Cover story: An experimental era

Q&A/This spring the 6th floor of Van Pelt is celebrating Ben Franklin with an exhibit on Colonial education in the Delaware Valley. We talk to the library staff who brought “Educating the Youth of Pennsylvania” from a rough idea to a fully realized exhibit.

“Charter schools today remind me a lot of what was going on during the Colonial period.”

Pollack

With Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday approaching, Michael Ryan knew he and his staff had an opportunity to do something special—something that would celebrate Franklin in a context specific to Penn, the University he founded.

“My thought was that if you put the founding of Penn in the context of what was already here in Colonial Philadelphia, it would cast light on a lot of the claims that were made about the singularity of early Penn,” says Ryan, director of Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “What it would ultimately do is provide us with a richer, fuller, better historical understanding of the context of Penn.”

Ryan took his idea to library Public Services Specialist John Pollack and Exhibits Designer Andrea Gottschalk, who spent the next 18 months learning everything they could about education in the Colonial Delaware Valley. The resulting exhibit, “Educating the Youth of Pennsylvania: Worlds of Learning in the Age of Franklin,” is a fascinating look at the surprisingly dynamic, diverse and entrepreneurial educators and schools of the time.

“Our intent here was to make the effort meaningful,” Pollack says. “Colonial education was not as alien as we thought, not as simple as we thought, and a great deal more interesting than people might imagine.”

Q. So when Michael came to you with this big, broad idea, where did you start?

JP: Well, many meetings, of course. There was a rough regional set of boundaries and a kind of rough chronological boundary, but we ended up trying to tell the outlines of a story that begins in the late 1600s and goes up through the American revolution and into the early 1800s. Whatever narratives we were going to present had to be based in some kind of artifacts, visual images, photographs. So from that broad base, we really set out to dip into many different archival depositories.

Q. What kind of work have historians done on this topic?

JP: The historical research tends to be very old and very piecemeal. We know the history of Penn as a place and as an institution, but it’s usually told in a very insular way. We know something about Quaker education, but usually that’s told by Quaker historians as a separate story. What we wanted to do is put these things together—German education, women’s education. We’re sort of synthesizing all this stuff. So we worked at the historical society, at the Quaker colleges—Swarthmore and Haverford.

AG: I think early on there was a decision that this needed to be bigger than Penn, which is why we branched out and started collaborating with other people and other institutions.

Q. The first thing a visitor sees when entering the exhibit is a wall of schoolhouse photos. Tell me about that.

JP: One thing I wanted to do from the beginning was to look at school buildings—whether there were any places that survived. And it turns out, as you can see from the photos, there are a huge number of surviving school buildings from the 18th century and early 19th century that are here. I guess if I was a Germantown resident I might have known that the original Germantown Academy, from the 1760s, is still standing, still entirely intact.

AG: And then there are two other schoolhouses right nearby on Germantown Avenue, from the same time period.

JP: Yes, that’s probably the greatest concentration of school buildings, from small to big. You have there what is probably the oldest school building in Pennsylvania, from 1740 or so, called the Beggarstown School. A little bit further down the avenue is a 1775 schoolhouse called the Concord School, with an interior from the 19th century. Then there’s the Germantown Academy, and if there’s any place around that looks like Penn would have looked like (in its downtown location), that’s it. Visually, that was the scale of the old Academy and College of Philadelphia.

Q. How many did you find? And what was the variation of upkeep and design?

 

AG: There are 22 that we’re aware of. But the more people we contact, the more we hear about. The buildings are in all states, but most of them are in really good shape.

Q. What did you learn about how education was actually delivered?

JP: I think, for me, it was about coming to a better historical understanding of how complicated and diverse a place for education this region was.

AG: I agree. You wouldn’t think about [education for] women. You wouldn’t think about African-Americans. You wouldn’t think so many of these groups were being educated, but they were.

JP: It was a very experimental time. There’s lots of schools opening—and closing—but people were trying to run schools out of homes. They were being run by different denominations. The Quakers had almost what you could call a public school system in the city of Philadelphia by the mid-18th century.

Q. Does this exhibit offer a context for issues in education today?

JP: I think one of the things that strangely came out of this project is the enormous number of connections to education nowadays. That’s in terms of Penn and its role in the community and society at large. It’s in terms of the ways schools should operate. For example, charter schools today remind me of a lot of what’s going on during the Colonial period, when somebody can have an idea for a school and start it without a huge bureaucracy that regulates every nut and bolt of the process. And the debates then are like the debates now. What kind of place should religion have in teaching? That debate goes back to the beginnings of the country. Franklin was involved in arguments about whether Germans should learn in only German or in English—so bilingual education is nothing new. In fact that debate gets very heated and very ugly in the 18th century.

Q. How do you see all of this tying back into Franklin?

JP: I think what this says is that while Franklin was an experimentalist, he’s operating in a world of experimentalists. He’s looking around him and I think founding a school, for him, is a lot like things he could see happening. I think he’s inspired by that and I think that’s probably what historians are saying—making a case for the kind of place that Pennsylvania was. I think it’s a diverse place, a place where you can try new things and launch new kinds of schools—something that’s not possible everywhere else. This region is exceptional ... It’s possible for a slave, though still a slave, to receive an education here, paid for by a family, in either a proper school or in a household.

Q. A very basic education, I imagine?

JP: Yes, it’s a starting point, though. And Franklin’s own example is interesting here. He had not had much education—two years in two different schools—but it was enough of a base to spur him to go on and read and learn and teach himself. That kind of model, where people are not spending years in formal school but might get a base to enable them to learn, is more common than we think.

AG: We were also kind of intrigued from the schoolhouse angle. It wasn’t just about education in a formal school. You could learn in homes, or in meetinghouses, or in an attic room, or in the actual schoolhouse. Education could happen anywhere.

Originally published on February 9, 2006