The Wheatley Institution

From the Founding to the Future: Teaching Civic Virtue

July 12, 2017 | Spencer Yamada

What better place to learn about the value and meaning of the American Founding than Philadelphia? This was the original idea behind the Civic Education Project, The Wheatley Institution and BYU Public School Partnership’s annual effort to bring the ideas that ground the American Founding to life in the schools of America. Last month, in the second annual Project, a group of 25 educators, ranging from middle school teachers to district administrators, spent the week touring the historic sites of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention.

As participants visited historic sites, they kept one goal in mind: how to share what they were learning with the next generation. It was emphasized and re-emphasized that American nationhood requires a moral and virtuous population that is capable of self-governance. The founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams believed that a foundation of proper education and religious observance would allow the nation to flourish. While many of their original plans have evolved in unexpected ways, the basic principles remain.

Accompanying the group were several leading experts on civic virtue. Dr. Ralph Hancock, a political philosopher at BYU, provided regular commentary and insight. He led daily discussions based on reading materials and the day’s activities. Dr. Paul Rahe from Hillsdale College lectured on the nature of civic virtue, providing wide-ranging historical context for the idea of virtue and helping teachers “connect the dots” of the intellectual roots of the American form of government.   Dr. Daniel Mark of Villanova University discussed what it means to have a culture that sustains democracy, emphasizing the role of religious freedom and how education and family form the bedrock of republican government.

As part of the project, teachers and administrators recorded video clips at historic sites to use as material in their classrooms and schools. Some teachers developed prompts beforehand to use as focal points for the videos and instructional tools they created.

Brent Chowen, a professor of education and former history teacher, felt that the location mattered. “Even though I’ve learned a lot about American history, coming here [to Philadelphia] . . . and being able to see where these various events took place has really been transformative.” Teresa Louw, a 5th grade teacher, appreciated the interaction she was able to have with other teachers. “Being able to collaborate with other educators and administrators, and to see their points of view was very impactful for me. Because of this experience, I’ll go back with more passion for teaching civic virtue. Now I know how to pull all [the information] together in a classroom, and my understanding has increased. I feel more confident about the things that I’ve learned here, which has given me more passion to draw my students in to being better citizens.”

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