Sunday, February 17, 2013

Issue #101 Responsibility, Tuesday's Primary and Education

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.    

February 19- Primary Day…
Election season is upon us again.  Wisconsinites are bracing for another round of elections that probably will continue our recent trend in being contentious and divisive at the state level.  Voters have an opportunity to cast a vote in the primary election this Tuesday.  It is always important to exercise your right to vote, but in off-year primaries every voters power is magnified because of the low turnouts.  The GAB is projecting that less than 10% of the eligible voters will participate in Tuesday's election, so make your voice heard and get out to vote. 

Wisconsin Supreme Court
This primary features three candidates and will narrow the field to two for the April 2 election.  Pat Roggensack is the incumbent and is challenged by Vince Megna and Ed Fallone. 

The importance of this race can't be underestimated as the current court has a 4-3 conservative majority and our justices have been extremely partisan in recent years.  The fact that so many important decisions regarding collective bargaining and other issues will likely appear before the court makes this a vital office for progressives in Wisconsin to win.

Madison School Board Seat #5
Of no less importance for supporters of Madison Public Schools is the primary for Seat #5 between TJ Mertz, Sarah Manski and Ananda Mirilli.  The candidate I support in this race is Mertz.  He has been a presence at school board meetings for a long time, and has been a tireless advocate for public schools through his writing and actions. 

Defending Education…
If we truly value public education then we must act to protect and preserve it as a part of our society.  Whatever your role in public education whether as a parent, educator or concerned community member, we all have a responsibility to make sure that our public schools have advocates who are willing to speak out on issues that affect our schools.  The list of problems and "reforms" is long and the discussion has been shaped by those who want to make our schools more "businesslike", "productive" and even "profitable".   

The reality is that many of our potential advocates for public education are leaving the field for "greener pastures" that are less stressful and more widely supported.  Just like manufacturing and other industries we are seeing "downsizing" occurring.  Low pay, high stress, increased responsibility with limited support all contribute to the exodus of educators from the profession.  A small number of well connected groups and individuals stand to profit from these trends, while the rest of society loses a valuable resource.     

An example of how current trends are moving away from educating and looking only at the bottom line.  The MacKenzie Center has been an important place for my family and schools that I've been involved in.  For years my wife took her 5th grade classes for overnight field trips, and both of my sons have done overnights while in middle school.  Changing the focus of the Center could mean that many students would lose the opportunity to spend time in a beautiful outdoor setting.

Labor News…
Organized labor continues to look for ways to increase our influence, even in these difficult times.  Alliances and making connections is an important part of the current struggle.  Labor needs to find ways to compete with the big money that corporations are able to utilize.    

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