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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 7, May/June 2006

Social responsibility or just behaving yourself?

by Pat Clarke

In 1996, I was a co-author with Wanda Cassidy of SFU and Carl Bogner, an independent researcher, of what became the last provincial learning assessment for social studies. Provincial learning assessments, no matter what the subject, rarely generated much heat. Most often they became bookshelf ornaments. The 1996 social studies assessment didn’t fall into that category. It actually raised a few eyebrows. The reason was that we said that social studies education in BC had become so marginalized that it was no longer considered a core element of the BC curriculum.

We wrote, "Students are leaving the BC school system with only marginal abilities in such important contemporary citizenship skills as detecting bias, distinguishing between fact and opinion, and developing a reasoned argument. The social consequences of a potentially gullible citizenry should be apparent." And here we are, 10 years later, well on our way to a pandemic of gullibility.

What happened? Or rather, what didn’t happen?
In 1996 we hoped that our statement of concern would generate a critical review of the BC school curriculum with respect to social education. The Ministry of Education responded by setting up a Social Studies Task Force with a mandate to recommend ways to "refocus and reconceptualize social education in BC." The task force met several times and made a series of recommendations, a few of which were implemented, but most were not. In general the task force report met the fate of the learning assessments. It found some shelf space.

What did happen was that the concerns set out in the learning assessment about social education became "social responsibility" and promptly fell into the mire of accountability contracts.

The task force and the assessment team used the term "social responsibility." It was employed as a way of describing one of the important outcomes of social education. The concept is a fairly broad one but it primarily refers to a view of citizenship in a modern democracy. Simply put, the responsible citizen is one who is prepared to act in a spirit of community mindedness. That means they have a sense of well-being that is communal as well as personal. They are prepared to participate in their society in a democratic fashion. They understand that means both vigilance and an ability to rationally and responsibly critique, as well as support, public policy. In other words social responsibility is about being an engaged, informed, and inquiring or questioning citizen.

That’s what we meant by social responsibility in 1996
Along came accountability contracts and more out of guilt than understanding the Ministry attached social responsibility to the school goal-setting process. That lack of understanding coupled with the obsession with data-driven decision making led to an inevitable train wreck. Social responsibility had to be measurable so as to inform goal setting and the accountability contract. So instead of notions such as "critical perspective" or "community mindedness" the whole process became one of measurement and counting, and those concepts are simply not measurable.

So what counts as social responsibility? What can be counted, of course. Now schools routinely determine their level of student social responsibility by reporting such measurables as lates, detentions, quantity of litter on the school ground, unexplained student absence, teacher referrals of students to the office, completed homework assignments. It can all go on a chart.

Long ago these concerns were reported on the back of the report card as "behaviour." Why don’t we just stick with that instead of pretending that there is some other purpose here. Certainly what we had in mind in the 1996 social studies assessment is not on the Ministry radar. That gullibility matter is still sitting there. And that gives rise to an even more disconcerting question than any raised by the assessment.

Where does a preoccupation with behaviour rather than responsibility actually take us?
There is of course no issue with students being on time, meeting commitments, being polite and respectful, and so on but calling this social responsibility is actually a dangerous misapplication of the term. When we place such a high value on behaviour, that is, one that is measured and articulated as a measure of accountability, and pay relatively little attention to the aspects of democratic citizenship inherent in real social responsibility, aren’t we setting up compliance with authority as a primary value?

The danger is that in pursuing this approach to social responsibility we ironically prepare the ground for the obverse of social responsibility. We end up with a citizenry who may know and obey all the rules but have very little idea of the processes, values, and principles that must underlie fair and equitable rules in a democratic society. In other words, a population that equates following the rules with getting ahead and not making waves as a ticket to social acceptance and personal prosperity. Where will we be then? In a healthy and functioning democracy? Or someplace else where history tells us we really don’t want to go?

Pat Clarke is director of the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.

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