Franklin fifth-graders help revive Ben’s ideas

Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 11:45 AM.

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.

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