This morning on an ABC news program, George Will, commenting on the latest Bush administration scandal (the one at Walter Reed Army Hospital), argued that there can be no democracy, no freedom, without consequent responsibility for one’s actions. In short, Will argued that one must be held accountable for acquitting one’s performance in a post for which one has accepted responsibility. When one fails to perform to expectations, one should rightly expect heads to roll.
I do not often find myself in agreement with George Will, but here is a case in which I believe Will is absolutely correct. One must be held to account for that which one has accepted a position of responsibility. When one accepts such a post there is a presumption upon which the rest of us can rely; that upon accepting responsibility for such a post one has agreed to and is fully aware of the requirements of the post itself. Since one is aware of the requirements of the post it seems appropriate to hold one accountable to those thing to which s/he has agreed. It must also be presumed that by accepting a post one is aware of the consequences for failure to perform appropriately and has accepted those consequences even before accepting the posting in the first instance.
The key to Will’s position, it seems to me, turns on the notion that there is an offer and an acceptance of such an offer which creates a contractual relationship in which both parties have always already defined a set of mutual expectations and obligations. There is a mutuality of both expectation and obligation that exists between compliant and agreeable parties to an agreement.
So this set me to thinking about the problem in American education today. Students are being held accountable for expectations that, at in the very best case, are imposed upon them from some external body. Because the expectations placed on students are compulsory, forced on them from the outside, there can be no acceptance, in a contractual sense, construed by the promulgation of standards. Quite the contrary, since acceptance cannot be implied nor explicitly established, what the standards movement represents is a totalitarian problem demanding accountability from those from whom there has been no acceptance of responsibility; there is no contract between students being held accountable and the public holding them accountable. The problem is that students exercise no voice in creating mutually acceptable obligations and responsibilities for the exercise of accountability.
Žižek (2003) pointing to the paradox that develops from the principle of conditional joy, that which places the academic radical in the hypocritical position of demanding social justice while hoping that the demands being made are not met, is instructive here. What Žižek argues is that while making demands that cannot be met (or must not be met because if they are then severe social unrest would occur) the radical academic is able to maintain his or her position of privilege at the academy. Žižek points out that the fulfillment of the rhetorical demand would ruin everything, much like Derrida’s (1993) warning that if the messiah were to actually arrive it would ruin everything for there would no longer be anything to anticipate. In the case of the standards movement, the ultimate fulfillment of the rhetorical claims would ruin everything for many.
The rhetoric of the standards movement, in fact, supports many vested interests, each of which is far removed from the students the rhetoric is supposed to serve. The argument, for fear of oversimplifying, goes something like this. If students know what they are supposed to learn they will be motivated to learn those things. Furthermore, in order to assure that learning is taking place, we must hold students accountable for that learning. Freire (1970) asks us to ask, “Whose interests are being served?” In the case of the standards movement the list is short, but involves billions of dollars. Textbook publishing houses and testing and measurement publishers are the largest beneficiaries of the public policy demanding standards compliance by the unrepresented majority—the students who are, in fact, the victims of this extraordinarily undemocratic movement.
It is time to rethink the standards movement in America. It is time to rethink No Child Left Behind. It is time to practice democracy before we claim to spread democracy around the world.
Derrida, J. (1993). Aporias (T. Dutoit, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (Revised ed.). New York: Continuum.
Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.