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Responsibility and Power

Way back when I was in college, I minored in psychology. I dropped that minor after a couple of years when I realized all my professors were bat-poop crazy. All, that is, except my abnormal psych prof. Go figure. (Shout out to Dr. Montgomery!) The professors that finally drove me away screaming were crazy and useless, but most were also informative. I just couldn’t handle all their crazy.

One of those informative classes was industrial psych (or workplace psych, something like that. It was 20 years ago; the memory fades.) Anyway, the one thing I remember from that class was a discussion about the relationship between responsibility, authority or power, and stress. If your job had low responsibility and low authority, you have low stress. If you have low responsibility and high authority, you have low stress and we all hate you. If you have high responsibility and high authority, you have some stress. But if you have high responsibility and low authority, you have lots of stress.

I’ll give you some for instances:

Imagine a person whose job was to count the number of people who enter and exit a building each day. No other job, just count and write it down. Pretty low responsibility, no authority, low stress. (Of course, the stress of being bored out of your mind is a different matter.)

The second guy (that we all hate) is the nephew of the boss who gets his own office and is put in charge of 10 people who have to jump when he says jump. But if things go wrong, he isn’t held responsible for any of it. Low stress.

The third type is the person we normally think of when we think “high-stress job”: the CEO, for example. She has a lot of responsibility, but she also has a lot of authority, so the stress is mitigated by the fact that she has power over her circumstances.

Finally, the most stressful position: high responsibility, low authority. Think of the waiter being yelled at because the kitchen messed up an order. There are a lot of these jobs in the service industry: the poor guy interfacing with the irate customer may have little or no authority to answer the complaint, but they — for the moment anyway — bear all the responsibility of that complaint. But that usually is temporary. Most often a waiter isn’t going to face any consequences for the kitchen’s mistake. But there are positions where people have high responsibility and face real consequences when things go wrong, and little to no power to address those things.

Why did I take you down that little trip down my educational memory lane? Because education is the science of relationships*, and it came to mind when I read a news article. Students and their families have been up in arms about changes to school lunch programs, and the latest example is the case of the Oklahoma “Munchable.”  (Really? Munchable for high school students? Aren’t we a wee bit embarrassed?) I have sympathy for the family, but this quote from the dad has me shaking my head: “Schools are responsible for children while they’re at school,” Kaytlin’s father Vince said, “they’re responsible for feeding the children.”

First, yes, schools are responsible for the safety and well-being of the students while in their care. But you, sir, are actually the person responsible for feeding your child. If you aren’t satisfied with the service offered, I’ve got two words for you: brown bag.

That doesn’t mean we don’t hold government officials accountable. If they are failing to do the job they’ve been charged with doing, they should be called on it. If they waste money or time or resources, they should pay a penalty. And frankly, that’s a strong argument for local government and for these decisions to be made on the smallest level possible. Citizens can hold local schools and school boards to account, but how do you hold Mrs. Obama and unelected federal regulators to account? (Pro-tip: you don’t.)

But even if the government fails miserably at its job, the responsibility for your well-being falls on you. You can’t sue the police for failing to prevent a burglar from breaking into your house. Hospitals may curse the CDC under their breath — or in televised press conferences — for inadequately preparing them for Ebola, but there is no real recourse when nurses fall ill. And whether the government’s advice is good or bad, the consequences for screw ups are the hospitals alone. And you may think the local public school offers an inadequate education, you may petition for systemic changes or lobby for specific remedies for your own child, but, essentially, it’s “take it or leave it.

There are two facts that homeschooling highlights, but that are also true for every parent and child in every educational circumstance. First, “All education is self-education.”* It is the responsibility of the student to attain his or her own education. Education must be grasped, it can’t be received. That is as true for a first grader as it is for a senior, though it looks different for each. The second is that the responsibility for actually providing the education ultimately falls on the parent. It is my responsibility to ensure my children have access to the education I believe is necessary. Yes, there are those to whom I delegate portions of that responsibility to for a limited time: schools, specific teachers, and other institutions and individuals. But ultimately, the buck stops here.

Although parents whose children are in public school do have that responsibility (whether they acknowledge it or not), their authority is limited. In some instances they may have input into the overall school system, but the detailed decisions of a student’s educations are dictated by the school in general and teachers specifically.

Except they aren’t anymore, are they? Curriculum choices are made on a state level, scope and sequence are dictated by tests developed by a government/private enterprise consortium that individuals and teachers have very little influence on, and parents have even less.

So on the responsibility/power chart for public schools:

  • Parents have final responsibility and very little authority.
  • Teachers and schools have responsibility and limited authority.
  • State bureaucrats have a removed responsibility (although how often are they held into account?) and more authority.
  • And the “experts” who dictate what should be tested and how, and therefore what should be studied have an awful lot of authority and no responsibility. We all hate them.

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One of the effects on many parents is that they have abdicated the responsibility for their kid’s education entirely. Thus the not infrequent sentiment, “It is the school’s responsibility to educate my child.” They have no power over their child’s education, so they’ll accept no responsibility. I don’t think this is the majority of parents. I think most parents are in there with their kids doing their best to ensure they get a good education. But a large enough minority believe it that it’s a real problem for schools and teachers. (Morally, I think they have that responsibility whether they accept it or not. Practically, many have surrendered it.)

It’s a problem for teachers who know they are working without the support and backing of individual parents. But I’m not sure teachers are willing or able to surrender any of their limited authority to parents or students to get a buy-in from them.

For the other groups, state officials and national “experts”, I don’t think they particularly care about this dynamic of responsibility and authority that teachers and parents struggle with at the ground level of education. They can and do hold teachers and schools accountable; they can’t hold parents accountable, so that’s left out of the equation.

And of course the main truth is that children are persons and not widgets, and no amount of experimentation and testing will overcome the fact that education must be sought and attained by the individual. If you don’t give the student responsibility and authority, you’re only rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

And seriously, if you don’t like the school menu, write FLOTUS, show up at school board meetings, and make your kid a sandwich. Because that’s your responsibility.

*Quotes or paraphrased quotes from the wonderful Charlotte Mason.

One response to “Responsibility and Power”

  1. Magaret Avatar

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    with you (not that I really will need to…HaHa).
    You certainly put a fresh spin on a topic which has been written about for a
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