I begin this unit with an excerpt from The Autobiogaphy of Ben Franklin. This is a great way to introduce independent thinkers, and it is a great precursor to the Transcendentalists who followed Franklin in about 50-75 years later. Franklin is a poster child for the Age of Reason. I use him to explain how society began to look toward science to explain the world and moved away from religion as the origin of all things.
This fits into the Transcendentalists because their religious views and ideas were in stark contrast to the Puritans who populated New England just prior to the Transcendentalists. Here, we see men thinking to explain the world and the importance of the individual. God is no longer the center of the universe, and nature is revered as a place an individual can find God.
Much happens in thought during this period and Ben Franklin ushers this new school of thought into mainstreamed society.
The reading selection is from the text book Prentice Hall Literature, The American Experience, 2002. Pages 140-145.
This lesson is a pre-reading activity to prepare students to wrap their head around the concept of whether it is possible for a human being to be considered morally perfect. This idea of moral perfection is the main point of the excerpt that we will be reading from the Autobiography of Ben Franklin. Franklin comes up with a systematic way to achieve moral perfection; although he uses science as the basis for his pursuit, he fails to consider human nature.
I begin with a quick write in which I write the following prompt on the board and ask students to respond:
Discuss whether it is possible to achieve moral perfection/to be infallable.
Identify people in our culture, living or dead, that have been perceived to be morally perfect. (include them even if you do not think they are perfect.) Why are they considered so?
Students will usually come up with names like Jesus, the pope, sometimes even rap stars.
After giving students about 10 minutes to respond, I pick popsicle sticks and ask students to read their responses. I attempt to create a discussion as to whether it is possbile for a human being to achieve moral perfection.
In this section, I use the Dalai Llama as an example of someone who is considered by his followers to be morally perfect. We watch this video which explains how the Dalai Llama is discovered. Following the video, I ask students to list on their quick write the traits that would lead someone to believe that the Dalai Llama is morally perfect. Student responses usually include the fact that he is discovered by a group of monks and there have only been fourteen of them. I also ask them whether they believe he is morally perfect. Is the Dalai Llama human? Can a human be perfect? I know students are engaged in this activity because they are incredibly interested and hooked into the video when I play it. You can hear a pin drop. This example proves the point that some "humans" in our world are considered morally perfect. Ben Franklin did not have a group of followers or disciples as the Dalai Llama, but he used his skills as a scientist to assemble a systematic way to achieve perfection--so he thought. He attempt is an example of the type of attempt some one would make during the Age of Reason.
Here, we read together the excerpt from Franklin's autobiography. As students read, they complete a guided reading check sheet, which will be handed in for a grade following completion of the excerpt.
Following the excerpt, I ask students where Franklin underestimated his ability to achieve moral perfection? Was his planned flawed? Or, was he flawed? How did the events of the Age of Reason influence his pursuit of moral perfection? We begin a discussion on these two points.
I try to pull out some of the significant word choice or diction in this excerpt so that students can analyze where Franklin was trying to go with his pursuit of moral perfection. It also helps students to break down the higher level vocabulary he uses.
For homework, I want students to reflect on how the Age of Reason influenced Franklin's pursuit of moral perfection. I also want them to consider if Franklin's pursuit would have occurred if he were a staunchly religious man.
My point that I am stressing is that the Age of Reason used science to explain the world and ourselves, which was a movement away from religion. Prior to the Age of Reason, religion was used to explain natural phenomenon, human nature, etc.