The new film Lincoln deftly explores the matter of both moral and physical courage. But it also touches on the First Lady's remarkable degree of "social courage." In one delicious scene, she publicly rebukes Representative Thaddeus Stevens for investigating White House finances, making guests in a receiving line wait to shake the president's hand. Mary Todd Lincoln had her challenges, but she knew what she wanted and went after it.
Watching this movie reinforced my notion that if there was one quality I could give to all students it would be social courage. By social courage, I mean the kind of everyday gutsiness that is raising one's hand in class to ask a question, striking up a conversation with a stranger who could become a new friend, or picking up the phone to call a potential employer.
Adolescents are at the mercy of their anxieties, especially when it comes to fitting in with their peers. Scientifically, this has to do with the portion of the brain responsible for monitoring the opinions of others and how it grows dramatically during early adolescence. It's all probably related to our ancestors' need to keep together in a pack. Those who wandered away or followed their own dreams were likely to end up eaten.
In our modern world, its social courage that gives us the advantage. Unfortunately it is not a skill that is taught deliberately in schools.
At least one study has shown that low-income students are especially hesitant to ask for help, something that can severely limit their academic advancement. (1)
I'd wager that the opportunity to learn social courage is declining for all students -- a result of technology, helicopter parenting, and an ever-increasing focus in schools on the "basics" (to the detriment of art, music and theater, which are more likely to push kids out of their comfort zones). Social situations are getting easier for kids who can now avoid having difficult conversations in person simply by texting or using Facebook, but there may be a large cost when it comes to long-term life skills.
We might take a hint from the Mormon community, which sends young men off to practice speaking to strangers by encouraging them to join their Church. If you take the religious part out, you're left with a degree program in social courage.
At my organization, NJ SEEDS, we have started teaching social courage by having students do assignments that require "risky" actions. This includes teaching a friend the meaning of a philosophical concept or sharing with one's parents about their hopes and fears. We find that even high-achieving students benefit from practicing the skills of social courage because it makes them more confident in expressing themselves and when taking on leadership roles (running for student council, working for the school paper, etc.).
As a nation, we could go a long way toward preparing students for personal and professional success by thinking more about social courage and how to include it in the curriculum.
(1) Jessica McCrory Calarco, "I Need Help!" Social Class and Children's Help-Seeking in Elementary School, American Sociological Review, December 2011 vol. 76 no. 6 862-882.