Education and Responsibility—A Conversation

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:


Stanley (a university professor):  My question also concerns responsibility. I’m interested in how education would change if we made responsibility for a healthy future more overtly its task. What we teach is part of it, certainly. But I’m most interested in implications for how we approach the educational process.

CJ:  Say more.

Stanley:  I ask students to take a lot more responsibility in their learning than I did ten or twenty years ago—as do most of my colleagues. I’ve thought of this mainly in terms of being a more effective teacher. The added piece I got from your conversation with Ruth is its direct relationship to the future. Taking greater responsibility in learning should help students develop the greater capacity for responsibility the world will increasingly need.

CJ: The learning process itself becomes about responsibility.

Stanley:  Exactly. I still set tough learning goals—most often a lot tougher than before.  But I more frequently leave how to reach them up to the student. I encourage students to do independent projects, often using portfolios that document their work as a supplement to, or even replacement for, written tests. I also make greater use of class discussion, often with the students in charge. And I always try to keep questions of what ultimately matters—what is really worth working for—forefront. If we don’t have ready-made answers in the same sense as in times past, we need to practice asking the hard and important questions.

CJ: I’m struck by how your approach fosters not just responsibility in a general sense, but also more specific capacities that will be needed in a world without clear guideposts—attention to values, capacity for critical thinking, creativity, initiative.

Stanley:  And a lot of what I do addresses such capacities directly. How we work rewards both careful thought and original thought. It also emphasizes creativity in the sense of collaborative work—if we are to come up with effective solutions, we need to get good at solving problems together. I’m also always looking for ways that students can give their conclusions concrete expression—and not just verbally but through use of different media and in the larger world. We need to practice speaking out, taking stands for what we feel will bring the most rewarding results.

CJ:  How do students respond?

Stanley:  Generally well. The increased responsibility is more than some students initially find comfortable.  But overall I’ve felt encouraged. I ask a lot more of students. But we end up with greater classroom involvement and in most cases higher achievement.

CJ: Great.

Stanley:  One of the reasons I enjoyed your conversation with Ruth is how directly you tied what she did to broader changes. I get some credit for students’ positive response, but I suspect the larger reason that the results feel so alive—for both myself and for my students—has to do with how these approaches reflect what we need to be doing. They help prepare students for the kind of responsibility and leadership today’s—and tomorrow’s—world will require.

CJ:   Is what you do primarily a shift in responsibility—from professor to student—or is it more than this? I ask because understanding just what today’s new responsibilities ask of us is key. Just some liberal notion of empowering those who before have lacked power—student (as opposed to teacher), patient (as opposed to doctor), or religious adherent (as opposed to religious authority), or citizen (as opposed to elected official) is not new. Certainly what we need is not just some turning of traditional authority hierarchies on their heads.

Stanley: Responsibility increases all the way around. Without question it does for the students—I don’t spoon feed nearly as much. But just as much it does for me. I can’t fall back on last year’s lectures. Also, I can’t rely on tests to motivate as I once did. And because students are more involved, they ask tougher questions. I have to be much better prepared.

But greater responsibility it only part if it, though just what more is going on is harder to put into words. The responsibility required of both students and myself feels different. It is a more involved and dynamic kind of responsibility—for everyone. This makes much more possible. But it also requires more of everyone involved.

CJ: How do you see this?

Stanley: What we do requires people to bring more of themselves to the task.  Conversations almost always involve personal feelings and discussions of values along with facts and analysis. Our interactions also require us to bring more aspects of the questions we look at into the room, draw on diverse viewpoints and multiple kinds of expertise. What we do requires everyone to be more aware, more questioning, and more comfortable with inquiry that is complex and multifaceted.

There is also a deeper sense in which we are in it together. Certainly there is the sense in which we are more in it together in the room—inquiring together. But, at our best, it can feel like we are in it together in a larger sense—that we are rolling up our sleeves and trying to get at what most matters for everyone today.

CJ:  What you describe definitely supports needed new leadership, and not just positional leadership. Greater responsibility is required of all of us. I think of the growing importance in medicine of patient responsibility. Health care professionals are better appreciating how much patients alone can know about their health Many of the most important conversations in religion concern where spiritual authority most appropriately resides, how much should lie with the individual and how much with more formal religious authority.And greater citizen responsibility is certainly pertinent—and increasingly so—to good government. How you teach is consistent with all these authority-related changes.

Stanley: I have a quote from Herman Goering at the Nuremberg trials on the wall of my classroom “The people can always be brought to the bidding of  leaders.”

Being sure his words are not true in the future is a big part of what motivates me as a teacher. I think what we are talking about has to do not just with good leadership, but as much with good “follower-ship.” When policies fail, our common response is that we need better leaders. But as much we need better citizens, people willing to stand for values that can take us forward, make needed sacrifices, and engage actively and creatively in the decision-making endeavor.

CJ:  I like that.

Stanley:  It seems to me that it’s not so much that we haven’t taken responsibility than that we’ve chosen to give it away. Nobody can really tell me what to do with my mind, or with my body—or with my soul.

CJ:  Perhaps, but I think the degree and kind of responsibility we are talking about would have been too much to manage in times past. For most it would have been incomprehensible. One of the functions of polar images of authority—teacher and student, doctor and patient, government and governed, divine truth and human ignorance—has been to keep the need for this magnitude of responsibility at bay (for both sides of the equation). If the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate, our times make more powerful and creative relationships to truth and authority newly essential—and for the first time in our history perhaps within our reach.

Stanley: That does make sense, and I think at some level I’ve known it.  Working in the way I do has made teaching feel much more significance than just a good and interesting job.  For me it has come increasingly to feel like a calling. I think this is because how I teach has to do with something larger than myself and something that today has particular importance.

CJ: The kind of responsibility I see you teaching for supports not only mature personal and institutional leadership, but also the kind of leadership as a species needed for any future we would want to be a part of.