Culpability and Responsibility

Lately, I've been thinking about the difference between culpability and responsibility. Culpability, of course, has to do with blame. When we cause a problem, we are at fault. We are guilty. We are culpable.

Often, we use responsibility in this same way. We might say, "I'm responsible for my mistakes," meaning that I am to blame for them.

But I don't think this is what responsibility is really about.

The root word for "responsibility" is response. We are responsible for something when we are called to respond to it. Sometimes, we are both culpable and responsible: it's my fault and now I must respond to it. But this isn't always the case.

As a teacher, for example, I sometimes have students come into my classroom who aren't prepared (yet!) for the work of the class. In some cases, they've been at a different institution with different expectations. In other cases, they've been passed along even though they didn't really meet the expectations of previous courses. When they walk into my classroom, I am not culpable for this lack of preparation, but I am now responsible for it. My job is to help the student learn and grow: I'm answerable for their success in my class. I'm now responsible for that student's growth.

This is where the recent conversation about Critical Race Theory, I think, has gone off the rails a bit. Many of the arguments I've been reading have talked about how past oppression — e.g., centuries of enslavement — is not my fault (speaking as a white person here); therefore, I'm not responsible for it.

This argument, however, confuses culpability and responsibility. I am not culpable for the development of the systems that led to enslavement, Jim Crow, redlining, underfunded schools, etc. I didn't do that. I'm only forty years old; I wasn't alive in the heyday of those policies.

But I am living in a world built by those policies; therefore, I am now responsible for them.

Most of the links in this month's "From Around the Web" deal with this issue. How are we responding to our history? What do we do? Where do we go from here?

This Month on ROOTED

Grading for Learning in Rochester and Teaching without Homework
Schools in Rochester are grading for learning, and I’m teaching without homework. Read on!

From Around the Web

Loretta J. Ross: What if we called people in, rather than calling them out?
How can we have more productive conversations with people we vehemently disagree with? Civil rights activist Loretta J. Ross gives us the tools to call people in—instead of calling them out.
College students discuss need to ensure diversity on campus
Reaction follows Supreme Court decision to rule on University’s policy of considering race as one factor among many in admissions.
Lack of diversity in AI development causes serious real-life harm for people of color
Kelsey Snell asks Black Women in A.I. founder Angle Bush about the consequences of the lack of diversity in artificial intelligence development.
What’s the point of working toward problems that lack solutions?
Conversations with colleagues and young(er) teachers cause me to wonder what’s required to make positive change in response to answerless questions.
New Twist in Pandemic’s Impact on Schools: Substitutes in Camouflage
Deployed to classrooms in New Mexico to help with crippling staff shortages, National Guard troops are employing their informal motto, “Semper Gumby” — Always Flexible.
Teachers Are Quitting, and Companies Are Hot to Hire Them
Businesses that are eager to fill jobs are offering former educators better pay and more autonomy.


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