Instructional Design

Personal Responsibility Without Educational Darwinism

By Zachary Fruhling

In a previous article, Education as Habit Formation, I described the Aristotelian notion that various educational virtues, in the sense of cultivating virtuous habits and character traits in students, are a matter of finding the middle ground or the golden mean between two opposing vices.

One of those virtuous educational character traits is taking personal responsibility for your own education and for the value of your own educational experience as a student. “Personal responsibility,” however, is a potentially loaded and ambiguous term that has different connotations for different people, so it is worthwhile to examine and unpack the concept of personal responsibility to find its virtuous Aristotelian core meaning.

So why is personal responsibility sometimes a maligned concept in higher education? I believe it boils down to the fact that personal responsibility is sometimes associated with a type of “survival of the fittest” educational darwinism, in which students are thrown into the deep end of higher education and either sink or swim when left to their own devices. While any educator worth his or her salt will not delight in seeing students sink instead of swim, or fail instead of succeed, many educators do have some notion that ultimately a student’s success will be based in part on his or her own educational effort, especially in higher education. (Note that the situation is different in earlier stages of education, such as primary or secondary education, in which students are often not yet self-aware enough to understand the value of their own education. This discussion, therefore, is aimed primarily at higher education at the college and graduate level.)

If there is a virtuous core to the concept of personal responsibility, what are its extremes (too much personal responsibility or too little personal responsibility) that Aristotle, the champion of the virtuous middle ground, would think of as vices to be avoided? My hypothesis is that a virtuous form of personal responsibility in education lies somewhere between having purely external motivation and the aforementioned pitfall of educational darwinism.

Education with Too Little Personal Responsibility:

Virtuous Personal Responsibility in Education: Education with Too Much Personal Responsibility:
Purely External Motivation Internal Motivation

Educational Darwinism

Let’s start by looking at education with too little personal responsibility. Sadly, the attempt to educate students is often a matter of making up for the lack of students’ personal responsibility instead of serving to form and cultivate that sense of personal responsibility. This is partly unavoidable and inherent to education in general, as the very notion of training, in any context, implies that a trainer serves a valuable function in pushing his or her trainees to the next level, even when those trainees themselves resist being pushed. But in the best of situations, a trainer serves to cultivate the trainee’s own desire to keep pushing oneself, to help the trainee make the shift from external motivation to internal motivation for the continued effort. This shift from external motivation to internal motivation seems to me to be the defining characteristic of the shift from from too little personal responsibility toward a virtuous sense of personal responsibility in education.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is a strange question to ask: “How can you have too much personal responsibility in education?” After all, in the ideal situation, each student would have sufficient internal motivation to take responsibility for, and ownership over, his or her own educational experience (completing assignments, meeting requirements, participating sufficiently, asking for help when needed, and so on). So how can there be too much personal responsibility in education? I think here it’s a question of emphasis. Educators and education institutions should rightly emphasize personal responsibility, but they should not do so at the expense of recognizing that not all students have had the experience or the support structures in place to be prepared to take radical responsibility for their own education without additional guidance, resources, or support. If educators and educational institutions overemphasize personal responsibility at the expense of recognizing this practical reality, by not providing the additional support structures necessary to encourage student success, then something like educational darwinism will be the result, with students who have the experience and the motivation being the ones to succeed and everyone else being left to flounder.

So what is involved in the shift from an unhealthy form of educational darwinism back to a virtuous sense of personal responsibility in education? My view on this is that it is inadequate purely to provide resources that encourage outcomes-based success without also cultivating genuine internal motivation for the effort leading to that success. In other words, the solution cannot be a well-intentioned radical shift to the other end of the spectrum shown above, which just results in too little personal responsibility (in the sense of too little internal motivation) for the students that we are trying to help succeed.

So if the virtuous form of personal responsibility in education is inherently tied to the notion of internal motivation, the hard question is how this internal motivation can best be cultivated. I do not claim to know the full answer to this question, but the answer does have several plausible components:

  • Students should be made aware of the potential positive consequences of success in education, and also of the potential negative consequences of failure in education. Some students do not yet understand the sphere of possible opportunities or outcomes for their own lives, whether positive or negative. Helping students become aware of the possibilities opened up to them by educational success can help cultivate a sense of internal (but still goal-oriented, perhaps not fully intrinsic) motivation.
  • Emphasis should be placed not only on educational outcomes but also on sustained educational effort. Success is an end-state, whereas sustained effort is an ongoing state of being that students with internal motivation remain in as they further their education or careers.
  • No one likes to fail, but even the best of students will fail at something, if not in their educational careers in a narrow sense, then at something else in life. But the wisest of students know—or learn the hard way—that that failure is a reason to keep showing up and trying again. Getting a failing grade on an assignment, or even in an entire course, is no reason to throw in the towel and lose internal motivation. Long before I became a college-level philosophy instructor teaching my own critical thinking courses, I myself failed my first critical thinking course at the community college I attended. If I hadn’t shown up the next term to retake that critical thinking course, I would undoubtedly have had a different life and career than the one I have had. Sadly, we don’t encourage failing students enough to keep showing up and keep trying a little harder, or we don’t guide them enough along the way, to help form and sustain their internal motivation for doing so.
  • In the best of situations, a student’s internal motivation and personal responsibility for his or her own education would achieve the level of intrinsic motivation, with learning and educational effort being their own rewards instead of merely a means to achieving some other outcome. Although education can be a stepping-stone to achieving some desired practical outcome, educators also generally want students to view education as rewarding and fulfilling in its own right, not merely as a tool to achieve some practical end. Educators should continually emphasize this intrinsic value of education alongside its more practical extrinsic value, and do everything possible to help students internalize that intrinsic value. This intrinsic value of education, internalized, is what helps turn students into lifelong learners.

There are undoubtedly scores of other factors and relevant considerations that apply to finding the virtuous sense of personal responsibility in education, in the sense of internal motivation. But I believe framing personal responsibility in this way, residing somewhere between purely external motivation (too little personal responsibility) and educational darwinism (overemphasis on personal responsibility) is a valuable structural approach to finding the virtuous Aristotelian middle ground that can be so elusive in higher education.

Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at

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