For the Record
by Frank G. Jennigns - 1972
We educators rush to print or podium, quick to handle the newfound word, to add our tailing gloss to it, to give it a professional twist that will make it ours and make us stronger for having taken it. Now we pronounce accountability, a firm protestant word, to label tasks we promise to do better than we have done before. Accountability will awaken the hitherto unheeding colleagues who are not in a state of professional grace. Accountability is a proper amulet that will shield us from the disasters of laxity. It will keep us shriven from sins of omission. It is a word already esteemed in high government offices. It may even be the proper bait to hook a grant with.
Accountability, whatever meaning we infuse it with, refers essentially to moral behavior. To be accountable is to have achieved an age of understanding, to have accepted and be able to carry a burden of responsibility for our orderly works and the accidents of our efforts. To be accountable is to have joined with some others in a self-aware community where agreement has been reached about the nature of practice and product and to accept the consequences of choice. To be accountable is to use and to tolerate certain uniform or regular accounting procedures and to accept stoically the tyranny of the bottom line. For finally, accountability involves a "man going 'round taking names." Reckonings are made. Records are kept. Comparisons are examined, and we are all rank-ordered according to our differential worth.
Formal education is constantly in the throes of renewal. That is the cost of living "the examined life." Thus its practitioners are forever reinventing the wheel which is proper to their calling. They must always seek occasions for surprise. They find wonderment in the ordinary and are undiminishedly curious about the commonplace. But they are forever troubled and sometimes thwarted by the intractability of seemingly simple problems. They can measure anything that moves or exists. They can assess states, conditions, and qualities of things and people. They can, at the "point-o-five level of confidence" predict certain outcomes for certain activities. They can teach most people much of what they need to know. But they fail in the particulars with some children and adults and thus accumulate a reservoir of guilt about their general performance.
The schools, especially the public schools of the United States, have been increasingly burdened by the rest of the society with tasks and responsibilities that other agencies and institutions no longer do very well. Thus the schools are seen as ideal agents to be made accountable to the rest of society for the quality and quantity of educational results.
Present discussions of this renewed "accountability," however, are generally being carried forward in an atmosphere of moral neutralities, as though skills can be taught distinct from attitudes, as though appropriate work habits can be separated from the environing ethic.
Formal education, we sometimes forget, is a profoundly moral undertaking. It is based upon value assumptions about the ineluctable dignity of every person: that knowledge is of higher survival value than ignorance; that cooperative behavior supports and defines all human groups from the family to planetary society; that love toward self and others is achievable, desirable, and must be learned, and that such learning is essential to creation and maintenance of commonwealth.
Because schools and schooling are the basic instruments and procedures through which formal education is carried on, the preparation and maintenance of teachers and their support staff must be conducted with a deep sense of commitment to valuing, to prizing each child and every person who in any way is affected by the process of education. Because every experience, every encounter, each contact with the materials and methods of instruction has the potential to change the way that things and conditions are viewed and appreciated, exquisite care must be taken to assure that each child and adult can eventually comprehend the various purposes of education. Because a democratic republic such as ours strives toward the "open society" as its persistent goal, we must live with ambiguous and sometimes competing interests. However, because very young children and youth are malleable and impressionable, with a tendency "of becoming that which last they beheld," it is inescapable that the school is one of the most powerful of our "people-changing institutions." Every child and adult is qualitatively different from what he might have been because of formal educational experiences.
Consequently, teaching can never afford to be morally neutral. The teacher and all other educators must know and be helped to understand the social, moral, and ethical consequences of their practice. For all matters of practice, whether tying shoelaces or displaying relationships among nuclear forces or competing personal desires, have to some degree a moral aspect and a moral consequence. Morality consists, therefore, as the current grafitti assert, in a reverence for life, support for any thing or act that enhances the human condition and the protecting of individuals and groups from whatever negates, diminishes, or isolates the person engaged in learning and living.
Ralph Barton Perry (Realms of Value. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954, p. 86 ff) argues that "morality exists as a pursuit [his emphasis], having its own ideal by which a certain kind of human success or failure is judged." And further, ". . . morality takes conflict of interest as its point of departure and harmony of interests as its ideal goal."
In order to profit from the conflict of interests the persons much achieve and create a personal will, the result of "taking thought," so as to engage in the process of reflective agreement. Perry insists that, "The personal will which emerges from reflection is not, as has sometimes been held, merely the strongest among existing interests, prevailing after a struggle of opposing forces. It is not a mere survivor on one side or the other, but takes a line down the middle, analogous to the resultant or vector in a field of forces. It makes it own choices, and sets its own precedents. Its accumulated decisions, having become permanent dispositions, form a character, or an unwritten personal constitution." (pp. 92-3).
Thus one of the major aims of all education, and most especially elementary and secondary education, is the acquisition and development of such personal will in each student. The commencement of that task can never be too early, yet its completion can never be attained. Life's exegencies are always imperative. The demands for decision, for action must be met with whatever resources are available. "Any given personal will is thus inevitable, premature, provisional, and subject to improvement." (p. 92) Yet it is out of the competition and conflict among personal wills with respect to interests that governance emerges. The totality of interests is harmonized and the "social will emerges from communication and discussion. . . ." However, "... whereas the personal will is composed of subpersonal interests, the social will is composed of persons with competing interests. But while the social will is a will of persons, society is not a person . . . [therefore] there can be no moral will on the social level except as it is composed of several personal wills which are peculiarly modified and interrelated. .. . The ramifications of this fact pervade the whole domain of morality and moral institutions." It is this that underlies the great democratic imperative: those who are to benefit or suffer from the consequences of any decision must participate to some significant degree in the formulation of that decision. This holds true in the kindergarten and in the Congress. It holds true in a family or a congregation. In an ultimate sense it is what Jefferson implied when he called education "the sovereign engine of democracy."
With such a conception of morality it seems clear that the fundamental purpose of all education consists of three inseparable elements: inheritance, participation, and contribution. This purpose can be elaborated or obscured, but it holds constant whether it be the informal, even accidental, "education" of the surrounding society or the highly specific curriculum-shaped efforts of the schools. This purpose is the same today as it was for Socrates who saw formal education as the eternal quest for the good society; the persistent reach toward an ever-enlarging, ever-receding perfection. How we conceive the elements of the good society is determined in large measure by our image of man, our conviction of what is of most worth, in short, what we most highly value.
The schools, in a free society, can and should be held accountable for the moral and intellectual and social quality of their achievement. That accountability is the exercise of public trust. Thus we are forced to ask, what kind of school do we need to produce such citizens who can build and maintain the good society; what kind of teachers can create and maintain such schools? In such questions we are forced full circle to the examination of the quality of the community that will be hospitable to such schools. And there we confront the eager questioning eyes of childhood.
Anyone who teaches anything to any other individual or group of whatever age or condition cannot avoid teaching values in some orderly way and must be able to stand accountable for such teaching. The teacher's defense of his subject matter displays a conviction that it is worth pursuing, that it has merit both in the public domain and intrinsically because "knowing is better than not-knowing." Any knowledge can and should be put to some use, and if that use is wisely chosen (another value), there is profit in the exercise. That profit can be tested by experiencing the positive differences it makes in a new way that the learner views some part of the world or modifies his behavior to improve a performance or a perception. This may be as simple as the "accepted" pronunciation of a word, or as subtle as an awareness of a meaning of another's troubled glance.
Every teacher speaks with powerful italics either in words or in "body language" when approving or disapproving, supporting or rejecting, encouraging or discouraging an idea or a behavior. A teacher may call upon tradition, usage, heritage, low or divine ordinances as further validation of a judgment of value, but he does so usually to reinforce what has already been forcefully communicated. In most instances, however, such teaching of values is not a part of any formally developed lesson plan. In most instances a teacher is not even "conscious" of having "taught to the test" of valuing. In most instances, in fact, a teacher, especially a public school teacher, would vehemently deny having dealt with values at all. Consequently, beyond matters of "deportment," of good conduct and behavior, of "school-breaking" a child, a teacher will assert a value-neutrality which will be contradicted by his or her subsequent behavior.
Education is a "people-changing" undertaking. We forget to our peril that the processes of education make people different and presumably better than they might have been had they not been educated. Writing on "The New Biology: What Price Relieving Man's Estate" (Science, November 9, 1971, p. 779) Leon R. Kass observes:
Some have argued, however, that biomedical engineering does not differ qualitatively from toilet training, education, and moral teachings—all of which are forms of so-called "social engineering," which has man as its object, and is used by one generation to mold the next.
Thus accountability in education is at once more complex, of more ancient origin, and far more pervasive in its ramifications than much of the current discussion would suggest. It is a multiplex continuous assessment process with at least one supervening element; the schools and their agents offer to the community, the nation, and the world assurances that they will induct children and youth into the larger society possessed of certain skills, attitudes, and knowledge, and that with these they will become and continue to be self-validating citizens and hopefully generous men and women. It is essential, therefore, that the school and other "people-changing" institutions be available for public audit of their performances. It is of almost equal importance that other institutions and individuals, the family, governmental agencies, parents, pupils and other students be accountable to the school as far as their abilities to do so will permit.
An open society, such as ours seeks to become, requires nothing less for its sanity, its safety, and its social hygiene. We are ultimately all accountable to each other.
George R. La Noue's article, which appeared in the December issue under the title, "The Politics of Education," should have been called, "Vouchers: The End of Public Education?"