A small schoolhouse along Florida’s “forgotten coast” may seem like an unlikely place for a big idea to be born anew. But the fifth graders at the Franklin County Public School did something earlier this year that got the attention of Florida Gov. Rick Scott and a number of other state leaders.
They celebrated thrift.
And they did so in a most appropriate fashion – by playing a quiz game about America’s foremost thrift advocate, Benjamin Franklin. Co-hosted by fifth grade teacher Melanie Humble and Ben Franklin re-enactor Lloyd Wheeler, the quiz game featured a number of questions about Franklin’s life and wise sayings. And it helped launch a statewide initiative to revive an appreciation for a time-honored idea that has been largely forgotten in recent years.
Mention the word “thrift” today and you’re apt to get a blank stare – or instructions on where to find the nearest used clothing store frequented by hipsters and homeschoolers.
But the word “thrift” actually has a rich history in American life and a far more robust meaning than many people imagine. In America, the concept was first popularized in “Poor Richard’s Almanack” and “The Way to Wealth” by Benjamin Franklin. He believed Americans ought to be industrious and frugal – not just to facilitate upward mobility, but also because economic dependency and chronic debt hinders one’s freedom.
More recently, social reformers in the early 20th century celebrated “Thrift Week” every January (to coincide with Franklin’s birthday) as a way of encouraging the wise use of economic resources. Since the word “thrift” comes from the same root as “thriving,” these reformers saw the “thrift ethic” – working hard, saving for unforeseen needs, and giving generously to others – as a key to human flourishing.
Sadly, America’s thrift ethic has declined in recent years. Social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead reports that the term “thrift” is rarely associated with industriousness anymore. And frugality (which comes from the same root as “fruitfulness”) remains a foreign word to many in our day, especially government officials in Washington.
Thankfully, the John Templeton Foundation is seeking to reverse these trends. In recent months, a number of Templeton-funded thrift education programs have been launched. Some leading public officials – including the Democratic mayor of Philadelphia and the Republican governor of Florida – have issued “Thrift Week” proclamations. And a supplemental thrift curriculum, “All About the Benjamins,” has reached thousands of students
In addition, students all over the state are now playing, “R U Smarter than a Franklin County 5th Grader?” The quiz game, an expanded version of the one first played by Melanie Humble’s students, was played at a Constitution Day program at the Orlando Science Center, and by four Miami schools as part of a Celebrate Freedom Week commemoration. And a number of other schools have expressed an interest in playing the quiz game during Thrift Week celebrations next January.
The quiz game certainly seems fitting for these special commemorations. After all, Ben Franklin and other founders considered it important for Americans to have both political freedom (from tyrannical rulers) and economic freedom (from chronic debt and dependency).
And just as the future of our republic depends on a renewed appreciation for America’s founding principles, the future of the American dream depends on the revival of a forgotten idea that students along Florida’s forgotten coast recently rediscovered: thrift!
William Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute and a member of the board of contributors at USA TODAY.
Franklin County student Mikalin Huckeba, in photo at right, took home first prize (a savings bank, of course) for knowing the most answers to questions like these:
· According to Ben, if you saved a penny, what did you also do?
· How were Poor Richard and Silence Dogood connected to Ben Franklin?
· It wasn't Nike, it was Franklin who said, “There are no gains without what?”
· The city of Apalachicola was designed to be like Franklin's hometown of ___________?
· Complete this Franklin quote: “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with _____?”
· Rich men could buy books, but anyone could read in Philadelphia because Ben Franklin created what free institution?
· Complete this Franklin quote: “Eat to live, not live to _____.”
· What do you have to do to be healthy, wealthy and wise, according to Franklin?
· According to Ben, how long did it take for fish and visitors to smell?
· With which two “k” objects did Franklin test his ideas about lightning and electricity?