“Social studies teachers have a responsibility and a duty to refocus their classrooms on the teaching of character and civic virtue. They should not be timid or hesitant about working toward these goals. The fate of the American experiment in self government depends in no small part on the store of civic virtue that resides in the American people. The social studies profession of this nation has a vital role to play in keeping this wellspring of civic virtue flowing.”

From the National Council for Social Studies Charter on Civic Virtues

Benjamin Franklin image from the Franklin Institute

It was the moment 16-year old Benjamin Franklin had been waiting for. Watching from his hiding place as the last workers locked up the newspaper building he squeezed his precious essay one last time and secretly slipped it under the editor’s door. Since his mentors had little interest in his opinions because of his young age, he had written his manuscript under the fictitious identity of a middle-aged widow he had named Silence Dogood. He chose the name to express his appreciation for civic virtue: his desire to do good. Little did he know it would be the first of fourteen letters he would anonymously pen as Silence Dogood, and the first of many manuscripts he would write on virtue throughout his life. He just wanted to engage in the discussions about the issues of his time. He wanted to express his patriotism. He wanted to share his voice.

Since I first read about Benjamin Franklin’s imaginative deception I have thought of it an important lesson for those of us working as civic educators. The fact that his aspirations and his potential were overlooked by his mentors is instructive. Today’s teenagers are not unlike him.  Many have a strong desire to engage in discussions about the issues and values of our time; to express their patriotism; to share their voices. We want to be sure to recognize these qualities in young people, validate them, and provide constructive direction for them. Indeed, it is our civic duty to do so!

In both the Greek and Roman societies it was the responsibility of adults to provide moral education and instill an appreciation of virtues and the importance of a virtuous culture to young people. America’s Founders went further making it clear that the nation’s very existence was dependent on a virtuous people.  James Madison said, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”  In this regard the National Council for Social Studies Charter on Civic Virtues states that, “The fostering of civic virtue is a critical task for our nation’s schools.”

One way teachers can help students connect with the virtues of their American heritage is to take a lesson from Benjamin Franklin: have them write about them. The Bill of Rights Institute’s Being an American Essay Contest is the perfect template for such an approach. The contest asks students to trace a civic value through the American story. They are asked to:

  • Identify a civic value they think is most essential to being an American
  • Write about a Founding document that reflects this value
  • Describe how a figure from American history embodies this value
  • Give examples how they personally have or will put this value into practice

The contest boasts a generous prize package offering nine regional first place awards of $5,000 each along with a three-day educational trip to Washington, D.C. Since teachers have such an important role in training young people about American’s civic virtues, and because they are doing so via the contest, they are awarded matching prizes if their students win.

More important than the prizes, the assignment enables students to reflect on the importance of values we esteem as Americans, and then personalizes their work by asking them to apply their chosen value to their own lives. I ask students to write their essays so they are proud of them and put them on their wall to inspire them. Over the four year history of the contest, 100,000 students have written essays reflecting the importance of virtues as expressed in our Founding documents and in the lives of our heroes.  It provides students a voice and a mechanism to connect with and process important American ideals.

Young people are looking to adults for direction and guidance in life. They are looking for values they feel are worthy of them.  Social studies teachers are in a unique position to expose students to the importance of civic virtues in this regard. Champion the teaching of civic virtues in your classroom. Take a lesson from sixteen your old Benjamin Franklin. Recognize your student’s potential to be virtuous citizens and both teach and inspire them to DO GOOD!

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