Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Words mean something, that is a concept that we learn early in life.  A chair is a chair, that person over there is "mom".  Defining people, places and things with words is an important part of learning to communicate with others.  Being able to share our ideas clearly and concisely is a skill that we spend our lives developing in formal settings like school, and in informal communication with friends and family.  As an elementary educator, a significant portion of my work day is spent trying to help students improve their abilities to communicate in spoken and written formats. 
I'm sure you noticed that I mentioned defining people, places and things and immediately thought "nouns".  My students are very adept at answering the question, "What is a noun?" with this litany. However, when you add the last part of the definition, that not only is a noun a person, place or thing, but also an idea, my students are less comfortable.  After all, most of them experience a noun as something that you can recognize with one of your senses.  Words like freedom, justice and responsibility are nouns too, but much more difficult to define and recognize.
Merriam-Webster defines 'responsibility' as :
1) the quality or state of being responsible as  
a : moral, legal, or mental accountability
b : reliability, trustworthiness
2) something for which one is responsible : burden

The sentences used as examples for responsibility are interesting and tend to be negative in connotation.  They mention terrorists taking responsibility for an attack, chores and obligations. Synonyms listed for responsibility include: Blame, fault, and liability. Overall, responsibility is portrayed as something that isn't to be sought out. No wonder my students cringe when I talk about responsibility and how they, as 4th and 5th graders, are getting older and ready to take on more responsibilities.  Using these definitions of responsibility I don't blame them for wanting to stay young and free of the cares of being a mature, responsible person. 

There is another side to responsibility.  By standing up for what is right and taking on issues that we know need addressing, we can not only improve the world around us, but also improve our own sense of well being and self esteem.  We can all recognize that feeling we get when we know that we rose to the occasion and accomplished something valuable.  The positive feelings are intensified when we recognize that we've gone above and beyond basic expectations and truly taken responsibility for the situation we were involved in.

When we look at the world around us we see many places where people are not accepting responsibility for themselves or fulfilling their obligations and duties to those around them.  We see that the world would be a better place if each person truly was accountable to themselves and to society as a whole.  People narrowly define their responsibilities and look out only for themselves or their immediate, short term interests.  We also have conflicts over just what accepting responsibility and being accountable looks like in specific circumstances.

It is a difficult balancing act that we must engage in as we navigate between our personal responsibilities and our accountability to our fellow citizens, the environment and to society as a whole.  These conflicting forces have been a topic for political, ethical and religious discussions throughout recorded history.  Just where do our ultimate responsibilities lie and how do we guide our actions to behave in a responsible manner?  Is responsibility a burden, an obligation, or something that we embrace as a vital part of living in a civilized society?  Is it possible for a diverse society with many different ways of defining what is valued to define abstract terms in ways that are useful and meaningful?

I would argue that, while the specific definitions are often impacted by an individual's personal belief system, we, as a society can, agree on ways to share our ideas about abstract terms like responsibility.  By discussing, demonstrating and sharing our values we can find commonalities that will move our society towards a more unified future.  In order for this to happen we must be willing to accept that our definitions may not be the only way to characterize a trait or a concept. However, there are underlying similarities that most cultures, religions and societies share. 

It is somewhat naïve to think that we can limit our responsibilities to our those in our immediate, personal circles.  Each of us has an impact that extends to the communities we live in and even further.  The products I buy, the vote I cast, even my simple communications with others can have an influence that I may not even know about.  As an educator I have come to realize that it is often the smallest detail that I find out later has impacted a student's life.  Many have heard of the "Butterfly Effect", where a small event eventually triggers something larger.  It is important that we remember that our small actions do have an impact, one we may not even know about.    

Yet, at the same time we often feel powerless to exercise any influence over the things that we see happening around us.  We make our best effort and things still don't go as we would like them to. Supporters of public education can certainly sympathize with this, as we watch something we value highly, attacked and decimated in so many ways. 

So, how do we demonstrate traits like responsibility in today's world?  We stand up for what we feel is right and express our thinking in positive ways.  We don't allow others to lead us in directions that we feel are harmful to what we value.  We engage in discussion and use our existing social and political structures to mediate conflicts.  We listen to others and consider their viewpoints.  All of us have a responsibility to ourselves, those close to us, and to society as a whole to exercise our rights and accept our responsibilities as citizens of the world we live in.  No one else can do this for us, it is up to each of us to be accountable for ourselves and act accordingly.

If we believe the quote, "In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve," then it is easy to see how we do have a responsibility to act to insure that those who represent us in any elected capacity truly do embody the values we share.  In the same way, we must act to influence any aspect of our lives or organization we belong to in order to make sure that our ideals are present and accounted for.  So, whether it's a democratic institution, or an organization like a school district that is governed by appointed or hired administrators it is up to us to make it be something that we are proud to be a part of.    

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