I am always skeptical of new buzzwords or slogans that are supposed to bring salvation. “War against drugs.” “Zero-tolerance.” “Just say no.” “Consequences.” “Diversity training.” “Bully-proofing.” “No Child Left Behind.” I wouldn’t complain if the campaigns actually worked. However, not only do they rarely solve their targeted problems, they often make the problems worse and create unanticipated problems in the bargain.
In his classic work, 1984, George Orwell paints a futuristic society, Oceania, in which the government–”Big Brother”–watches over all. In other words, everyone is accountable to the government for all of their actions. While the populace is brainwashed into believing the government is their salvation, the government is really their enslaver and the cause of their misery. Its Department of Truth manipulates the language, Newspeak, to promote the government’s agenda of total control.
Of course our society doesn’t work in quite as insidious and planned a way as that in George Orwell’s book, but the process happens nevertheless. And we are increasingly headed in the direction of 1984, with the blessing of our own population, which loves to relinquish personal responsibiity for our lives and hand it over to the government, in the naive belief that our government knows best and can take care of us better than we can take care of ourselves.
And our latest Big Brother word is Accountability. What a great idea! Just make people accountable for their actions, and then they will do all the right things. All the ills of society will disappear when people are held accountable.
What can possibly wrong with holding people accountable? After all, it sounds like such a good idea.
Problems with “accountablity”
There are certain things people should be accountable for. I’ll refer specifically to the education world. Let’s say you are a principal and you are given a budget to buy textbooks. You must be held accountable for the money. You can’t be putting the money into your own bank account. If you are a teacher and are scheduled to work from 9AM till 3PM, you should be accountable for your time. You can’t be out shopping when you are supposed to be teaching.
But people can’t be held accountable for things that are not in their control. “No Child Left Behind” holds schools accountable for lack of students’ academic success. But how can they be held accountable for this? Education experts have been endlessly trying to find ways to improve student achievement and the controversies over how to accomplish this never end. Is a law going to force learning to increase? Of course not. If a school doesn’t know how to get their students to do better than they are already doing, a law holding the school responsible is not going to make the kids learn better. What the law will do, though, is encourage schools to figure out how to avoid getting in trouble with the law. So they creatively manipulate test scores to show educational improvement that isn’t really happening. And no less harmful, they start “teaching to the tests,” destroying creativity in education and eliminating subjects that aren’t measured by the scores the government is interested in.
Anti-bullying laws are holding schools accountable for the bullying that goes on between students. But how can schools be held responsible for making kids stop bullying each other when adults, even mental health professionals, don’t know how to be free of bullying in their own lives, don’t know how to get their own couple of kids at home to stop bullying each other, the research shows that most anti-bullying programs don’t work?
One mental health professional wrote in her seminar evaluation form that she dislikes my approach to bullying because she believes kids should be held accountable (yes, she used the “accoutability” word) for the way they treat each other. Sounds great, doesn’t it? If kids are held responsible, they will certainly treat each other better, right? Of course not. Try it at home with your own kids. All they do is defend theselves and blame the other kid when they are accused of being mean. And how would this woman like to be held responsible for her own relationships? Would she like a government official to punish her whenever her husband, children, parents, bosses, collegues and in-laws don’t like the way she treats them?
No sirree, “accountability” is not going to bring our society closer to Utopia. It will bring only bring it closer to Oceania.