Back when I was in the news business, somebody asked me which figure from history I would most like to have interviewed. I answered without hesitation, “Benjamin Franklin.” He’s simply one of the most intriguing human beings to have ever walked the face of the earth.
Wikipedia describes Franklin as a polymath – “a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.” Franklin was “a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.” He focused the hot glare of his wide-ranging brilliance on practical, as well as theoretical matters. His inventions include the lightning rod (he almost became one himself) and bifocals. He was opinionated and outspoken and could on occasion be insufferable. But by golly, he was smart and clever and when he saw something that needed to be done, he got about doing it.
What I most want to celebrate about Mr. Franklin today, his 308th birthday, is his influence on education. His most famous and influential utterance on the subject was a pamphlet published in 1749, in which he said, “It has long been regretted as a Misfortune to the Youth of this Province that we have no ACADEMY, in which they might receive the Accomplishments of a regular Education.”
The American colonies of 1749, including Franklin’s Pennsylvania, were still in their raw, formative years. But Franklin was a man of vision, who could see the upstart land coming of age. Many of the older, leading citizens had been educated in Europe and brought that knowledge and perception to the new land. But what about the younger folk, born in America and – ready or not – faced with leading the next, vital phase of the colonies’ growth? American youth, he said, were not lacking in capabilities. What they needed was “Cultivation.” Ignorance, he said, would lead to “Mischievous consequences.”
So Franklin proposed that people of means and public stature form a corporation, obtain a charter from the government, and establish an academy of learning. He insisted that the leaders of the corporation visit the academy often, take a personal interest in the lives and education of the students, and help and encourage them in their careers. Their education, he said, should be both broad and practical: mathematics, science, language, writing, history, geography, ancient customs, morality, commerce, oratory. It was a recipe for producing a renaissance person who could draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. In other words, people in the mold of Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin was successful in his campaign. Soon after the publication of the pamphlet, the leading lights of the community established the Academy of Philadelphia. In 1791, it became known as the University of Pennsylvania. Throughout its long and distinguished history, it has been a superb institution of higher learning. It all started with Ben Franklin, who saw a present need and did something about it. But he also saw into the future. He was a leading voice for independence from Britain, and he could envision a dynamic nation based on the principles of freedom, justice and opportunity – but only if it embraced knowledge, reason and wisdom.
The question here on Ben’s 308th birthday: do we still believe what he believed about the power of education, and do we and our leaders support that ideal? The answer says a lot about where we’re headed.