The 4 R’s: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic and … RESPONSIBILITY

By Edith Morgan

We’re “Worcester – the City that Reads,” and we test our students constantly for some kind of alleged proficiency in what used to be known as “The 3 R’s” – “Readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick,” as the tune went when I was growing up.

A few decades later,  there was a lot of talk about  adding a fourth “R” – Responsibility.

It enjoyed an all too brief emphasis. In today’s test-driven learning environment, the idea cannot really survive, as there is no way to build a multiple-choice, machine-scored test that will give us numbers and rank schools and children. And so, like much of what goes into making a good, total human being, a life-long learner and an adult able to live a full life as a fully contributing member of his/her family, neighborhood, state and country, the effort has been de-emphasized , defunded and devalued. It is still, of course, being given lip service, but as we all know: What is honored and valued is what is PAID for.

Responsibility is not inborn. It must be modeled, taught daily and continually updated, as we assume more responsibility .

But we have turned the old model on its head, and now even the unborn have rights without responsibility. So we have empowered those who have not demonstrated the ability to assume responsibility  for their decisions and actions, and taken the power away from those who must take responsibility for what happens.

When I first began teaching in the schools, in the mid-1950’s, I had a pretty clear idea what my class should be able to do by the end of the school year. It was up to me to develop materials that would be appropriate for the individual students before me, create any extra materials needed to get the ideas across, and then administer whatever kinds of tests were needed to see if my students had mastered what had been taught, and to reteach what they still could not  show me they knew and understood.

By and large, students understood that their responsibility was to learn what was being taught, practice what was still weak, and move on to the next grade, building on what had been mastered the previous year, or risk having to do it over. Once I closed the door to my classroom, I was in charge. As a “liberal arts retread.” I had to learn a lot at first about keeping a group under control, working together, individually or in groups, and achieving the school’s stated goals.

I grew up an environment where teachers were revered and respected – and God help any of us. students had  the school complained about us, our behavior or our achievement. Our job (“responsibility”) was to learn everything we could, regardless of whether we loved our teacher,  liked the subject,  or had a lot of self-esteem, etc. In my day, “self-esteem” was earned and grew from a recognition that we had assumed responsibility.

But the system has been turned upside down, and trust and power are bestowed on those who do  not assume the needed responsibility.

Kindergarteners have more freedom than high schoolers, yet in normal development, the older the students, the more they should have learned to assume responsibility.

For every right, there must be a corresponding responsibility. Without that balance, you have the tyranny of the ignorant, the greedy, the evil and the power-hungry.