Two years ago, in one of the history seminars I offer to homeschoolers, I remarked on Robert E. Lee’s convictions regarding duty. We had just finished reviewing his life—his youth spent as acting head of his small household, his years at West Point both as a cadet and as superintendent, his heroism in the war with Mexico, his excruciating decision to resign his Army commission, his sense of obligation to his soldiers and Virginia, his final days as president of Washington College in Lexington. “For Lee,” I said, summing up, “duty was a sort of eighth virtue. This concept was a driving force in his life—perhaps the driving force. He once called duty ‘the most sublime word in our language.’”
One of the young men in class raised his hand: “I’ve never liked that word duty much.”
His comment caught me off guard. “Why not?” I asked him.
Before he could answer, a young woman said, “It sounds harsh.”
“It’s old-fashioned,” another student commented. “It sounds heavy.”
Several of the other students in the class nodded in agreement.
I missed a teaching moment. (I’m sure many such opportunities slip past me.) Instead of delving deeper into the matter, I blinked away these comments and continued on with our discussion of the war.
Yet the students’ antipathy to this word duty and the young man’s initial remark stayed with me. Never in my life had I attached an onerous meaning to duty, though I had often disliked performing what I or others regarded as my duty. The more I pondered the incident, however, the more I realized how infrequently I had heard “duty” used in conversation during my adult years. As a boy enamored of history, biographies, and historical fiction, the “most sublime” word had cropped up with regularity in my reading. The two military schools I attended, one in the seventh and eighth grades, the other as a freshman and sophomore undergraduate, included duty as a part of their mottoes. For most of my life, the concept of duty, though the word itself rarely attended my thoughts, was intimately tied to my relations with faith, my wife, my family, my friends, and my work.
The comments of my students wakened me to the realization that duty has by and large vanished from our vocabulary. With the exception of the military, which still issues decorations for going “above and beyond the call of duty,” and of the media reports that mention an “off-duty” police officer, the only public reference to duty in my recollection came from the recitation by my sons of the Boy Scout Oath. Otherwise, the word seemed absent from both personal and public discourse. What had happened, I wondered? Had we relegated duty to a dusty attic along with walking canes and calling cards?
It occurred to me, of course, that the word itself might rankle the postmodernist hearts and minds of our therapeutic culture. That most basic of dictionaries—the one on my computer—defines duty as “obligation: something that someone is obliged to do for moral, legal, or religious reasons,” with a secondary definition as “a need to meet obligations: the urge to meet moral or religious obligations.” Given that many Americans nowadays steer away from obligations—moral, religious, or otherwise—the word duty does indeed sound, as my student put it, “heavy.”
Instead of duty, we moderns prefer the less burdensome term “responsibility.” The same dictionary defines responsibility as “accountability: the state, fact, or position of being accountable to someone or something.” A secondary definition here is “blame: the blame for something that has happened.” The difference between the meanings of duty and responsibility is subtle but telling: Duty is imposed from a force outside ourselves, while responsibility grows from within and constitutes a condition that an individual may choose to accept. It is an obligation that we ourselves in some ways create. “Mr. Smith is responsible for walking the dog” and “Walking the dog is one of Mr. Smith’s duties” may seem similar in denotation, but a Grand Canyon of connotation separates them. In the first instance, Mr. Smith has taken on the obligation of walking the dog. In the second, the obligation is imposed—perhaps by his wife, perhaps by Mr. Smith himself as one of his daily duties.
Such a semantic shift has consequences. In 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the attack on the compound at Waco, Texas, that resulted in the deaths of 87 people. At the postmassacre press conference, Miss Reno said that she accepted full responsibility for the slaughter. There the matter ended. Accepting responsibility for a failure like Waco, for failed public policies of any kind, rarely brings repercussions. Duty, on the other hand, holds its adherents to a higher standard, and failure to fulfill one’s duty usually portends disgrace and resignation from one’s position. Yet when was the last time a public figure voluntarily resigned a post after failing to fulfill his duties?
This century-long turning from the practice of duty to that of responsibility—and, given our litigious society and our ever-increasing demands that government provide for our needs and desires, even our sense of responsibility seems shrunken—deserves a history all its own. President John F. Kennedy once proclaimed, “Ask what you can do for your country.” To imagine President Obama, or any other of today’s liberal or mainstream politicians, uttering similar sentiments boggles the imagination. If we google Theodore Roosevelt duty, we immediately discover his essay “The Duties of American Citizenship,” in which he explains the duties of a man to his family, his faith, and his country. Jump forward a century, google Bill Clinton duty, and we find most of the entries have to do with the book Dereliction of Duty. Finally, if we google teen duty, the first two of four entries are entitled “Off-Duty Cop Dressed As Clown Shoots Teen.”
Our embrace of responsibility and our consequent rejection of duty have personal as well as public ramifications. Told that he is responsible for his studies, a student may choose either to apply himself or to become a slacker. Either way, he has taken responsibility. To tell a student, however, that it is his duty to study is an entirely different proposition. Here he has no choice; he either fulfills his duty, which places him in the right, or shirks his duty, which places him in the wrong.
One oddity here is that the yoke of duty as compared to that of responsibility is comparatively light. One feels free to argue with responsibility, accept cafeteria-style its burdens, quibble about its ramifications, but one does not argue with duty. The difference between the two is the difference between wearing a uniform every day and adopting the clothing of our choice. We may squirm wearing the uniform day after day, and we may resent it, but we waste far less of our time and energy debating what to wear.
In my 25 years of teaching, I have never once heard anyone explain to students that learning is a duty. Parents and teachers extol the value of study for graduation from high school, for entrance into college, or for personal growth, but to tell students that they have the duty to study, just as soldiers have the duty of defending their country, never enters the discussion.
This failure to incorporate duty into a young person’s code for living is unfortunate. The last of my sons is finishing high school, and from what I have observed many of his friends, homeschoolers and public-school students alike, would be much happier if someone had drilled into them the idea that a life righteously and fully lived entails the fulfillment of certain duties, an execution of obligations, rendered as ungrudgingly as possible, toward family members and friends.
In my classes, I have begun to introduce the idea of duty in small doses. On the first day of class I explain to students that they have arrived at that point in their lives when their chief obligation is to study, that they will not see this opportunity again, and that rather than spend the bulk of their time working to pay for a car, playing video games, or kicking a soccer ball, they have a duty to themselves, to their parents, to society, and to their own future to learn mathematics, languages, and history. In my history classes, we look at duty in various settings, examining, for example, not just the duties of a president, but those of a citizen in terms of voting, being informed, and protesting injustice, especially that wrought by expansive government. In English literature, we ponder Emerson’s words:
So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can!
We discuss the exhortations of former headmaster J. Washington Jarvis from his book With Love and Prayers, a collection of addresses to his students that, to a cynical adult, may appear contrived or moralistic, but which teenagers need and want to read.
Stacked against our culture’s massive resistance to imposed obligations, my efforts are undoubtedly of little consequence. The odds are long, the hour late, and the looms of the world will spin as they will. Still, it gives me satisfaction to know that some few of my students, who will become doctors, lawyers, soldiers, builders, mechanics, and even teachers, will at least carry in their hearts, as Lee said in his Farewell Address to his own soldiers, “the consciousness of duty faithfully performed.”
Besides, what choice do I have? It’s my duty.