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What Covid 19 is really teaching us about responsibility

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Philip Mirkin has more than 30 years in education as a science teacher, school principal and currently as a part-time lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria where he is doing his PhD. His opinions are his own and not representative of the university.

As governments around the world try to manage the coronavirus risks through laws and regulations, normally law-abiding adults are disobeying the rules. Perhaps we should examine how we can become a nation of adults who embrace autonomous accountability.

Most people facing new rules and regulations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus value the expert guidance they have been given and adhere to the regulations because they recognise them as positive and helpful despite any discomfort and inconvenience. But even with this, I have not encountered a single normally law-abiding person who has not broken the law during this lockdown. So what does this say about the relationship between governments and their citizens?

When things go wrong in society, we citizens are often quick to point the blame at the government for failing us. In turn, governments put more regulations in place in order to manage the problems. This relationship will sound very familiar to any parent or teacher who deals with children. 

A good pedagogue will use such situations to gradually empower the children in their care to take responsibility for their actions through exposing them to appropriate and proportional consequences. This is necessary in the process of assisting children to become adults. People who are exposed to too few opportunities to gradually embrace their autonomy often never learn this important lesson and remain like children, needing someone else to make the rules and keep them in check. That becomes the role of the law.

Can we assume from the number of people who are not following lockdown regulations in South Africa that we have many adult children? Is it appropriate for government to keep treating the adult population as irresponsible and in need of stricter laws and constant policing? Governments around the world are implementing laws to control their populations to prevent the spread of the virus. Is it therefore a worldwide phenomenon that human adults are still like children and need to be controlled?

If this is the case, we need to recognise that humanity is still in its childhood. But governments must recognise that once laws are put in place, their role should become pedagogical, not punitive. It is their job to gradually educate these “children” to take responsibility for themselves in a firm but supportive and trusting relationship. [Do I hear cries of “paternalism” from the crowd?]

If this assumption is not correct, and instead adults are using their adultness to make decisions for which they are prepared to take responsibility, our scenario changes completely. Now governments must leave people alone and let them face the consequences of their actions [Do I now hear shouts of “irresponsible”?], or the opposite, act strongly against adults whose actions impact negatively on others. 

Personally, I like the idea of living as an adult among adults, where we allow others the authority to act responsibly out of their own better judgement, no matter how different it may be from our own. That may sound very privileged in a country where most people are just struggling to survive, but if education prioritises the development of autonomous accountability it could become a kind of qualification in itself. 

The question is what laws should be put in place during times like this? Is it right that the government should prevent citizens from deciding for themselves what risks they are prepared to take? Is it right that citizens look to the government to make these rules for them? It is always a balancing act, but if we lose sight of these important perspectives we may imagine that it is always the government that needs to take the responsibility and that citizens can blame them for not controlling them. In South Africa this may turn into mass action both when citizens feel the government is not taking control AND when they feel controlled. It’s all a bit messy.

Confucius had already recognised this dilemma 2,500 odd years ago and devised a system that would allow citizens to be educated to take responsibility for their own lives. The meritocracy that he conceptualised had those most competent at self-management promoted into socially responsible positions, which made this an ideal for the individual and led to a disciplined society. 

The Chinese dynasties that were the most stable and prosperous were always ones that promoted Confucian practices. Even the modern communist Chinese government is realising the value of this after having banned it initially. Philosophers and religions throughout the ages have promoted individuals taking responsibility for themselves as the only way for creating a healthy and stable society. 

This type of education starts in the family, with accountable adults doing the parenting. In South Africa, with so many single parent or child-headed homes we already encounter our first stumbling block. But if we are serious about encouraging self-responsibility, we need to be more pedagogical about it and introduce elements that allow the gradual assumption of responsibility into our education systems from early on, so that the school-leaver resembles the autonomously empowered citizen who can respond with responsibility in crisis times such as this.

Personally, I like the idea of living as an adult among adults, where we allow others the authority to act responsibly out of their own better judgment, no matter how different it may be from our own. That may sound very privileged in a country where most people are just struggling to survive, but if education prioritises the development of autonomous accountability it could become a kind of qualification in itself. 

Then governments could give guidance and support in a society where those who are not yet able to assume their full adulthood are treated pedagogically, and are gradually led towards this great, responsible and empowered ideal. DM

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