An Education in the Colonies

Benjamin Franklin 1778 by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis (1725-1802) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, we discussed the educational paths of some important British players in the Industrial Revolution. This week, continuing to look at educational practices, we are taking a trip to our side of the Pond (recall we were still British subjects until 1776) to look at Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), an influential colonial who had “no formal education after the age of 10”, similar to our weaver-turned-mathematician, Thomas Simpson (1710-1761), whom we met last week. (As noted, Franklin and Simpson taught themselves arithmetic from the same text.) This colonial journey will reveal some details about what was actually being taught, formally and informally, on both sides of the Pond, and how education was evolving.

There are many versions of Franklin’s life and schooling, including his own, with details and interpretations varying, sometimes widely. Here is a brief version of the accepted canon of his family background: Franklin was born in Boston in 1706 (by modern calendars), the 15th of 17 children, probably the 10th child of his father’s second marriage; both parents were younger children of large families; his English-born father ran a candle- and soap-making business in Boston; his mother was born in Massachusetts; his maternal grandfather was a miller and school master; his paternal grandfather was a blacksmith and farmer. After at least two generations of large families, inheritances would not support all the children as adults, so especially the younger childern would earn their own livings, as Ben did.

Ben’s formal schooling lasted only two years, from ages 8 to 10, ostensibly because of cost, although an apparent lack of aptitude for the clergy was probably a contributing factor. In 1714-1715, he attended the Boston Latin School and, in 1715-1716, a school run by a Mr. George Brownell, where instruction was in English. It is likely that Ben had informal schooling before the age of eight. For one thing, schools often had entrance requirements. Jenks’ history of the Boston Latin School (1880) reports that in the days of Headmaster Lovell (c.1738- c.1776), “all that was required for admission was to read a few verses in the Bible”, which implies that entrance requirements might have been more rigorous previously, when Franklin enrolled. There is ample circumstantial evidence for Ben having learned to read at home. Others in the Franklin family were literate: his mother, as a schoolmaster’s daughter, could probably read, write, and do at least simple arithmetic; his father and both grandfathers ran businesses in which numeracy, if not literacy, would be essential; children in large families often learn from brothers and sisters; his older brother, James, to whom he was apprenticed at age 12, operated a printing business; and Ben wrote letters to his brothers and sisters throughout his lifetime.

What would Ben have studied in his schools? Using sources other than his autobiography (which was written years later), we know that, in the time of Headmaster Lovell, a variety of mostly classical texts in Latin were read at the Boston Latin School. Since it was modelled on the English school of the same name, the curriculum was probably heavily flavored by the classical educational program, which relied upon mastering the basic trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), followed by advanced or “applied” studies in the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music). Reading classics was a vehicle for the trivium. As to Mr. George Brownell’s school, a 1715 Boston almanac The Young American ephemeris [sic] is attributed to “Increase Gatchell, etat. 16, apprentice to George Brownell, school-master, who teacheth writing, cyphering, navigation, etc. Also musick, dancing, etc.”

After his formal schooling ended, Franklin was a motivated informal learner and an avid reader. His apprenticeship to his brother at age 12 gave him access to ample reading material. (Michael Faraday seized a similar opportunity during his printing apprenticeship in England a few decades later.) He was a founder of the Junto, a social and intellectual organization along the lines of the Lunar Society of Derby, England, mentioned last week. Members met regularly for wide-ranging and moderated discussions and enjoyed the use of the library. (Institutions descended from the Junto include Franklin’s subscription library in Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society, and the University of Pennsylvania.)

Poor Richard's Almanack 1739Franklin was an active advocate for public education, with strong opinions about the objectives and curriculum. In 1749, he published Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania [sic] urging the establishment of the Academy of Philadelphia. This pamphlet was a well-written, well-constructed argument for providing colonial boys with rigorous and useful educations comparable in quality to those obtainable in Europe. Franklin, citing John Milton (1608-1674), John Locke (1632-1704), George Turnbull (1698-1748), and other educational pioneers, included a detailed implementation plan, encompassing both physical exercise (“running, leaping, wrestling and swimming”), and “ those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental. Regard being had to the several Professions for which they are intended.” His argument was that both gentlemen and “mechanics” would benefit from learning many of the same subjects, including writing a fine hand, English grammar, composition, oratory, drawing, arithmetic, geometry, geography, history (including natural history), and morality, ethics, and religion. He proposed that “all who are interested” could learn Latin, Greek, and modern foreign languages, since reading in translation was not as rich an experience as reading originals, but he advocated teaching in the vernacular, and that language requirements be individualized for intended careers.

Franklin presented a democratic mechanism of formally educating the general populace for success in various walks of life. This was still not universal, free, or compulsory schooling, but it was a community-based effort, and did not rely on the informal educational opportunities into which he so successfully tapped to round out his own education. The proposed curriculum was not “one-size-fits-all”, but the basic foundations are, in modern terminology, broad-based liberal arts and sciences, including critical thinking and debate, firmly grounded in Western civilization, with specialization as needed, but at the advanced, not basic, levels.

In summary, children entered the school, usually at age 9, already reading and writing, and then completed a six-year program in which they studied, in English, a curriculum based on reading classics, writing about them, and discussing them. Later on, mathematical and scientific subjects received more emphasis: topics in the practical aspects of navigation, geography, accounts, arithmetic, geometry, “natural science” and “mechanicks” were increasingly incorporated into the reading, writing, and discussing. Upon completing the program, at about the age of 16, the boys would be prepared for university study or for work.

In reality, Franklin’s broader-scale educational experiment was short-lived. The Academy of Philadelphia was founded in 1751, but soon diversified to the point of dissolution. The Trustees and first president rapidly instituted a more traditional Latin curriculum, neglecting Franklin’s English-language curriculum, which languished, withered, and disappeared. Private donations and some tuition income were diverted to a parallel free school to teach “the children of the poor” basic reading, writing, and everyday arithmetic (Cloyd 1902). The focus shifted to becoming the University of Pennsylvania, to the detriment of the original academy mission, analogous to current trends in some disciplines and institutions, where the focus on doctoral degrees has been detrimental to the quality of bachelors and masters degrees, which are viewed as mere milestones along the way to the doctorate. While founding the first institution to be designated a university in the United States (1779) was a worthy outcome, the original objective was not achieved.

Was this curricular path the key to the intellectualism, imagination, innovation, and implementation which propelled the Industrial Revolution? Should education focus on mastering the updated trivium of “language arts” and “critical thinking” and then proceeding to advanced, more analytical, mathematical, and abstract topics, similar to the quadrivium, illustrated by examples from practical applications? It seemed to work for Franklin and some others, in environments where informal avenues to education and recreational intellectualism abounded.

In mathematical terms, we have shown that a solution exists for educating for success in the times of the Industrial Revolution, but this solution may not be unique or optimal. However, mapping solutions from centuries past to the present day can be tricky. We can take up this thread again in a future blog.


Text and facsimile of Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania:

Pasles, Paul C. 2008. Benjamin Franklin’s numbers : an unsung mathematical odyssey. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. An interesting study of Franklin’s mathematical recreations and innovations, rigorous but readable, well referenced to original sources.

Morrison, Hugh A. (Library of Congress) 1907. Preliminary check list of American almanacs, 1639-1800. Washington: Govt. Print. Off. (Full text available on line from googlebooks.)

Jenks, Henry Fitch, The Boston Public Latin School. 1635-1880 copyright by Moses Banks 1880
copied from the Harvard Register. Franklin Press. (Full text available on line from googlebooks.)

Cloyd, David Excelmons, in the Benjamin Franklin Collection (Library of Congress). 1902. Benjamin Franklin and education : his ideal of life and his system of education for the realization of that ideal. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co. (Full text available on line from googlebooks.) An interesting compilation, with commentary, of Franklin’s writings on education.


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