Learning to be Leaders: Can Civic Virtues Be Taught?

By ROBERT E. PROCTOR, Joanne Toor Cummings '50 Professor of Italian at Connecticut College

Can civic virtues be taught? Can we ever "prove" that good books and inspiring teachers set young adults on a path that will lead them to become good citizens and virtuous leaders, as the Renaissance humanists believed? I found the answer to this question last summer.

During the month of August I served as the scholar/mentor to a team of four Willams School teachers who won a fellowship from the NEH-funed Council for Basic Education to study, discuss and then integrate into their curriculum the topic "The Humanities and the American Founding: From Rome to Florence to Philadelphia."  The Williams School is an independent high school on the campus of Connecticut College. It attracts some of the best students in southeastern Connecticut and sends many of them to the best colleges in the country, including Connecticut College. It is also one of the few independent day schools in New England that still offers courses in Greek and Latin.

The four teachers with whom I studied taught English, history, mathematics, and Greek and Latin. We read books the Founding Fathers studied in school: Cicero's First and Second Speech Against Catilene, his First and Second Phillipics against Marc Antony, and his treatise On Duties. We read some of The Federalist Papers. And we deepened our own understanding of classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Founders' cultural milieu by reading three contemporary works: my book Defining the Humanities: How Rediscovering a Tradition Can Improve Our Schools (Indiana University Press, 1988); M.N.S. Sellers' American Republicanism: Roman Ideology in the United States Constitution (New York University Press, 1994); and Carl J. Richard's The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome and the American Enlightenment (Harvard University Press, 1994).

Through our readings and discussions, we discovered that schooling mattered enormously for the men who gave America her independence and wrote her Constitution. The Founders, like all the political thinkers of their time, were haunted by the idea of the corruption of states over time, especially Rome. We take the permanence of our government for granted; the Founders didn't. In writing the Constitution they tried to fix the defects that led to the demise of their model, the Roman republic. The government they created is now one of the oldest governments in the world.  How did the Founders do it? Were they political geniuses?  Were they just lucky?  No. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton and the other founders may have been unusually intelligent, talented, and hard-working men who happened to be born during a time of crisis and upheaval, a time when their talents could be put to good use. But it was the classical education they received in high school that enabled them to apply these talents to the momentous task of actually founding a new nation.

By the age of 15 all of the 55 men who attended the Constitutional Convention had read, in Latin, the works of Cicero I mentioned above. Those who had gone on to college, such as John Adams, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, had read even more, especially the Roman historians Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus, and some Greek writers. Emulating the deeds of the ancient Roman republican heroes such as Cincinnatus, Junius Brutus, the Decii, Cato and Marcus Brutus inspired them to prosecute the war against the British and be virtuous citizens after the war. George Washington's favorite play was Joseph Addison's Cato; he had it performed at Valley Forge to improve the soldiers' morale.

Focus on Business Ethics

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