Mistakes Were Made: Language and the Moral Roots of Accountability


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David Miller, on Thursday, talked about "nothing," the "nothing" that is "more real than nothing," in Sam Beckett's words. This morning, I'm going to talk about "something."

We hear the word, "accountability," more times than we see it in operation. This is simply a fact of modern life. In the movie, "As Good As It Gets," there is a defining moment in which a young woman gushes at Jack Nicholson's character, Melvin, telling him how much she admires his work, and asking how he is able to portray women so expertly. He insinuates himself around this response: "I think of a man. And then I take away reason and accountability." What Nicholson's character is defining here is not simply his own obsessive ego but a world of his construction in which half the population is without any responsibility to be accountable for its deeds, namely the female half.

What I would like to do today, by way of illustrating the moral roots of accountability, is to escort us the rest of the way, to a world in which there is not merely 50% accountability, but a complete absence of all accountability. Is it possible for us to conceive of such an amoral universe? I think so. My first candidate world would be the Internet, the World Wide Web, cyberspace. But perhaps there's one closer to home--the virtual university, "virtual" because it does not exist (at least we don't admit it), does not appear in mission statements, in catalogs or on wall plaques. In this "virtual university," the moral roots of authority seem to be shifting from external norms based on the teachings of major moral philosophers, and from that internalized something called "conscience" to invisible, unpublicized roots deep in the consumer model. Unlike earlier models, the consumer model in which the student as customer calls the shots remains largely unstudied by moral philosophers and higher education theorists and does not enjoy the consensus afforded earlier, imperfect models.

I have to warn you in advance: this will be an exercise in hypertext, requiring listener participation. As our virtual university site, let's select the university we know best, maybe our alma mater, or the one in which we work (maybe one and the same). Then, having this virtual university on our mind screens, let's pose for ourselves the questions posed by the framers of this conference, pulling in our own hypertexts for answers:

1. --To whom, and for what, is the university accountable? As the need for higher student numbers and larger budgets escalates, do the grounds of accountability remain constant? Or do they shift?

2. --What motives drive the current national conversation about costs of higher ed, in this university? Are these cost questions springing from motives that are moral or venal, i.e., are our critics inspired by morality or venality? Is the public really concerned about our integrity and stewardship of resources, or simply interested in bargains, in getting more bang for the buck? And on whose side is our president?

Next question (now remember, this is not the real world. We're still in this imaginary university world):

3. --In the recent past, has the university's response to moral concerns been cosmetic? Or "adaptive," in the way that situational ethics taught us as individuals to adapt our ethical standards to a given situation? Or has the university's response to recent moral concerns been serious and substantive?

4. --What motives drive the university's and the states' recent moves in regard to assessment and performance evaluation: accountability and improvement? Or something else? Control? Or possibly cost containment again? Or maybe downsizing impulses obstructed by tenure?

5. --To which constituencies is the university accountable?

And finally, the Megabucks question:

6. --What are the "ends" of higher education, as understood and practiced at this university? Are these the same as those understood by the public? As understood by our Funding Fathers, corporate donors, the state, or alumni donors, among our most vocal critics? To these questions, I'm adding another:

7. What is the language of accountability? And how do we know it when we see it, or hear it?

It is difficult enough today to get at the roots and varied motivations of the angry calls to accountability we are hearing from raised voices in all quarters. But our charge in this conference has been even more difficult: to get at the moral roots of, and authority behind, the ultimate call to accountability, the one that all institutions of higher education acknowledge in mission statements and attempt to respond to, as part of their mission to educate and to use public and private resources ethically and wisely. Until our own century, there has not really been a serious challenge to our shared understanding of this responsibility, which had a definite ethical and, in some cases, religious ground of authority. If we were to go back to read the founding documents or legislation that established each of our institutions or systems of higher education, we would find there a well defined set of goals and values. Having done this myself in the course of consulting with more than a few institutions, I have come to the conclusion that, for their clear statements of goals and ideals--often tied to religious ideals but equally compelling in secular statements--our generation of stewards has substituted "creeping drift."

As we have heard earlier, the concept and the term, "accountability," have their roots in clear and accepted definitions of "reckoning," "counting," "computing," and "judgment," always by some higher authority. The phrase, "to render an account," came into the English language in the 14th century. The word "account" split, at its inception, into two different usages: 1) "to render an account" in the fiscal and moral sense and 2) "to narrate," or "tell a story." The language of accountability in our own time is filled with vagueness and weasel words. "Weasel words" is a coinage from the woods of Maine, picked up there by Teddy Roosevelt and used to criticize Woodrow Wilson's call for "universal voluntary" military training. Although America did not invent weasel words and phrases, we seem to use a lot of them. If you suffered through a course on Tennyson or remember the Crimean War from your history classes, you know the origin of the famous weasel phrase, "Someone had blundered":

"Forward the Light Brigade!"/Was there a man dismay'd?/Not tho' the soldier knew/Someone had blunder'd./Theirs not to make reply,/Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die./Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred.

The basis for the poem, what has been called the "stupidest exploit in British military history," occurred at Balaklava in the early stages of the Crimean War. Through a misinterpretation of orders, the Light Brigade was ordered to ride headlong into the Russian artillery. Of 700 men in the charge, only 195 survived. But notice, at the time, no name of the blunderer was mentioned. An anonymous "someone," had simply made a mistake. Perhaps you've heard of an earlier example of the same thing, also a military expedition: when the Emperor Charlemagne's army was leaving Spain through the pass of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees Mountains, his army's vulnerable rearguard was attacked, supposedly by Christian-hating Saracens. Rather than expose their leader to certain death, the hero, Roland, delayed blowing his warning horn until the emperor had safely passed through. Then he suffered an apoplectic stroke and his rear guard troops were slaughtered. This became the basis for the national epic of France, the medieval classic, "Song of Roland." The truth has only come out in our own day: the attackers were not Muslims or Arabs but Christian Basques. For many reasons--all of them political and economic, none of them derived from any moral concern for truth--the Christians accountable for this slaughter were never revealed nor brought to judgment, and another literary masterpiece cloaked an historical fact underneath an expedient, though artistic, lie. We don't have to restrict ourselves to the military to find examples of the language of accountability, or its opposite, deniability. Government abounds in current examples.

Both President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uttered the same three-word weasel phrase last year, the contemporary equivalent of "Someone had blundered." In his January 1997 press conference, called in response to public outcry for an explanation of what went wrong with Democratic fund-raising, President Clinton's version of accountability was, "Mistakes were made." Note the passive voice. No agent need be identified. In April of the same year, Prime Minister Netanyahu commented on his own escape from indictment with the same words: "Mistakes were made." Again, no agent, no one to blame. Last October, another world figure, Pol Pot, former leader of Cambodia who died this week, was slightly more specific when called to account for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians during his watch: "Our movement made mistakes." I don't think anyone will ever forget Al Gore's memorable comment on his use of his office as a site for fund raising: "My counsel advises me that there is no controlling legal authority or case that says there was any violation of law whatsoever." Or Attorney General Janet Reno's immortal words, "We lack specific and credible evidence." And then there is the alleged Southern legislator's definition of "tainted money," "`Tain't mine, and `tain't enough."

But I would award this year's Weasel Word Prize to a relatively unknown real estate investor, Max Handelman, an owner of the three-story Manhattan building from which a section of the facade fell and struck a 32-year-old Brooklyn woman, sending her to Bellevue Hospital, where she remained in extremely critical condition last week. Mr. Handelman said that he could not remember when the facade was put on the building, nor could he remember the name of the construction company that had performed the work. His final weasel words were, "I'm terribly sorry that this woman was injured, but that was no fault of ours." Notice, not "mine," but "ours."

Strange as it may seem to a society that has labeled their centuries "Dark," medieval common people were perhaps less benighted, more conscious of a day of reckoning than we are, and more tuned in to ongoing "national conversations" about human accountability. A favorite form of recreation and entertainment in 14th-century England, was to attend some version of a morality play called "The Debate of the Heavenly Virtues," Justice versus Mercy. In the play, there was no question about the grounds of moral authority. God was clearly the ultimate counter. Two characters, usually an angel and a devil, would conduct a sort of values audit out loud, going in great detail over the moral accounting of a mortal man. The man usually cowered between them as the heated debate went on. The devil claimed the man's soul on the basis of all the evil deeds he had done, and invoked God's absolute justice as requiring this man's condemnation to hell. The angel recited all the good deeds done by the man and invoked God's absolute mercy as the reason why the man's sins were forgiven and he should be allowed to enter heaven. The debate often turned into a physical tug of war with some slapstick comedy. But there was always loud applause, no matter what the ultimate fate of the poor man turned out to be. These medieval debates crystallized the contemporary understanding of the need for everyman to answer to a higher authority, who alone was responsible for judging human actions of consequence in a moral universe.

The language of accountability is often at the heart of modern political mediations. George Mitchell, commenting on his task of reconciling Northern Ireland's warring tribes, identified the nub of the settlement as the language used, among all the other cultural "somethings" that had kept the conflict boiling and bubbling: "I once told them [Northern Ireland politicians] that the challenge we faced was having to find a way to come up with words that neither side owns...Compromise is a foreign concept. There are no win-wins, only winners and losers, and that's part of their history, culture, vocabulary and experience."

In current debates about the goals of higher education and stewardship, we might expect that all the venal, cost-containment arguments about the university's mission would come at us from the nation's economists and business leaders, while our defending angels might be the Humanists and philosophers on our staffs. But the opposite is true in a recent challenge to at least one university's leadership. You may have read about Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman's full-page ad in the Rutgers University student newspaper, attacking the values and policies of the president who has championed inter-collegiate athletics--at the expense of classrooms and academic quality, in the opinion of his critics. Friedman is part of an effort characterized by the NY Times as a "struggle for the soul of Rutgers." To shore up arguments for academic versus athletic support, the Rutgers 1000 Alumni Council conducted a contest on their Internet page, to identify "slum classrooms" on campus, with devastating effects. Here we have the classic battle for the soul of a university, waged on the Internet. Friedman insists that universities do not exist "to provide entertainment for spectators or employment for athletes...It is not the purpose of a university to generate publicity or to stimulate sports." He goes so far as to say that sports is "a corruptive influence on higher education," when admissions policies, often unwritten, permit athletes to be admitted on lower standards than other students. One Rutgers reply is that the university "had to make a commitment to making a national name and recruiting more students. In today's sports culture, athletics is a way to do that." The president had earlier spelled out his stand in an op ed piece that says, in effect, although Rutgers' "primary mission is the academic one," the university needs to compete at the same high level in athletics. "A successful athletic program, in fact, underlines the university's academic reputation in an especially compelling way." (Francis L. Lawrence, quoted in the New York Times, 4/11/98.) The Alumni Council has countered with a statement by their president, saying that he felt like "a dissident shareholder, especially since the administration is approaching this like a professional sports corporation."

The modern metaphor of accounting, used to convey understanding of the need to engage in personal reckoning, and to answer to a higher authority, appears in James Joyce's short story, "Grace." In this story, a group of rather prosperous Irish businessmen, concerned about a sick friend's need to straighten out his life, conspire to get him to go to church for a retreat. Knowing very well that the Latin putare means to clean or to purify, Joyce has the men use a homely metaphor for accountability, for reckoning up their sins: "`Yes, that's it,' said Mr. Cunningham, `Jack and I and M'Coy here--we're all going to wash the pot.'" But when they get to church, the sophisticated and worldly wise Jesuit who preaches the sermon of repentance begins with a puzzling speech from Luke in which Jesus urges his followers to "make friends of the mammon of iniquity so that when you die they may receive you into everlasting dwellings."

The narrator describes the scene: "Father Purdon developed the text with resonant assurance. It was one of the most difficult texts in all the Scriptures, he said, to interpret properly. It was a text which might seem to the casual observer at variance with the lofty morality elsewhere preached by Jesus Christ. But, he told his hearers, the text had seemed to him specially adapted for the guidance of those whose lot it was to lead the life of the world and who yet wished to lead that life not in the manner of worldlings. It was a text," Father Purdon tells them,"for business men and professional men." Joyce has his Jesuit develop this more sophisticated metaphor from business, telling the men they should think of him as their "spiritual accountant": "He wished each and every one of his hearers to open his books, the books of his spiritual life, and see if they tallied accurately with conscience. Jesus Christ was not a hard taskmaster. He understood our little failings, understood the weakness of our poor fallen nature, understood the temptations of this life... but one thing only, he said, he would ask of his hearers, And that was: to be straight and manly with God. If their accounts tallied in every point to say: `Well, I have verified my accounts. I find all well.' But if, as might happen, there were some discrepancies, to admit the truth, to be frank and say like a man: `Well, I have looked into my accounts. I find this wrong and this wrong. But, with God's grace, I will rectify this and this. I will set right my accounts.'"

Joyce, with his artist's sensibility and his keen ear for spoken language knew the shock value these words would have for a devout Irish audience. The effect on pious Catholics of importing a business metaphor into a spiritual talk in a consecrated house of worship would be, in our own universities, like the effect the words of a university president might have upon teaching faculty the first time they hear their chief executive officer refer to students as "customers"--invoking the language of business and consumerism to alter the traditional understanding of the teachers' role in a temple of higher learning. Yet, on close examination, there's nothing obviously wrong with either message. It's the language in which the ideas are couched that we find offensive and inclined to resist. That we should be accountable to students, as well as parents and tax payers, is something most faculty accept and believe. It's the language that's offensive to academic sensibilities. But is it? Dig deeper. This is no mere disagreement about the substitution of metaphors for similes. It is not merely the language, but the concepts embedded in the metaphor, beneath the surface, that wound: the hidden message is not merely that we should be accountable to students, parents, and taxpayers, subsumed under the odious (to academics) "consumer" label, but that in accepting the consumer label, we also accept the consequences, namely, that the laws of supply and demand should therefore dictate what we teach! No wonder universities are upset with their leaders! It behooves our institutional leaders to watch their language, since it is hard to believe that linguistic naivete or benign motives underlie metaphors used like clubs to force change. We know that words don't merely describe reality; their repeated use can cause perceived reality to change. Words can also be used as blunt instruments, intentionally or not, to force victory in a debate, by violence so subtle that it does not even seem dangerous, merely strange or inappropriate for the academic context.

We had better be aware: the academic context in which we do our work is changing, whether we like it or not. The grounds of moral authority have undergone subtle shifts, some not so subtle. And the proof of the pudding? How can we tell that change has occurred? To answer, I'll use another recent metaphor for accountability drawn from the movies, "Show me the money." In university terms, that means, "Show me how university resources are allocated and distributed, and I'll show you where value changes have occurred." Accountability can be seen in budgets. The Rutgers debate is only the tip of the iceberg. There will be other revelations of changes in institutional priorities and values, belatedly discovered and documented by faculty and students. But these should not be occasions for hand-wringing and stone-throwing, nor for surveys on the Net alone. The intellectual powerhouses of the nation, i.e., its universities, need to apply their intellectual capital to what they do best--defining the terms of the argument and providing moral leadership for change, based on researched premises for both sides of the argument. Accountability cuts both ways. Universities are also accountable to their faculties. We in higher education have all been engaging in a kind of situational dance, not always noticing that the dance floor's points of reference and the role of the conductor have shifted. Once again, it is the artists who have noticed and told us about it. Instead of "God's in his heaven/All's right with the world," a Maya Angelou can spot the problem in its early stages, as she wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), "The needs of society determine its ethics."

Think of that for a moment, in terms of the past two days' discussions of the moral roots of accountability. "The needs of society determine its ethics." A few years ago, during my Washington years, I made an appointment to meet with the heads of the United States Department of Ethics. It was a difficult office to locate. Once there, I was interested in seeing how the professional resources of the Society for Values in Higher Education might be used to provide instruction, workshops or seminars in ethics and values for government employees. What I found was that these men were not interested in ethics, as we know it, but in compliance. They freely admitted that their mission was first, to teach the regulations concerning conflicts of interest, then to train personnel in compliance and how to avoid conflicts of interest. As a matter of fact, they believed the universities had nothing to teach them, since academics could not possibly understand their day-to-day experience or those of their non-academic personnel as working members of the government in the "real world." One of the societal shifts we in higher education have hardly noticed is that the word "academic" has become synonymous with "irrelevant." I would suggest putting that word in mothballs in public discourse, until we can restore its meaning.

"The needs of society determine its ethics." This has always been true. Communities of people decide what they will an will not accept in human behaviors within their communities. Pornography is acceptable in some communities on "a certain side of town." The American people have been visibly busy in the past months deciding what behaviors they will and will not tolerate in their leaders. This is the ultimate consumerism. So then, what does our society need? Compliance, obviously. But what about education for judgments in ethical gray areas, for which there are no regulations with which to comply? We might conclude that these are of no concern outside the unversity classroom, at least not to our government. Something has changed in society's perception, something that humans in earlier societies somehow thought immutable, something lodged firmly somewhere above, governed by that Higher Authority, with the mirror image of that "something" placed firmly, closer to home--inside each of us in something called conscience, a kind of moral radar. All now seems called into question. The new locus of authority for morality and ethics lies in the needs of society. Yet the university is supposed to be providing education for the needs of society, isn't it?

Are we then rendered helpless to change the way things are or have become? Are we victims of a society that no longer agrees with our vision of the university? Instead of stopping with those questions we posed at the start--questions about the ends of higher education, the goals of the university--perhaps we should be asking ourselves and each other, "Who is society?" In the immortal words of Walt Kelly's "Pogo," the ineluctable, empowering answer is, "It, too, is us."


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Questions and comments may be directed to the Conference Convenor, Alvin G. Burstein or individual authors by clicking on his/her name.

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Last updated: July 11, 1998