Great Debate (The)—Do Americans Today Have Civic Virtue?

9, 10, 11, 12

Having formulated an initial opinion on whether or not today's Americans exhibit civic virtue, students will defend their positions and analyze those of others during a structured classroom debate.

PrintOne to Two Forty-Five Minute Class Periods

The learner will:

  • formulate a conclusion concerning whether or not today's Americans have enduring civic virtue and support that conclusion with at least two examples suitable for classroom debate.
  • provide a rational, defensible support for his/her position during a classroom debate.
  • identify and record opposing arguments.
  • construct logical responses to arguments on the opposing side.
  • Summary of Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (Attachment One)
  • Summary of AARP Survey on Civic Involvement (Attachment Two)
Home Connection 

As homework, distribute and assign reading of two articles: Bowling Alone (Attachment One) and the AARP Study of Civic Involvement summary (Attachment Two). Students should be instructed to mark specific examples of American activities showing that most Americans do have civic virtue, and facts and examples that would prove most Americans do not. Students should identify a minimum of three examples for each position.

  • AARP Web site: [no longer available]
  • "New Survey Shows American Public Involved in their Communities," AARP Newsletter (December 1997).
  • Putnam, R. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy (July 1995).


  1. Anticipatory Set:Use a show of hands to determine how many students argued that most citizens do have enduring civic virtue versus those who argued that most citizens exercise civic virtue only in times of national crisis.

  2. Call on five or six students to read their essays to the class alternating between those who believe most Americans do have civic virtue (pro) and those who believe most Americans do not have civic virtue (con).

  3. Arrangethe class into smaller groups (not more than six or seven per group) based on their pro or con position. If a class of 24 is evenly divided on the topic, you would have two groups (one on each side of the topic).Give each group 10-15 minutes to do the following:

    • Read their essays to each other.
    • Decide on the two best examples to support the point of view of the group.
    • Appoint one group member to write the examples on the board; all members of the group should be prepared to explain the examples if called on by the teacher.
  4. Note: It is a good idea to use a timer for this part of the lesson to keep the students on task. You may want to adjust the time depending on student abilities in a particular class.

  5. When all groups have put their examples on the board, the spokespersons from each group should be given one to two minutes to explain the examples (why they show that civic virtue does or does not exist) and to answer questions about what the example means. This is not the time to defend or attack the examples, just to make sure everyone understands what they are.

  6. Note: Students should be instructed to write down the examples used by the opposing side during the debate because they will need to make reference to at least one of those examples in their final essay.

  7. Students should now be given five minutes to go back to their groups and develop responses to the examples given by the opposing side. Assign each group two examples for which they must develop a response. Their goal is to show that the examples are not true or that they are not sufficiently documented to draw the opposition's conclusion. For example, the group that says most Americans have enduring civic virtue may use an example that many people came to the aid of the September 11 victims. The group that believes most U.S. citizens do not have enduring civic virtue should develop an argument explaining why this example does not show most citizens have enduring civic virtue (they might support their argument using responses to past crises).

  8. All members of the group should be prepared to present arguments refuting the examples given by the opposition in the debate. Use a random system for selecting the actual spokesperson. Depending on the amount of time left at this point, each side should be given one to two minutes for its rebuttal.


The assessment of the soundness of the arguments presented will come when the students attempt to find real evidence to support the position they took as they read two articles which have been assigned for homework. Further assessment can be made of student participation in the group discussions. The following should be observed: Did the student actively participate in defending his/her position? Did the student provide logical and defensible support for his/her position? Was the student able to identify the opposing points of view? Did the student provide logical responses to arguments on opposing side?

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 05. Philanthropy and Government
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Discuss civic virtue and its role in democracy.
    2. Standard PCS 07. Skills of Civic Engagement
      1. Benchmark HS.3 Participate in acts of democratic citizenship in the community, state or nation, such as petitioning authority, advocating, voting, group problem solving, mock trials or classroom governance and elections.