Guest commentary: Time to focus on responsibility

Guest commentary: Time to focus on responsibility

By Topper Steinman

"It's my right to ..." (fill in your verb). We hear it a lot.

Whether it's through the lens of a Steven Salaita and the University of Illinois academic-freedom controversy, or the National Rifle Association, or our community confrontations, or our professional sports dramas, or our school/living room exchanges and challenges with our children, we seem to be wrapped up in our rights — to say, do and be anything we want with inconsequential effects.

We proceed to repeat the cycle with our next mire and mess. After all, this "right" thing is a cornerstone of our democracy.

Through early education and beyond, we all became very familiar with the Bill of Rights, those first 10 amendments to our revered Constitution. And we don't hesitate to share these "rights" any chance we get, especially when we are seemingly or really misunderstood, misrepresented or mistreated.

I would suggest as a country and as a people, we have spent the first 200-plus years of our democracy focused on our rights. We have taken the liberty to put them out there any chance we get.

I now suggest we spend the next couple hundred years focused on our responsibilities — personally, relationally and systemically.

Rights and responsibilities — I believe they go hand in glove.

And I think we have neglected this second "R."

I worked as a teacher and counselor with young people for many years, 20 of them as a counselor in the Champaign schools. I remember working with some of our more recalcitrant youth on understanding the importance that responsibilities play in their rights of daily living. In the early 1990s and in my second 20-year career, I had the opportunity to work with quality educators like Dick Bodine, Donna Crawford, Fred Schrumpf, Vernessa Gipson, Russell Brunson, Joe Omo-Osagie and a host of other very talented people on a national initiative and training in conflict resolution called Creating the Peaceable School. Thousands of educators from across the country became interested in and attended conferences we presented focused on this work.

While knowing that schools may find it difficult to create a peaceful school — one that is full of peace — we did think it was possible to create a peaceable school — one that was constantly able to work toward peace. This would be a school where a respect of self, others and property were tantamount to creating a healthy place to teach and to learn.

One of our basic tenets in this endeavor was to educate and to challenge the students and adults in schools to have a discipline framework based on a rights and responsibilities contract. This was a leftover concept from the early 1970s and Principal Bodine's work at Urbana's Leal Elementary School.

Early on in our 1990s work, we began to recognize that lots of young and old knew how to exercise their "rights" — "I have the right to say what I want." On the other hand, exercising their responsibilities — "I have the responsibility to say it in a way that doesn't offend others" — was likened to learning a foreign language.

This litany of rights and responsibilities extended throughout the social, emotional and academic arenas of school. Gradually, people would catch on to the "responsibility" end of the contract before speaking and acting. And for the most part, peaceable became "real-able."

And those people who did mess up learned to take responsibility for the mess up, accept the consequences, and move on. Yes, it was more complicated than that but, for the most part, it worked.

Forward to today. Educators attend conferences on being "armed" with a different set of tools — and how and when to shoot them. Some states have passed or are on the verge of passing legislation that allows teachers to be so armed. Drills that mimic the horror of a Stoney Brook are conducted while rubber bullets permeate the newly developed educator training days. Such trainings like ALICE — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — are popular efforts on teacher in-service days.

In a small fraction of time, we have moved from teacher and student trainings of "talking it out" with a focus on understanding our rights and responsibilities to "shooting it out" with a focus on school cameras, secure entrances and mock drills of catastrophe — that we hope stay "mock."

From any perspective, this can't be considered progress. These may be necessary training efforts today, but it's a long stretch from some days of old. Yes, 9/11 has changed our culture, including school safety, in many ways.

Translate to my topic: rights and responsibilities. And I am suggesting that some of this change in culture and behavior has occurred by ramping up the rant of our rights and the rid of our responsibilities. It does not make for a quality democracy. Consider our realities:

— Steven Salaita has the right to say whatever he wants, however he wants, void of any consequences and be hired as a University of Illinois tenured professor; and, when different consequences are enacted to prevent his hire, he can sue the university for a breach of contract.

— The NRA would demand that we have the right to own and operate any weapons we choose — assault rifles included — sans much to do with enhancing our background checks in this country or enacting any other points of weaponry balance.

My list of examples are unending. Someone please translate this logic. Again, "I have the right ..." has trumped any and all "I have the responsibility ..." contract.

Yes, about 200 years of responsibility training will help us balance our "right to ..." playing field.

Please join me in this challenge.

Topper Steinman is an educational consultant in Champaign. His email is