Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Teaching Charity

In the United Kingdom, a manifesto from the Community Foundation Network has called for the teaching of charity in schools to achieve “a long term shift in the culture of philanthropy in the UK.” This means that an organization of community groups is calling on the national government to get involved in promoting charitable behavior in children in the public schools.

It got me thinking: Could this happen in the United States?

In one sense, it is, in that President Obama has made a call to Americans to serve our communities, but that's a general "be a good citizen" type of thing, and by no means is it a lesson plan, heaven forbid. We saw how well that went over when the president just wanted to say "Welcome back!" to our nation's schoolchildren.

On, there is a link that includes ideas for starting a service project, and the education components are "read to kids," and "start a bookdrive." Both good ideas, but hardly earth-shattering curricular innovations.

I poked around online a bit, to look into this idea of children and philanthropy. I found a bookmark to an article I read back in July. I thought it was great, but I was not sure to do with it. An 11-year-old boy walked 59 days and 668 miles to bring attention to the cause of homelessness. He said it was tiring, but "then I thought about the kids who do not get to quit being homeless.” The Philanthropy Project, an organization devoted to enhancing citizen philanthropy, followed Mr. Bonner and plans to make a movie about him.

If this were my kid, I would be so smug with pride that I would be unbearable. My kid is 16 months old, and his charitable acts are sharing raspberries (that I picked) and small chunks of cheese (that I cut). He is also willing to show me his toys and even let me hold them for short periods of time.

But I would like him to grow up with a sense of social justice and civic responsibility, and charity is a first step down that road.

How do we teach charity and philanthropy to kids? Can it be taught at all? Is this even a subject for the public schools? Many would argue that only religious schools can approach such topics, insisting that they are grounded in morality and therefore are the purview of religious traditions, and that public institutions should not be pushing morality.

I disagree.

I think that learning to be a good citizen is smack dab in the center of public education, and morality and ethics are human traits. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson's ideas on public education form much of the basis for the beginning of our system here in the United States, and the Common School movement of the 19th century believed that public education could create a united, moral citizenry, helping to prevent crime and poverty. (It was greatly due to this movement that a free elementary education became available to all American children regardless of wealth or religion.)

One need not talk about religion to teach civic responsibility and charity. In public schools, the Socratic method can be used in many different subjects to begin talking about what it means to be a "good citizen," and there are often ways to localize even the broadest topics. Of course, each teacher, knowing his or her students and their general demographics, will best know how to approach the subject, bearing in mind that some students may already be recipients of charity.

I would be pleased if my child were being taught about charity school, not only when it is understood as "generosity and helpfulness," but in a broader sense, of "benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity." We are already working on it, trying to teach about sharing and getting him to stop hitting the cat.

The sharing bit may prove easier to tackle.

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