Duty: A virtue without glitter

by Mr. Sheehy

When it comes to conferences, some topics glitter. At the TIE Conference I recently attended in Sioux Falls, the session on homework packed its small space to standing room only. And why shouldn’t it? The title was amorphous enough to pique curiosity and the topic universally difficult enough to draw a needy bunch. So full was it that I opted not to squeeze in, choosing instead to prepare for my own presentation that immediately followed it.

My own session did not glitter. It was on digital citizenship and in it I was sharing a resource that a colleague and I had created for TIE, called My Footprint. Though an important topic, digital citizenship is not the kind of thing we want to teach. Classify it next to messages about drinking and driving, suicide, and organizing notebooks: we’ll teach these things because we are convinced they are important, but what we really want is for someone else to teach these things to our students. It’s a glitter free environment.

Teaching such things seems instead to fall under the label of duty. It is our duty as teachers to make sure our students know these things. Ultimately the duty is a parental duty, of course, but we have a role even when the parents are doing their duty. We are the airbag meant to compliment the seat belt, and like the airbag, we are not intended to replace the seat belt; also like the airbag, many consumers insist on relying solely upon us, often to their own demise.

This idea of duty has been on my mind a lot lately. I am reading Mornings on Horseback, David McCullough’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt’s formative years. Much of the beginning of the book focuses upon Theodore Roosevelt Sr., the President’s father, and it is clear our 26th President was raised in an atmosphere where duty was inculcated and taken very seriously. Roosevelt Sr.’s own mother-in-law once said of him, “Thee is a good young man. I really think if anyone ever tried to do their duty, he does.”

Like many ideas, once I became attuned to this, it became the thing I saw wherever I turned. Reading late in my hotel room the night before my presentation, I was struck by part of Jeremiah’s prophecy to the sons of Josiah:

Do you think you are a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him. (Jer. 22:15-16 RSV)

Shallum had enjoyed the wealth of kingship but not the responsibility. He missed the duty that accompanies such a post.

Standing before colleagues to discuss digital citizenship, this sense of duty struck me as a crucial piece to the puzzle I was trying to assemble. Here my students thrive in a rich western nation with all the power the world’s consumer economies can provide, and they seem to lack a sense of duty or responsibility that should accompany such riches. They are in too many ways like Shallum, thinking they are kings because they compete in pocket-technology. Yet what are they doing with this power, with this wealth?

The burden of teaching digital citizenship grew heavier the moment I made the connection between Shallum and my students, but it’s breadth made it unwiedly. This was more than digital citizenship, it was citizenship. Call it global citizenship, or call it something else, there is a sense of duty I longed to convey to my students that they obviously lacked. The reality was that if they needed a special lesson to teach them not to use Twitter to bully others, something more than digital citizenship was missing.

Yet when I grew fully honest, I admitted it was a sense of duty I too lacked. What am I doing with this power, with this wealth? Am I dealing in my own cedar and considering it a sign of something I think I have earned?

For me, when I begin to think I have earned something or deserve something, that is when I know I have gone off track, that an entitlement attitude has infected my thinking.  How to get on track is another question, one which I continue to explore. One place I have begun is where Josiah had succeeded:

He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well. (Jer. 22.16 RSV)

I am not in the place of a king, to judge such causes, but this Internet connection I am enjoying is indication enough that I have the power to assist the poor and needy.

Thus I began my cogitation upon duty, an unglittery virtue I have seemingly forgotten, but one which I definitely need to reconsider.

Thanks for reading.