The University in Microcosm: Benjamin Franklin Scholars

by Will Harris

The Benjamin Franklin Scholars Program takes its model from the comprehensive and activist intellect of its namesake--a founder of institutions whose reputation as a scientist, writer, and political actor and thinker made him the most internationally admired American of his generation.

The curricular aspect of the program, which is called General Honors, therefore crosses the traditional fields of academic inquiry, potentially drawing on all of them, while it offers a window on the whole University for its students and a learning laboratory for faculty to develop innovative courses. The larger goal is to demonstrate a functioning intellectual community of ambitious young scholars whose academic accomplishments and interactions provide a microcosm of the University at its best. Our objective is to achieve this kind of community at a scale that can itself be comprehended as a whole--not just as a fragmentary experience--by its participants (both students and faculty), a community serving at the same time as an exemplar for the rest of the University.

The aspect of serving the broader University involves both offering access to students who are not members of the Program and developing experimental projects that might be commended to the undergraduate schools more broadly. This is in the tradition of the Program's having initiated the Penn Freshman Reading Project, which was then generalized across the University's entering class each year.

Established in 1961, BFS interweaves seminars, research initiatives, and advising as the major components of the Program. There are currently 544 Franklin Scholars on campus, representing all four of the undergraduate schools, who collectively and individually reflect the inventive intensity and range of curiosity about finding and making knowledge exemplified by Benjamin Franklin himself. Most of our students enter the program at their admission to the University. But we encourage on-campus applications from freshmen and sophomores.

Courses. Our goal for this component of the Program is to offer exemplary editions of America's most significant contribution to the format of higher education--the seminar (to be distinguished from the small-scale course) as a well-orchestrated collective inquiry among diverse scholars at the undergraduate level.

The Program serves as the University's major center offering advanced or intensive seminars for a general education. Here the word "general" is meant in its original pedagogical sense of knowledge about the things that human beings have in common in a democratic civilization. In this sense, a general education invokes comprehensiveness and depth, not introductoriness or specialization. Such seminars are, thus, different from both the survey courses and the specialized major's courses that are more standard in the regular departments.

In a typical semester, the Program offers about 25 seminars, most of them through the regular departments of the University. About two-thirds of the students taking these will be Franklin Scholars, and one-third will be other highly interested students who obtain permission to register from the instructor. Designating a course General Honors provides the occasion to set its standards unusually high in terms both of its intellectual design and of its expectations for student performance. The average ratio of two to one insures that the benefits of the program will extend beyond Franklin Scholars.

More specifically, our course offerings tend to reflect the following types: (a) more focused or fast-paced, sections of introductory courses (such as Psychology 1 or Physics 170); (b) interdisciplinary and/or experimental courses with approaches or topics that may not have an obvious home in a single department (such as Paul Rozin's Spring '95 seminar, "Diet, Health, Psychology, and Politics"); (c) intensive seminars that reflect an inquiry at its most abstract, targeting not exclusively majors but students who themselves represent accomplishment in a broad range of disciplines (such as "Interpreting the American Constitution"); (d) more foundational seminars with focused inquiries whose depth make them attractive to ambitious students whatever their majors (such as Phyllis Rackin's courses on Shakespeare or Jeffrey Tigay's "Bible in Translation"); (e) courses taught by faculty in disciplines outside those offered by the four undergraduate schools (such as Helen Davies's "Infectious Diseases"); (f) seminars conducted by thoughtful experts from outside the faculty (such as Federal Judge Louis Pollak's planned seminar on race and rights); (g) seminars that aspire to be cumulative beyond specialities and disciplines, providing access to variously composed maps of knowledge as a whole (such as the newly designed "How Do You Know?" for Spring 1996, inspired and overseen by Lou Girifalco in part as an outgrowth of the Faculty Senate's program to investigate the Structure of Inquiry).

We are also trying to be attentive to the coherence of the course offerings and the ways they can complement each other during a student's undergraduate career, as he or she assembles a set of seminars in General Honors adding up to more than the sum of the units. Our discussions with students who seem to have had particularly successful educational experiences at Penn have often emphasized the connections among courses as much as the quality of the courses themselves. One of the Program's approaches in this regard is to cluster some course offerings around themes of inquiry.

Advising. Advising of undergraduates in Benjamin Franklin Scholars is the component of the Program most universally acclaimed by students. Our approach is to designate one of our two official advisors for each student for four years. By having the same advisor (in addition to advising by the school or department), students can be encouraged to broaden their Penn experiences through course work, research, and study abroad--and to apply for fellowships and scholarships. Intellectually oriented advising can also help a student to anticipate promising relations among courses or to reflect on such links retrospectively, perhaps in preparation for an independent investigation that might use these connections as its foundation.

Even our alumni turn to us for advice, but we also turn to them to advise our current students, particularly in the area of graduate study. Because our alumni (now totaling more than 3,000) have been recipients of many fellowships, including Rhodes, Churchill, Thouron, Truman, Goldwater, Javitz, and Mellon awards, as well as NSF and NEH grants, they are in a good position to help our current students. The BFS Program publishes the "University of Pennsylvania Directory of Scholarships, Fellowships, and Grants," available for all undergraduates.

Research. For many years, the Program has served as a major center of student research on campus, both for Franklin Scholars and as an organizing source of information about opportunities for Penn undergraduates in general, setting a tested precedent for the current broader interest in connecting teaching and research for Penn's undergraduate education overall.

Research is encouraged as early as in the freshman year. Through our newsletters and advising sessions, students learn that independent inquiry is an integral part of their university education. It is expected that all Franklin Scholars will be involved in research at some point in their careers here--either through course work, independent study, work-study grant, or a volunteer or funded position. Some students follow up General Honors courses with scholarly projects under the faculty members who taught their seminars.

As a student research center, the Program each year publishes "The Benjamin Franklin Scholars Undergraduate Research Directory," the only catalog of undergraduate research opportunities available across the University. The new 1996-97 edition has entries by 228 faculty members, and is both online and available in hard copy on request.

This series was developed by the Lindback Society and the College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Harris is associate professor of political

science and director of Benjamin Franklin Scholars and General Honors. Linda Wiedmann, Susan Duggan, Cheryl Shipman,

and Phyllis Rackin also contributed to this article. For further details:


Volume 42 Number 29
April 23, 1996

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