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Learning Public Virtue

My father liked to tell us that he saved the historic sailing ship, Old Ironsides, from the wrecking ball.  This was, of course, a bit of an exaggeration, but Dad did join hundreds of thousands of school children across the United States to help raise money in the 1920’s to pay for the restoration of the old frigate.

By 1920, the USS Constitution, a key actor in the War of 1812, lay rotting in Boston, victim to decades of weather, rot, and neglect.  A national effort was undertaken to raise funds from various sources to restore the ship, now in danger of either sinking or being broken apart.  In 1927 the National Save Old Ironsides campaign was inaugurated.  Part of the plan involved recruiting 16 million school children across the country who would donate two to three cents to the effort.  In the end, the pennies campaign raised $154,000, a remarkable sum given the logistics involved.  Together with the sale of lithographs of the ship in one of its famous battles, and an appropriation from Congress, the ship was restored and continues to this day to be a commissioned naval ship open for public viewing in Charleston, Massachusetts.

This may seem terribly insignificant and quite old fashioned.  Today school children raise money, though it is usually for a more parochial purpose – raising money for a school trip, band uniforms, or sports equipment and the like.  But the fact that, decades later, my father remembered his little part in this great civic venture with pride may be a lesson for us. 

At breakfast this week I listened to young parents in my church talk about their children’s schooling.  In high school. their children report, the pressure around college entrance drives everything, as students pile up Advance Placement scores, sports and music involvement, and test prep sessions.  One parent told of his daughter leaving for school at 7:15 a.m., arriving home at 8:15 p.m., and then typically staying up until midnight or one with homework.  Another parent has just signed his middle school daughter up for private prep sessions for the entrance exams that will determine placement options in the selective city high schools.  Another parent lamented that children thinking about playing a sport in college usually start specializing in one sport by the fourth grade.  And another parent said that volunteering in high school is wedged into the schedule more to build the college application profile than to offer a helping hand.

It’s hard to fault these parents for feeling trapped by the need to do everything they can to help their child succeed in this highly competitive school environment.  But it’s also hard to miss the fact that all of this is about personal achievement, not about forming any sense of public virtue.  These parents would be hard pressed to identify much in their children’s public school experience that points toward the common good.  Pennies for a battleship may seem quaint to us, but it is worth noting that it was my father’s generation of school children that collectively helped the nation survive the Great Depression and win the Second World War, arguably two of the greatest national challenges we’ve faced.

Children understand that test metrics drive much in our world today, including the fate of their schools, the careers of their teachers, and their own prospects for college admission.  There aren’t comparable metrics for learning public virtue.  As a result, it doesn’t rank high on the list of things deserving our attention.  Meanwhile, the morning of my breakfast The Chicago Tribune reported that the governor and his allies in Springfield are trying to pass legislation allowing for the state to take over the Chicago Public Schools in order to declare bankruptcy, void the teachers’ contracts, and free the new overseers to close more neighborhood schools, expand charters and other forms of privatization, impose new standards, and squelch even the minimal forms of democratic, public involvement in school oversight existing in Chicago today.  So much for attending to public virtue.

My Dad went on to earn a PhD in chemistry; he obviously attended to the academic work of his public schools in blue collar Melrose, Massachusetts and evidently those schools served him well.  But the story I remember from his childhood, the one he enjoyed telling the most, is about bringing pennies to school to save Old Ironsides.  It exposed him to a purpose beyond his own personal advancement.  It joined him to a collective enterprise larger than his own personal ambition.  This week, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, I am grateful for the gift of this story, and for the reminder of the incubators of public virtue that today are so threatened, and which we must all commit ourselves to protect.

                                     John H. Thomas

                                     January 21, 2016 



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