A Couple Conversation

A couple responsibility-related conversations, the topic of the first, morality, of the second, education’s future, each drawn from the Creative Systems Theory manuscript:

Ruth (a parent): My concern is pretty different from what I’ve heard so far—more personal, about being a parent. But I think much is related. Being a responsible parent today requires some new kinds of skills—and more than just skills.

CJ:  Give me an example.

Ruth:  Okay. My daughter is fourteen. About a year ago I happened to walk by her room. She and a couple of friends were talking—in hushed tones.  They were discussing sex.

I left before they knew I was there, went down to the kitchen ….. and freaked. I’d been a pretty wild kid. I got pregnant in my last year of high school and had an abortion. After that I became very much the straight arrow.  I got married and have been a good, church-going wife and mother ever since.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, my own teenage experience, I avoided dealing with the inevitability of Jane growing up and becoming interested in sex. My first impulse when I saw the time had come was to prepare the classic “save yourself until marriage” speech.  And I actually started to deliver it.

After her friends left, I confronted Jane and told her what I had heard. I started the speech … and stopped before the words came out of my mouth. I realized I was talking more to my own fears than to my daughter.

CJ: What did you do?

Ruth: I left and went out on the porch, gave myself a chance to cool off.  I found myself thinking about my own first sexual encounters. A lot had changed since my mother’s generation. But I saw that sex was likely going to present even more complex questions for Jane than it had for myself. Certainly there is AIDS. But it is not just that. While I had more options than my mother, Jane has more still. And an awful lot of what I saw as freedom was really less liberation than a reaction to the old rules. Today’s world just has more to consider.

Anyway, I waited out there until I felt I could listen as well as talk. Then I went back in.

CJ: Did you feel more comfortable?

Ruth: Not at first. For a while I just kept my mouth shut and listened—both to Jane and the ongoing battle in myself.

I could feel different parts inside of me fighting to be in charge. The part that believes in clear moral rules, the part that had started to give the lecture, was most obvious. It is well intentioned—and it speaks from good experience.  I was often pretty stupid about sex as a teenager. And the abortion was more painful emotionally than I could have begun to anticipate.

But another part inside of me was in its own way just as convincing. That part comes close to arguing that not having sex before marriage is immoral. My marriage wasn’t that good. If I’d waited, taken some time to grow up—which probably would have meant greater sexual experience—I likely would have chosen someone very different.

As I listened to Jane, and to these battling parts, I began to realize that really mattered didn’t have that much to do with sex. I want Jane to be healthy and happy. I want her to value herself and I want the relationships in her life to be as fulfilling as possible. Depending on the circumstances that could mean many different choices.

CJ: What was it like to recognize this?

Ruth: It scared me to admit that I didn’t have clear rules to pass on, that I couldn’t just tell her “do this, and don’t do that.” I felt like I was shirking my responsibility as a parent. But when I stood back, I realized this wasn’t so. I wasn’t saying the choices Jane might make don’t matter; right choices matter more than ever today. It’s just that simple answers—of any sort—don’t cut it any more. I wasn’t dismissing the need for moral responsibility. I was standing for a more difficult kind of moral responsibility—this almost in spite of myself.

CJ: How did it go with Jane?

Ruth: Pretty well.The fact that we were just able to sit together and talk—even though there was much we didn’t talk about—diminished my fears significantly. Jane told me some about what she had been thinking. And I ended up sharing some difficult experiences from my own adolescence—some things I’d not told anybody else.

I felt a lot of gratitude as we sat there. Most was for the strength—and responsibility—I felt in Jane.  I saw that she was already asking some pretty difficult questions—and all-in-all making good decisions. But I also felt gratitude toward myself—for my growth as a parent. I was understanding more deeply what responsibility is ultimately about.

In my better moments, I envy Jane for the questions she gets to ask.  She doesn’t have the security that the old rules promised. But I don’t think many of the old rules are capable of keeping their promises today.

CJ: I think the kind of moral conversation you and your daughter engaged in is something quite new, and new in ways that will be increasingly important. You spoke of your wish to be a more responsible parent. The weakening of traditional assumptions means that in a whole new sense we become responsible not just for doing the right thing, but for determining just what the right thing might be. That requires much greater responsibility of Jane. It also changes dramatically what it means to be a responsible parent.

Ruth: That makes sense.

CJ: .You took a role that was more humble, but also ultimately more sophisticated and powerful than we would have seen with parenting in times past. And your daughter assumed a much more active and empowered kind of responsibility. You were each manifesting culturally mature leadership.


 Stanley (a university professor):  My question also concerns responsibility. I’m interested in how education would change if we made responsibility for a  healthy future more overtly its task. What we teach is part of it, certainly. But I’m most interested in implications for how we approach the educational process.

CJ:  Say more.

Stanley:  I ask students to take a lot more responsibility in their learning than I did ten or twenty years ago—as do most of my colleagues. I’ve thought of this mainly in terms of being a more effective teacher. The added piece I got from your conversation with Ruth is its direct relationship to the future. Taking greater responsibility in learning should help students develop the greater capacity for responsibility the world will increasingly need.

CJ: The learning process itself becomes about responsibility.

Stanley:  Exactly. I still set tough learning goals—most often a lot tougher than before.  But I more frequently leave how to reach them up to the student. I encourage students to do independent projects, often using portfolios that document their work as a supplement to, or even replacement for, written tests. I also make greater use of class discussion, often with the students in charge. And I always try to keep questions of what ultimately matters—what is really worth working for—forefront. If we don’t have ready-made answers in the same sense as in times past, we need to practice asking the hard and important questions.

CJ: I’m struck by how your approach fosters not just responsibility in a general sense, but also more specific capacities that will be needed in a world without clear guideposts—attention to values, capacity for critical thinking, creativity, initiative.

Stanley:  And a lot of what I do addresses such capacities directly. How we work rewards both careful thought and original thought. It also emphasizes creativity in the sense of collaborative work—if we are to come up with effective solutions, we need to get good at solving problems together. I’m also always looking for ways that students can give their conclusions concrete expression—and not just verbally but through use of different media and in the larger world. We need to practice speaking out, taking stands for what we feel will bring the most rewarding results.

CJ:  How do students respond?

Stanley:  Generally well. The increased responsibility is more than some students initially find comfortable.  But overall I’ve felt encouraged. I ask a lot more of students. But we end up with greater classroom involvement and in most cases higher achievement.

CJ: Great.

Stanley:  One of the reasons I enjoyed your conversation with Ruth is how directly you tied what she did to broader changes. I get some credit for students’ positive response, but I suspect the larger reason that the results feel so alive—for both myself and for my students—has to do with how these approaches reflect what we need to be doing. They help prepare students for the kind of responsibility and leadership today’s—and tomorrow’s—world will require.

CJ:   Is what you do primarily a shift in responsibility—from professor to student—or is it more than this? I ask because understanding just what today’s new responsibilities ask of us is key. Just some liberal notion of empowering those who before have lacked power—student (as opposed to teacher), patient (as opposed to doctor), or religious adherent (as opposed to religious authority), or citizen (as opposed to elected official) is not new. Certainly what we need is not just some turning of traditional authority hierarchies on their heads.

Stanley: Responsibility increases all the way around. Without question it does for the students—I don’t spoon feed nearly as much. But just as much it does for me. I can’t fall back on last year’s lectures. Also, I can’t rely on tests to motivate as I once did. And because students are more involved, they ask tougher questions. I have to be much better prepared.

But greater responsibility it only part if it, though just what more is going on is harder to put into words. The responsibility required of both students and myself feels different. It is a more involved and dynamic kind of responsibility—for everyone. This makes much more possible. But it also requires more of everyone involved.

CJ: How do you see this?

Stanley: What we do requires people to bring more of themselves to the task.  Conversations almost always involve personal feelings and discussions of values along with facts and analysis. Our interactions also require us to bring more aspects of the questions we look at into the room, draw on diverse viewpoints and multiple kinds of expertise. What we do requires everyone to be more aware, more questioning, and more comfortable with inquiry that is complex and multifaceted.

There is also a deeper sense in which we are in it together. Certainly there is the sense in which we are more in it together in the room—inquiring together. But, at our best, it can feel like we are in it together in a larger sense—that we are rolling up our sleeves and trying to get at what most matters for everyone today.

CJ:  What you describe definitely supports needed new leadership, and not just positional leadership. Greater responsibility is required of all of us. I think of the growing importance in medicine of patient responsibility. Health care professionals are better appreciating how much patients alone can know about their health. Many of the most important conversations in religion concern where spiritual authority most appropriately resides, how much should lie with the individual and how much with more formal religious authority. And greater citizen responsibility is certainly pertinent—and increasingly so—to good government. How you teach is consistent with all these authority-related changes.

Stanley: I have a quote from Herman Goering at the Nuremberg trials on the wall of my classroom “The people can always be brought to the bidding of  leaders.” Being sure his words are not true in the future is a big part of what motivates me as a teacher. I think what we are talking about has to do not just with good leadership, but as much with good “follower-ship.” When policies fail, our common response is that we need better leaders. But as much we need better citizens, people willing to stand for values that can take us forward, make needed sacrifices, and engage actively and creatively in the decision-making endeavor.

CJ:  I like that.

Stanley:  It seems to me that it’s not so much that we haven’t taken responsibility than that we’ve chosen to give it away. Nobody can really tell me what to do with my mind, or with my body—or with my soul.

CJ:  Perhaps, but I think the degree and kind of responsibility we are talking about would have been too much to manage in times past. For most it would have been incomprehensible. One of the functions of polar images of authority—teacher and student, doctor and patient, government and governed, divine truth and human ignorance—has been to keep the need for this magnitude of responsibility at bay (for both sides of the equation). If the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate, our times make more powerful and creative relationships to truth and authority newly essential—and for the first time in our history perhaps within our reach.

Stanley: That does make sense, and I think at some level I’ve known it.  Working in the way I do has made teaching feel much more significance than just a good and interesting job.  For me it has come increasingly to feel like a calling. I think this is because how I teach has to do with something larger than myself and something that today has particular importance.

CJ: The kind of responsibility I see you teaching for supports not only mature personal and institutional leadership, but also the kind of leadership as a species needed for any future we would want to be a part of.