Benjamin Franklin was a true Renaissance man as an author, political theorist, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, and one of the founding fathers of the United States. His educational influence is less well-known than his inventions and political achievements. He founded the Philadelphia Academy as a secondary school in 1751. Its instructional curriculum emphasized modern languages, agriculture, accounting, and other practical subjects instead of the more traditional classical education at most grammar schools. Forty years later, the Philadelphia Academy became the University of Pennsylvania (Blinderman, 8).
Franklin was not in favor of traditional education but instead believed in the new methods of student-led experimentation and learning through individual experience because personality is shaped by one’s environment (Blinderman, 8). He favored studying the English language instead of the classic languages since English was the trade language in America. Once students mastered the English language, they should then learn a second language in order to be better businessmen (Best, 14). Franklin also spoke out against slavery and chauvinism, believing that African-Americans and women should be allowed in school (Blinderman, 14). He also fervently said that leaders needed to be great speakers and writers as evident in today’s society. Franklin believed that the goal of true learning was to serve mankind and country.
Franklin’s ideas were not wholly accepted during his day and were often misapplied in later centuries. On one hand, his English grammar school failed because its headmaster refused to implement Franklin’s innovations (Blinderman, 12). On the other, Franklin’s academy became important for creating a teacher-training program for poor students. After the academy evolved into the University of Pennsylvania, “it established the nation’s first chair in botany and instituted the nation’s first systematic instruction in medicine” (Blinderman, 13). Franklin’s educational philosophy was often twisted into a “cash value” system in American education; the belief being that going to school increased one’s potential for gaining wealth (Best, 18). Of course this incorrect view ignores Franklin’s practical concerns and humanitarian principles for education.
Franklin easily contributed more to the American education system than any other man in the eighteenth century as he founded libraries and schools, and advocated for female and African-American education. But Franklin’s confidence was based solely in man and his hard work. Since reason ensured man’s success, Franklin did not include God in the equation. For Franklin, business success equaled happiness. While Franklin’s ideas about learning languages and universal education are exemplary, his philosophical premise for education cannot be endorsed by Christians. Because man is not self-reliant, God must be included in the equation for Christian education.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Best, J. H. (Ed.). (1962). Benjamin Franklin on education. New York, NY: Columbia University.
Blinderman, A. (1976). Three early champions of education: Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Noah Webster. Bloomington, IN: The Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.