Saturday, July 4, 2015

Fostering Independence.

During the Revolutionary War, George Washington took an unusual step for a leader:  he relinquished knowledge of much of the inner workings of  what would become America's first spy network, the Culper Spy Ring, to the experts he identified and put in charge.  It was 1778, and the British were occupying New York City.  Washington requested that Benjamin Tallmadge establish a network of spies that infiltrated the British base of operations, providing valuable information.   Tallmadge, and those closest to him, Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend, among others, surreptitiously gathered and disseminated information through their connections, providing advance notice of British plans and activities that allowed Washington's troops to thwart plans on more than one occasion.

Arguably, George Washington is considered one of the greatest leaders in American history.  Certainly his efforts during the War for Independence, and subsequent title as President, are significant achievements warranting recognition.  So how could he allow something as sensitive as the subversive activities of the enemy be monitored by a ragtag bunch of folks in New York?

Easy.  Washington believed in Project Based Investigation.  He went to his expert, Major Tallmadge, and allowed him to work to create a network that recognized and understood the importance of secrecy, and who fought hard to protect their identities as they worked tirelessly for more than four years -- and their efforts weren't really revealed to the public until the 1930s.

Spy stories are great.  The story of the Culper Spy Ring is the almost unbelievable - especially considering the fact that more than a century passed before their work was recognized by the American public.  Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would certainly identify the reason behind the success of the Culper gang as "intrinsic motivation."  They clearly owned what they were doing, and were motivated to continue for the sake of the project and themselves -- as their work was largely unrecognized by any extrinsic power.

I first became aware of this bit of history when my student, Amelia, brought the story to me as her topic for National History Day this year.  I watched her explore the Leadership and Legacy of George Washington and Benjamin Tallmadge, and dig deep into the primary sources of this project, eventually leading to a phone conversation with an internationally-known expert on the topic.  For Amelia, it was one of the most exciting projects she's ever done.  For me, it was one of the most humbling experiences, as she worked to uncover the story, and teach me what she'd learned, instead of the other way around.

Grab the buntings and flags, my friends.  Put away the lecterns and lecture notes.  Search, or help students search, for their passions, and let them go undercover, for the sake of the cause.

What cause, you ask?  Why, Independence, of course!  Student Independence!

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