There are natural virtues. These are beautiful, embryonic, behavioral inclinations in each child. Their practice – courage, compassion, justice, humility, or gratitude – create internal happiness and evoke respect from others. These virtues are brought to fruition through intentional effort.
Then there are natural vices. These are offensive, embryonic behavioral inclinations also in each child. Their practice – laziness, hedonic indulgence, injustice, arrogance, or selfishness – lead to dissolution and corruption. Vice is brought to fruition with little effort – almost by default.
Birchwood’s academic program is one of the best in Northeast Ohio. Yet academics take a back seat to our primary boast – character development. In this program, we teach and train students to forge a flourishing life, reaching goals for personal development and building a life which cares for and serves others.
Among our many efforts toward these ends, the Ben Franklin Initiative is the capstone. In this effort during students’ eighth grade year, we deepen our understanding of the Aristotelian virtues and study the lives of great men and women through award-winning films. Together we engage with the reasoning and moral integrity of exemplary people, both famous and common. We have found that the lives of “great” people provide models to inspire and challenge.
An important focus of the eighth grade year at Birchwood School of Hawken is the Ben Franklin Initiative. During this course, students explore the idea of becoming a “great person doing great things.” We use the term “great person” to describe people from all walks of life who exemplify Aristotelian virtues.
Although Aristotle’s teachings about virtue are more than 2,000 years old, they ring true to 21st century ears. I believe this is because Aristotle’s virtues are, what we would label today, “natural virtues.” These are behaviors which are universally recognized as good. They appeal to common sense. Natural virtues are respected and valued regardless of religion, culture, or race.
Take the virtue of courage for example. Courage is universally valued. No matter one’s cultural or religious background, courage is considered a good thing. Can you imagine someone speaking to the contrary, “We need less courage? Courage is overrated. It is just as valuable to be cowardly?” There would be no need to contradict this fool’s rant. The importance of courage is self-evident. That’s because courage is a natural virtue. An inner acknowledgment holds that courage is a good thing.
Aristotle taught that it is within most people’s power to become subjectively happy. Subjective happiness, Aristotle explained, is the result of good character. Aristotle believed that if you train yourself to be good, by working on your virtues and controlling your vices, you will discover that a happy state of mind comes from habitually doing the right thing. “Happiness comes as a result of goodness, along with a learning process, and effort.”
Since the late 1980s, academic competitions have been an integral part of our programming at Birchwood School. They are an important support to our academic and character development programs. But given the negative connotations of competition in elementary and middle school we found it necessary to explain how academic competitions might become a valuable component of a Birchwood education. We identified three components.
As I explained last month, the first aim of the success cycle is to help children create a history of achievement and progress. This history leads to self-confidence and self-worth – cornerstones for growth. Its second aim is to help children create the habits and ethics for personal productivity and achievement. These are the backbone of lifelong growth and success: hard work, self-discipline, determination, self-reliance, resilience, time management, and organization. Find a successful person and you will find these attributes.
The success cycle is a core instructional practice at Birchwood. It introduces children to patterns of behavior which lead to success and growth. It is practiced in every classroom across the grade levels so it has the potential to create habits and attitudes which play an important role in academic growth and character development.