In his famous quote about standing on the shoulders of giants, Sir Isaac Newton credited at least some of his success to efforts of others. While most of us will not see as far as Newton, we also stand upon the shoulders of others. After all, we are born into societies and have access to centuries of human accomplishments such as language, technology and society itself. As such, the success of any individual is but an addition to an already vast structure of human achievement (and failure) and is built upon well-established foundations. For example, the language I am using to write this was developed long before my time. The computer I am using to write this was made possible by past achievements in theory and technology. As such, any success I glean from this work involves a debt to all those folks who made it possible for me to sit in front of a screen and type out words in English.
Of course, the contributors to our successes (and failures) do not just include people who are long dead. Obviously enough, a person’s very existence and survival depends on other people who are (or recently were) alive. Much of a person’s education also depends on others and there are many other debts (for good or for ill) owed to others. Naturally, I am making a distinction between the state (which is just people) and other people in this context. For this essay, the other people would be people who are not acting in their capacity as state officials or agents.
For example, I would not be able to write this if it were not for the education I received from my parents and the teachers at Lewis Stairs Elementary school. I would not be a philosopher without the education provided by the professors at Marietta College and The Ohio State University.
Naturally, some of the failures I have experienced can also be attributed in part to others who have impeded me (intentionally or not).
As such, it seems clear that some of a person’s success (and failures) is due to the contributions of other people. The interesting question is thus not “do people owe others for their success (or failure)”, but “to what extent do people owe others for their success (or failure)?”
It seems easy to show that at least some of a person’s success is due to her own efforts. After all, if a person’s success had to depend entirely on the contributions of others, then an infinite regress would seem to arise, thus making success impossible. As such, it seems reasonable to infer that people can contribute to their own success (unless, of course, all success and failure is ultimately attributed to God, the un-helped success).
As might be suspected, the degree to which other people contribute to an individual’s success (or failure) will vary a great deal. For example, a businessman who was born to wealthy family in the United States, was provided with the best education money can buy, and was then helped out throughout life by family connections must clearly share must of his success with other people. As another example, a great poet who was born into poverty, was abandoned as a young child, and taught herself poetry from scavenged books would owe far less of her success to others. Interestingly, the wealthy businessman might be more inclined than the poet to claim that his success was mostly of his own doing.
One area in which the division of success (and failure) is of special interest to me is in education. Obviously enough, teachers have a role to play in the success or failure of a student. It seems equally obvious that the student also has a rather important role to play in this regard. As I have mentioned before, students often tend to blame teachers for their failures (“she failed me”) and accept credit for their successes (“I earned an A”). While this is natural, sorting out the contributions of each is a matter of some importance, especially these days. After all, there is a growing tendency in the United States (and probably elsewhere) to place the majority of the accountability on the shoulders of educators. One practical reason for this is, of course, that teachers can be fired or replaced while public schools tend to be stuck with their students, thus making the changing of teachers an easier approach to the problem. This does not, however, show how the responsibility is truly divided between teacher and student.
My own experience at the college level has been that the exceptionally good and the exceptionally bad students would tend to learn about the same regardless of the teachers. After all, the very good students take a very active role in their education (and thus will compensate for bad teachers) and the very bad students generally do not pay attention on the rare occasions they actually make it to class (and hence largely negate the impact of teaching). As such, an educator probably cannot take a great deal of credit (or blame) for the success (or failure) of these students. There can, of course, be exceptions.
Not surprisingly, it would seem that the most impact is upon the majority of the students—those who are not exceptionally good or bad as students. Of course, even then there is a question of how much the teacher is accountable for their success or failure. Also not surprisingly, education policy (especially such things as firing and merit) is being made without much understanding of how the responsibility for success and failure should be divided. This is, of course, but one example of why the division of responsibility between people matters.