When did everyone suddenly become so accountable?
Clearly, it happened on one of those occasions when we had our backs turned against the zeitgeist, when the arbiters of les mots du jour were feeling particularly shame-faced over some likely inconsequential misdemeanor. Now we’re stuck with one of the least inspiring measurements of virtue ever invented.
Politicians must be accountable, so must the governments they lead: To whom, exactly, is still a matter of some conjecture.
Corporate directors are nothing if not accountable to their shareholders whose interests they protect with quantities of vigor in direct proportion to the size of voting-class stock in play.
Doctors are accountable to their patients, and patients are accountable to their insurers. Meanwhile, insurers are accountable to their (you guessed it) shareholders.
Teachers are accountable to their students. Students are accountable to their parents. Parents are accountable to their credit card companies, which, in turn, pay junior’s tuition and away-from-home living expenses.
To be accountable is to be answerable, subject, liable amenable, obligated, chargeable.
On the other hand, to be accountable is not necessarily to be responsible. There’s an important distinction between the two.
Just ask Pasi Sahlberg, the Director General of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility – the centerpiece of its teacher education system. In an interview last year with American documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, the administrator was unequivocal:
“The Finnish language doesn’t have word for ‘accountability’, particularly in education. Accountability is something this is left when responsibility is subtracted. In many places, people are getting education completely wrong when they think that stronger accountability – more testing, more evaluation, more penalties against teachers and principals – works.”
His bragging rights appear to be genuine. According to a piece in the Smithsonian magazine not long ago, “In 2000. . .the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.”
None of which explains why Finland dropped from first to twelfth in the world in last year’s PISA assessments, of course. But does that make Finnish educators accountable to a system that’s creaking or responsible for getting everybody, including themselves, back on track?
Personally, I prefer door number two in this and just about every other human game show in which people rely on one another’s good graces to get ahead.
In the latter part of the 20th Century, notions of accountability emerged in the sometimes indistinguishable fields of government, business, sports and entertainment when, it became appallingly clear, leaders and celebrities oftentimes shared the moral compass of an amoeba.
Oh look, there’s Billy-Bod Clinton playing “chase the nubile political intern” in the Oval Office. What a dirtbag! Oh well, if we can’t make him more responsible, we can certainly hold him accountable. How do you spell impeachment, again?
The current Canadian government adores the concept of accountability and all it implies. It even maintains something called a Management Accountability Framework that purportedly, “support(s) the management accountability of deputy heads” and
“improve(s) management practices across departments and agencies,” though it’s not immediately clear how any of that works.
The problem with emphasizing accountability over good old fashioned responsibility is that, in a funny way, we let out ourselves off the hook. We imagine that as flawed, weak mortals, we will transgress in, as yet, uncountable ways, so we’d better have the woodshed site-ready for the inevitable floggings we’ll take. Once properly flogged, we’re again free to offend if, that is, we’re again prepared to face the consequences.
Accountability assumes that punishment is the inevitable denouement of every story. Responsibility resides in the spiritual fortification where trust, faith, honor, duty, and charity still thrive.
There, with only the best of all possible luck, we may find the next generation of political leaders.