Phil Schwenk: Teaching Virtue to Children Gives Them Purpose, Lessens Depression and Anxiety

Mar 8, 2023

Live from Music Row, Wednesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed American Classical Education Principal Philip Schwenk in studio to discuss how a classical education will help children develop the important sense of purpose through virtue.

Leahy: There’s a topic Phil that you talk about all the time, and the more you talk about it, the more I think it’s critically important. This is not a topic that usually is heard on morning radio talk shows, but I wanna talk about it right now. Virtue. You talk about that all the time…

Schwenk: Absolutely.

Leahy: As one of the purposes of schools. Why do you focus on virtue?

Schwenk: That’s why we call ourselves classical schools, it’s always been central to education, period. If you go back thousands of years, there’s always been a discussion around not just being learned for the sake of being able to read or write or to speak, but you’re seeking what is true and what is good.

And that happiness is at that cross-section of goodness, truth, and beauty. In order to be part of what we call the great conversation you need to be able to talk about virtues, so kids need to be part of a conversation where they’re discussing what it means to be prudent or moderate or courageous or wise. And it’s not a new conversation. We’ve been talking about this for thousands of years.

Carmichael: Do you think in the absence of being taught, the importance of being virtuous, do you think in the absence of that people grow up to be not virtuous?

Schwenk: Oh, absolutely. And I think that most people historically would agree with that, and it’s inconsistent with what we value as a country. If you actually read a lot of the documents of the original Founding Fathers to have a truly democratic republic, it should be run by good people. And if you’re not teaching people how to be good and virtuous, you’re gonna struggle with the entire balance of all those things.

Carmichael: If you’re not teaching someone the importance of being virtuous, then as voters, it’d be very hard for them to identify and vote for the person who’s virtuous because it’s a lot easier to vote for the person who says, vote for me and I’ll give you something.

Schwenk: Oh, sure. And even beyond the person, just the idea that there is something in good or true to orient towards. If you don’t have anything to orient towards, it doesn’t orient your voting or how you’re gonna make choices. And the advantage we have in classical schools is this isn’t something that we’re deciding right now as a thing. We can give them thousands of documents of writers and thinkers over the years.

Leahy: You go back to Socrates and Plato—even Thales before that.

Schwenk: Absolutely. And most modern Americans have no idea what you were just talking about. And so the discussion is something that when you get kids to talk about that starting early, the idea of virtue is you start in kindergarten. It’s not that you don’t just talk to a, 15-year-old about virtue. You can start teaching children about what it means to be courageous or friendly or moderate.

Leahy: I guess this would be politically incorrect because you wanna talk about virtue and not gender fluidity. (Laughter) I kid.

Schwenk: Socrates wasn’t talking about that. I think most of us, even if we’re not taught about it, have an idea that there is something good. But I think we’ve lost sight of that. Good is something that’s been around for thousands of years. It’s not just, I get to define what is good, and I think one of the areas that classical schools talk about is really the evidence of thousands of years of some of the big questions that human beings still have.

But we’re not necessarily trying to understand what the answers to those questions are. Human beings always want to know about purpose. Why am I here? Why does that exist or what does it mean to love or to be courageous? In our day today, I think it’s very difficult to be courageous and I think most people don’t even really understand what courage is because we’re not talking about it in our schools.

Carmichael: Do you think somebody who is asking the question, why am I here believes in God?

Schwenk: I think obviously the original intention of that discussion that came to conclusions that obviously there was a, you had to talk about God, I think most Americans struggle with that now cause we’re not supposed to be talking about things like that. I think most people lead to, there must be something bigger, that orients how we do things. And that’s always been part of, it’s not a new discussion again.

Leahy: There have been an awful lot of reports that young children and teenagers struggle with depression, and anxiety. And it’s been heightened by social media, but it’s also been heightened in my view by the lack of purpose in the lives of many children and many teenagers. Do you see that the discussion and teaching of virtue will improve that situation?

Schwenk: 100 percent. It’s a population I’ve been around for, going on 30 years. I watched teenagers most of my life, and one of the growing issues that I see with teenagers that I think is linked to the anxiety and depression you are talking about. They don’t know what their purpose is. They don’t even know why they’re here. And nobody’s talking about the orientation towards something good. They’re floating lost, and it’s hard to watch.

When you start getting them into a discussion about these questions that have been going on, and they can read literature and histories on these things, they can start putting themselves in those spaces and connecting to a character, a historical issue, and start recognizing purpose in those things. But yes, I think we have a whole generation of kids that basically feel purposeless and they’re aimless.

Leahy: I see that all the time. And when they’re purposeless and aimless, they watch cat videos on TikTok, for instance.

Schwenk: Hour upon hour, upon hour. Yes.

Leahy: Personally, I’d like to have a big overarching goal.

Carmichael: By the way, you described it is that somebody who is purposeless by definition has no goals. And if you don’t have any goals and you get up in the morning, you start the day. What’s the point? And that’s not a good place. That’s not a good way to start the day.

Leahy: What’s the point of this day? Let me just go back to bed.

Carmichael: That’s not good. I like the way you express that because teaching purpose and teaching virtue is absolutely central to helping people grow up to become fulfilled and happy.

Schwenk: I agree.

Leahy: So how do you teach that to kids in today’s culture? Let’s say you’ve got you we’ve got a K 5 American Classical Education school using that classical model and part of the charter school initiative operating next fall. How do you teach virtue in your curriculum?

Schwenk: I think there are some basics there. One, you have to define terms and then you have to model it. So much of my work as an administrator is making sure that you put adults in front of students that can model these behaviors or they’re doing their best to model these behaviors.

Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.