Who’s responsible?

Education is essential to human progress. But who is responsible for spreading access to it? Americans are shifting their views. 

Jonathan Drake/Reuters
American views on education are evolving. Graduates wait for the start of commencement exercises at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, on May 11.

If, after two years as editor of The Christian Science Monitor and another eight as deputy and national news editor, I could offer one piece of advice to readers, it would be this: Don’t trust shortcuts. In democratic nations, the purpose of government is to be a reflection of their people. The solution to any problem, then, rests with the people. Any attempts to find shortcuts around the messy process of finding consensus almost always involve more long-term risk than short-term benefit. 

So why is this week’s issue the right moment to share this rather pretentious piece of wisdom? Because this week’s cover story touches on a crucial element of the disconnection and frustration we see in political conversations worldwide.

The story is about a rising number of American states and municipalities experimenting with free college. But if I were to distill the essence of the story into one word, it would be “responsibility.” Education is essential to human progress, and higher education is a proven accelerant to wealth, health, and freedom. But who is responsible for spreading access to education? The individual or the society?

There are, of course, gradations of thought on this, all with sound logic, from the more communal approach in Europe to the more individualist approach in the United States.

But readers’ letters confirm what we see around the U.S.: This issue is viewed as core to a sense of American identity. The new willingness to consider elements of socialism ­– such as free college – speaks to seismic shifts in American thought. Are we fundamentally changing our views of responsibility?

As I wrote in the April 3 issue of the Monitor Daily, the answer appears to be yes, and it explains much of the political turmoil we’re seeing in America, and perhaps other Western democracies. As of 20 years ago, most white Americans – liberal and conservative – agreed that immigrants hurt the country and that black Americans were largely responsible for the chronic challenges of opportunity and achievement many of them faced. But since then, white liberals have undergone a radical shift, seeing the challenges immigrants and African Americans face as part of a structural prejudice against them. In other words, white liberals have reversed their sense of responsibility, pointing the finger at themselves to remedy the inequity they see. In this context, the rise of free college is seen by one group as a regressive step for responsibility and by the other as an essential step forward.

Former Monitor writer and ethicist Rushworth Kidder argued that all world cultures share five core values: compassion, fairness, honesty, respect, and responsibility. News, salted down to its essence, is simply the chronicle of how societies are interpreting, prioritizing, and applying these values to daily life. In countries as large and diverse as the U.S., deciding how to interpret, prioritize, and apply those values is no simple thing. But it is also clear that responsibility, in many ways, is a key litmus test for all the other values. We only know that the first four are truly taking hold when the latter grows. So the real question is, Which policies will best grow responsibility?

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