Measuring Accountability When Trust Is Conditional
On a designated graffiti wall at the City University of New York Queens College, circa 1970, the word “accountability” never appeared. But the concept dominated the informal curriculum. Like most colleges then, Queens College was mired in the struggles of the day, and with our sit-ins and teach-ins and caravans to the nation’s capital, I believe we were indeed trying to hold our government accountable: for stagnation in the civil rights movement, for the ravages of poverty, for the disastrous war in Vietnam.
One of the more obvious entries on that mural, amid the colorful exhortations to “burn pot, not people,” “support our boys—bring them home,” “black is beautiful,” and “abolish required courses NOW!” was “CHALLENGE AUTHORITY,” as good an abbreviation of the Declaration of Independence as one could hope for with a paint sprayer. The phrase may seem banal, but unpacking it helps me understand today’s education policy debates. (The Chicago teachers’ strike was, at its core, a fight over authority. Just who was challenging whom, though, is complicated.)
To challenge authority is to hold authority accountable. Challenging people in power requires them to show that what they are doing is legitimate; we invite them to rise to the challenge and prove their case; and they, in turn, trust that the system will treat them fairly. Mutual trust is key, and sequence is important. We entrust our leaders with authority to tax us, send our men and women to war, keep our air and water clean, police our neighborhoods, protect us from foreign threats, school our children, and even, God willing, some day provide a decent system of health insurance. Then we demand evidence: Prior trust granted on the basis of political rhetoric evolves into trust in the reliability and appropriate use of...
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