What Would Ben Franklin Do?

Employ Ben Franklin's 13 virtues to a modern drug-abuse prevention plan.

By Alicia Johnson

Ben Franklin

A short study of Ben Franklin's Autobiography can take us in many different directions. Students can study Franklin as a politician, a humorist, a scientist, an inventor, a businessman, or maybe even as America's first self-help guru. No matter what aspect of Ben's life we bring into the classroom, the question "What would Ben do?" gives learners an opportunity to look closely at America's original Renaissance man and see how his life, as large as it may appear, was similar to our own lives.

We Can All Relate to Ben

At some point in our lives, we have all tried to change something about ourselves that we don't like. It usually comes in the form of New Year's resolutions, or the pre-summer diet and exercise plan. It is often the same each time. We start strong, slow down on our follow through, and ultimately fall short of our goals. Such is the case with Ben Franklin in his Autobiography. Ben outlines his strategic plan to become morally perfect. He goes so far as to create a list of the top 13 virtues to strive for:

  • temperance
  • silence
  • order
  • resolution
  • frugality
  • industry
  • sincerity
  • justice
  • moderation
  • cleanliness
  • tranquility
  • chastity
  • humility.

Ben develops a plan that guides him to perfect one of these 13 virtues each week. It is a wonderful undertaking (some of it may be tongue-in-cheek), but it ends with Ben deciding that he cannot accomplish his mission because all of his weaknesses are intertwined. Just when he thinks he has mastered a virtue, he slips up. He contends that the attempt to become virtuous made him stronger, despite the fact that he did not reach his ultimate goal. Franklin pleased himself with his attempt and hoped others would find the same happiness in a personal search for these same virtues.

When Do Habits Change from Annoyances to Dangerous?

I like to take my class into the computer lab after discussing Ben's habit-breaking goals. I have them read about habits that have gone astray – addictions. I choose the links in advance because as we know, some articles that come up on an "addiction" search might not be appropriate. Time online magazine has some wonderful articles and interactive graphics about addiction and its effects on the brain. Pupils can research how addictions begin, how they affect our brains, and how Americans' addictions have changed over the years.

What Are We Doing as a Nation?

It's not enough to know that many Americans suffer from addiction, so on day two of our three-day lab, I ask my class to spend time looking over the drug abuse website that is full of valuable information on substance abuse. Eventually, I lead them to the "Principles of Effective Treatment" section of the website where I give them their first assignment. They are to review the list of medical and behavioral treatment approaches from the government website, and explain how doing one or the other (not both) would be similar to Franklin's experience of trying to reach moral perfection. This response is in the form of a class blog entry. Pupils will have time to peruse the site further and prepare for the 3rd and final day of the computer lab. 

What Would Ben Do?

On day three, the class pairs up to create their own list based on Franklin's list of virtues. This list should show how each of the thirteen virtues from Franklin's Autobiography can help with prevention or treatment of substance abuse in today's society. The resulting product is a close and thoughtful look at both Ben Franklin and addiction.

The following are lessons found on our site that take a relevant look at the subject of substance abuse and addictions. These resources are designed for teenagers.


Role Playing Resistance Tactics to Avoid Violence or Drugs

This D.A.V.E. site lesson is wonderful because it not only approaches drug education, but violence education as well.  Pupils are given scenarios where they role play their possible responses (downloadable pdf with scenarios provided.) They have an opportunity to create their own scenarios as well. The reflection questions at the end (also provided) give them a chance to think more deeply about their role playing experience. If you have a high-energy class, role playing is a wonderful way to get them moving around in the midst of learning.

Discovery's "Deadly Highs" - Everything You Will Need

Discovery does everything but teach the lesson for you. In five class periods, your class will become familiar with vocabulary of certain drugs (list provided) and their effects on the body (fact sheet handout provided). The lesson allows for differentiated learning styles and provides assessment ideas for their anti-drug song project. The student-directed activities will be meaningful as they work in their groups to discuss prevention ideas.  An evaluation form is included for peer reviews at the end of the group presentations. This type of lesson can be included in a health or English class since many standards from both are met.

Prescription Drug Use Public Service Announcement

When pupils have a chance to do something positive with their new-found knowledge, it is a win/win. Teens can be very passionate about helping their community. They benefit from sharing their knowledge and their audience benefits from that knowledge as well. This resource has them read a New York Times article about prescription drug abuse and answer questions (provided) for a deeper understanding of the material. Their research results will be utilized as they create public service announcements about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs. The suggested extension activities include a school-wide awareness campaign. This lesson could be as small or as big as you want it to be.