The Ben Franklin Initiative

by Charles Debelak

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.

Eighth grade students learn that there are two aspects to the life of a “great” person. First, a great person is someone who takes responsibility for their life and develops whatever talents or abilities they possess. They set goals in life and strive to live for meaning and purpose beyond themselves. 

In addition, a great person seeks ways to care for, and serve others. A great person is dedicated to making their world a better place, whether it is among family, friends, or the greater society. While becoming a great person might include financial or professional success, its value and attainment transcends material gains because a great person realizes their potential as a human being.

The pathway toward greatness is the cultivation and habituation of moral virtues, some of which are courage, self-control, justice, compassion, gratitude, humility, and wisdom. Students learn that every person is born with the potential to be virtuous, but virtue must be nurtured until it is actualized, until it has become a habit. It is the aggregate of virtuous habits, habits which constitute a person’s character, and good character has the most profound effect upon lifelong happiness.

Students learn that becoming virtuous leads to a deep sense of personal fulfillment and it is a way of life that garners the respect and honor of others. In the “doing of great things,” students come to understand that the fullness of their lives will be in realizing their many and varied potentialities while also living and working for purposes that contribute to a better world.

During the year, we study and reflect upon the lives of great  people from all walks of life. We watch award-winning movies which highlight true stories of people who can inspire us. We  study how they think, the choices they made, and the behaviors that made them “great.” Through these studies, students learn  skills that promote independence, self-reflection, responsibility, collaboration, goal-setting, and  planning. The Ben Franklin Initiative speaks to  the best intentions of young teens and inspires them to fulfill their potential. 

A program such as this is critical for students in their early teen years. During adolescence, young people are yearning to be more independent, they want to make their own choices about life. But they need a framework for these responsibilities and it is important that parents and teachers prepare them to make thoughtful, reasoned decisions. It is everyone’s hope that these young men and women will become a blessing to themselves and everyone around them. 

The name of this program, the Ben Franklin  Initiative, is obviously derived from the historical figure, Ben Franklin, a child of common origins  but of uncommon adult accomplishments. Franklin was determined in his teen years to become a noble and good  man: personally successful and socially responsible. To this end, after considerable study and personal reflection, Franklin identified 14 personal virtues that he believed were necessary for success. Aiming to cultivate these virtues, he established a plan of action, and although early success was elusive, the impact and result of these initiatives forged a remarkable character and made Franklin one of America’s greatest Founding Fathers and a good model  for young teens. 

Click here to view Mr. Debelak’s Education at Birchwood Video Series.

This article was written by Birchwood’s Head of School Charles Debelak to provide parents with information about sound educational principles and child development issues gleaned from history, contemporary research, and his 50+ years of educating, coaching, and counseling children, young adults, and parents.