This is the assignment I gave to my students this week in American Literature. I wrote it on the board. “For homework, arrive at moral perfection. You have one week.” A few of them looked at it right away and were puzzled and slightly amused, but as we worked through the lesson of the day, a short introduction to Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography by way of a passage titled “Arriving at Moral Perfection,” they started to get kind of squirrelly, started to suspect something was actually up. We read about Franklin’s project toward self improvement, his settling on 13 virtues at which he would consciously practice, and for which he would record in a little chart he made in a book a black dot whenever he transgressed any of them. He planned to spend all year doing this, in thirteen week-long courses, each week focusing on a particular one of the thirteen virtues, but all the while keeping track of transgressions in all of the others in his little virtue book.
This is either a very admirable task for someone who is conscientiously working on self improvement or a kind of early documentation of obsessive compulsive disorder; students are not quite sure which. Students are amused by the seemingly impossible nature of some of the virtues: Silence–speak not but what may benefit yourself or others; avoid trifling conversation. Okay, how often, they think, do people in our culture engage in meaningless or trivial conversation? Most of the time. Who can keep mum absolutely unless it is to benefit someone somewhere? None of us. And students are particularly amused by number 12: Chastity–use venery (sex) only for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or to the injury of yourself or others. At this point, as the result of the giggling about the health aspect of venery, I find it somewhat obligatory to offer the recent findings on sexual behavior on a person’s health, that it does, in fact, work the heart in an aerobic fashion, and studies show it makes people happier. What’s difficult is discussing how one may become “dull” or “weak” as the result of it. We kind of skip over that one. In their imaginations, though, and perhaps in their own experience, they may be perfectly aware about the ways sex can be injurious.
So once we work our way through this short excerpt in our textbook, and we’ve figured out some of this new vocabulary (temperance, frugality, humility, resolution, industry, tranquility), we’ve had a few laughs at Franklin’s fastidiousness, and we’ve made some predictions about how his little project will go (our textbook’s excerpt is heavily truncated; we don’t get to the part where he tells us what a failure it has been), I pass out the homework assignment. It is a pretty faithful replica of Franklin’s weekly virtue chart, seven days across the top, and thirteen virtues listed on the left, each with it’s own row for the week, a box for every day. The instructions: Check with yourself at the end of each day in the following week and make a black mark or a tally of some kind for each time you’ve made an infraction in one of Franklin’s virtues. At this point they are in a bit of a panic. I find it hard to stop giggling. Even though the instructions tell them to keep this chart private, that there may be things here they will not want to share, they are asking me if they have to turn it in. I clarify, no, especially with regards to temperance and chastity, I do not want to know; instead, I tell them what it is I actually want to see from them in a week’s time.
After having made a good faith, serious effort to keep track of their daily faults, I want them to write a reflection–a reflection, not a confession. I want them to write about what the experience was like, whether or not it taught them something, whether or not they find, as did Benjamin Franklin, that while moral perfection may be mostly a pipe dream, the deliberate, conscious effort to think about our behavior and our ethics may be worth the energy. The practice may not make us perfect, but it might make us better, or at least, more awake to the nature of our characters.
And then a student asks me, are you doing it, too? And then a few of them demand, Jarmer, you have to do this, too.
The homework assignment officially begins on the first day of the week. Tomorrow. And as I make it a general practice never to ask my students to do a thing that I myself would not be willing to do, I think I’m ready for the challenge. Game on.
For a sneak peak at what’s ahead over the next seven days, here is the complete list of Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues with some personal annotations :
- Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation. I’m okay with the first bit.
- Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. I think this one might be somewhat possible, kind of.
- Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. My desk at work is a mess. My office is a mess. This will need attention.
- Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve. I can do this. This week, I will do this. It’s a new week.
- Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; that is, waste nothing. Okay. Sounds reasonable enough.
- Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions. Well.
- Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; speak accordingly. I can’t trash talk my colleagues or my students?
- Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty. I’m good on this one.
- Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think you deserve. I’m a pretty fair guy, I think. I’m a lefty, but I think reason guides my politics and extremism of any kind scares me. I’ll be all right here.
- Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation. There’s that messy office. There may be a bit of a consistency problem here between the home and the workplace, between body and habitation.
- Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles or accidents common or unavoidable. Could be a problem. I tend to get hotheaded over minutiae. Fatherhood tests me on this one daily.
- Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation. Hmm. I know, if it occurs, it won’t be for offspring. Health then. Here’s to health.
- Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates. I think I can be humble, but these two cats set the bar pretty high.
There it is. No problem. Let’s see what happens with a week of close attention. Wish me luck. I think I may need it, even though, clearly, none of the above has anything to do with chance.