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Personal Responsibility

Will Okun was a Chicago high school teacher who, as the result of winning the right in a “Win-a-Trip” contest at The New York Times, accompanied their columnist, Nicholas Kristoff, on a trip to central Africa and blogged about it.  As an additional perk, the Times took him seriously enough to publish an occasional opinion piece from him.

One such piece, “Fifty Percent” (19 March 2008), a response to a CDC report that asserted 1/4 of teenage girls were infected with some form of sexually transmitted disease, was a rumination on the reasons that sex education in the schools didn’t seem to be effective at preventing such widespread infection (and at preventing teenage pregnancies) — and, ultimately, on whether such education was really the proper purview of government, in general, and of the public schools in particular.

I wrote this response as a letter to the Times.  It was not published.

19 March 2008

Ref: “Fifty Percent” by Will Okun (19 March 2008):

It seems in this, as in many things, we have seen a reasonable impulse lead inexorably to an unreasonable, and perhaps disastrous, outcome.

We started from the proposition that education in sexuality was primarily a parent’s responsibility but that some parents either could not or would not fulfill that responsibility adequately. Hence, it was reasonably proposed that the government take up the slack — that government should augment parental efforts with institutional ones to mitigate the worst outcomes. This was one narrow sliver of the broad “social safety net” that we had decided to cast beneath our most vulnerable citizens.

But, over the last forty years or so of government augmenting personal efforts with institutional ones, in this and in many other areas — and after forty years or so of advocacy for government action, for government as the solution of choice to societal problems — we have fundamentally altered the culture, transformed the presumption in a wide range of social and cultural areas from “I must do something about this (and perhaps I could use some help),” to “the government is taking care of this, so I don’t need to.”

As much as “conservative” talk of “values” and “social decay” has been derided as paranoia and prudery over the last decades, this is what they were talking about: that, compassion aside, if you consistently and persistently relieve people of responsibility for their own circumstances, then, over time, you inevitably create a culture in which people will not take responsibility for their own circumstances — and, in the end, you create a culture in which people not only will not do so but are incapable of doing so because no one has ever taught them how.

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