Vital Signs

Duty

Two years ago, in one of the history seminars I offer to homeschoolers, I remarked on Robert E. Lee’s convictions regarding duty.  We had just finished reviewing his life—his youth spent as acting head of his small household, his years at West Point both as a cadet and as superintendent, his heroism in the war with Mexico, his excruciating decision to resign his Army commission, his sense of obligation to his soldiers and Virginia, his final days as president of Washington College in Lexington.  “For Lee,” I said, summing up, “duty was a sort of eighth virtue.  This concept was a driving force in his life—perhaps the driving force.  He once called duty ‘the most sublime word in our language.’”

One of the young men in class raised his hand: “I’ve never liked that word duty much.”

His comment caught me off guard.  “Why not?” I asked him.

Before he could answer, a young woman said, “It sounds harsh.”

“It’s old-fashioned,” another student commented.  “It sounds heavy.”

Several of the other students in the class nodded in agreement.

I missed a teaching moment.  (I’m sure many such opportunities slip past me.)  Instead of delving deeper into the matter, I blinked away these comments and continued on with our discussion...

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