IF I AM NOT FOR MYSELF, WHO AM I? WHEN I AM ONLY FOR MYSELF, WHAT AM I?
In the words of Rabbi Hillel: If I am not for myself, who am I? When I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Why is the world the way it is? Why is it, arguably, so dysfunctional and yet, why do we believe we cannot do much about it? It’s because we don’t ask the right questions. We don’t focus on what is important. We get caught up in inhuman systems created, strangely enough, by humans. And once inhuman systems have been created, we, sadly, allow for them to be used as frameworks of accountability.
Arguing that things are the way they are – because it’s human nature to behave the way we do – takes away the sense of agency we’ve all been given. It dehumanises us.
As most of us forget to ask why we do what we do, why the world is the way it is, why we’ve let things happen the way we have… as most of us have forgotten that the world we live in, because of the powerful status our human species holds within the food chain, is something we have created, it is important to also remember that answers and solutions lie within us.
Unless we wake up and face the monster we’ve created, the world we live in will increasingly move us away from being able to meet our most human needs: the need to be able to hope, the need to be able to relate and trust others… the need to be human. Accountability starts with us (I and you; I with you; I for you).
Understanding what kind of community we’re wanting to build should be a key question our schools ask and hold themselves to account on. I’m not saying this idealistically. I’m fully aware that the world as it is – as we’ve created it – requires certain things to be prioritised – strong literacy and numeracy skills, for instance – and I don’t wish to argue for an all-relative utopia of ‘do what you like, as long as you’re respectful of others.’ What I’m arguing for, are schools which fully embrace what our world requires for children to be able to succeed – based on its current rules, but also its need for social justice.
I often tell our children that the world we have created is a world where strangers are often described as dangerous, a world where knowing one’s neighbours – let alone speak to them! – isn’t the norm. That’s the world we’ve created for ourselves and our children. However, when asked what kind of world we want to live in, opposite views are shared. It feels like we like quite schizophrenic lives. The tension between what we hope for and what we think and do, day to day, is striking. And it is a tension that our schools – as almost-always eclectic institutions – can challenge.
Our schools are made up of a great mix of backgrounds, cultures, and views. Having a plan for embracing these views can enable us to establish what living together can look like. Ignoring – because it’s hard and messy – the question of what ‘community life’ means and looks like perpetuates the divisions we often criticise when thinking about the world we’d love to live in.
Re-establishing what accountability should mean between all of us, as members of diverse communities, in our schools, would help us create generations of hopeful citizens who’d approach the world much more engaged than most adults currently do. Being political at school – by which I mean ‘being open to discussing what living together means’ – would become a basis for sustained civic engagement beyond school.
Who are we accountable to? And what are we accountable for? We should be accountable, first and foremost, to ourselves and the people we live with, within our families; we should also be accountable to those beyond our immediate selves and families: those we share our streets with. And this is what our schools offer: a mix of people who share the same streets, and probably – but often unbeknownst to them – the same hopes.
Every year, since I’ve become a teacher, a good 15 years ago, the theme of accountability has featured at national educational conferences. Unsurprisingly, it featured again at today’s ASCL conference. And rightly so.
I’m hopeful that debates about accountability can be shaped more optimistically. I’m hopeful that accountability can be redefined by all of us, and taken away from a few people whose positions and authority are often, ironically, unaccountable.