and pragmatically, on the shoulders of educators"? She must be supposing that competent teachers can somehow bend a student's will to their purposes. Just how are pedagogues to achieve this Nietzschean feat, this triumph of the will? Surely she rules out coercion; now generally outlawed, although, teachers relied on it for 6000 years ("Why should I learn this?" "Because I 'll pound the hell out of you if you don't!") We can imagine, then, that students are to be seduced by technique. Is it realistic to think of beguiling or wheedling uncooperative, even defiant, youngsters into learning, particularly when we consider the constraints of chaotic inner city schools? For instance, I recently overheard an eighth grader defiantly tell a teacher in an crammed and chaotic Philadelphia elementary school, "I aint gonna do shit for you!" Can this sort of attitude be overcome by technique alone?

And what about declining property values, inadequate state support, evaporating federal funding, non-existent duplicating services (the paper has run out), ancient texts in inadequate number, dilapidated physical plants, severely overcrowded classes, ad infinitum, ad nauseam? Do these realities contitute extenuating or mitigating circumstances? No, not for Purcell-Gates. We can ignore the fact that the federal education budget is being Newtered. We should overlook state legislators bailing out on their constitutional responsibilities to fund public education. We can forget that the local school board has been captured by right-wing kooks and stingy codgers. Educators still must accept sole and exclusive responsibility for learning even when external factors restrict pedagogical options to nothing. How convenient for everybody -- everybody but the educators.

George Bernard Shaw recognizes in Man and Superman that, "Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it." And to argue that all responsibility for learning resides with educators, is, in essence, to maintain that children have no liberty and public officials no obligations. Otherwise both cannot be devoid of responsibility?

Like those cynical politicians who pontificate that school reform requires no additional resources, Purcell-Gates also clumsily entreats educators to "...raise our expectations of outcomes." And just in case some pedagogues might be dissuaded from unlimited optimism by bitter experience, she decrees: "Teachers must be given lenses through which they can see all children as learners, with unlimited potential." Blinders (contraptions put on horses to keep them unaware of what is going on around them) might be a better metaphor. After all, even Einstein's potential had limits.

The obvious fact is that responsibility for learning is shared and potential for learning limited. This becomes remarkably obvious if we imagine a student being taught to play the piano. Could he or she succeed if they refused to practice and had no musical talent? Of course not. Practice, and plenty of it, is the only way a student can realize his or her musical potential. And, sappy sentimentalism not withstanding, that potential might be great or small. Granted, it is the teacher's responsibility to make practice as meaningful and interesting as possible, and to give the student's talent every benefit of the doubt. But even in these enlightened times, it is the learner's inescapable and inevitable responsibility to want to and to try.

It is hardly news that there are limits on an educator's responsibility for learning, that even the most talented child's potential is finite, that no one can learn without appropriate materials, and that learning requires desire and effort. But it is noteworthy that a Harvard professor of education, and a host of other unfortunately influential people, claim just the opposite. How have we come to this? What is behind this soaring silliness, this playhouse of the bizarre? Is it the triumph of hope over experience? Is it mere opportunism? Are the Purcell-Gates of this world trying to establish that they are impecably politically correct and can out-care, and out-tolerate everybody? Is there something in the water? Whatever the answer, the effect of these fanciful declarations is to reduce schooling discourse to the level of Geraldo, Montel Williams or Jenny Jones.