Examining education in Franklin's age

"Good Education of Youth" book jacket and image

It’s well known that Ben Franklin had definite ideas about education. In his 1749 pamphlet, “Proposals Relating to the Youth in Pensilvania,” he laid out his vision for educating students, which included an English language-based curriculum, and schools that were secular, independent entities.

His grand ideas eventually led to the founding of the University of Pennsylvania, but what was the general education experience like in Franklin’s time? Who taught in schools, and did all young people attend? What was taught and where? And what modern-day lessons can we learn from debates about education in Franklin’s time?

The newly released book, “‘The Good Education of Youth’: Worlds of Learning in the Age of Franklin,” explores Franklin’s ideas about education, as well as methods for teaching in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region. Edited by John Pollack, a library specialist in Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and designed by Exhibition Designer & Coordinator Andrea Gottschalk, the book includes nine essays from American history and education scholars, and color reproductions of original documents, printed books and artifacts. Gottschalk even contributed to the book as a photographer, taking pictures of 24 schoolhouses in the Delaware Valley from the period that are still standing.

The book was published by Oak Knoll Press and—for the first time—the Penn Libraries. The idea for the text originated with the 2006 exhibition, “Educating the Youth of Pennsylvania,” launched in conjunction with Franklin’s tercentenary. Pollack was editor of the accompanying scholarly publication.

“We realized it was a big project and a big commitment from the beginning,” says Pollack. “In a nutshell, we knew that Franklin came up with the idea for the University. What was [his] world like? How original was he?”

The book explores these and other questions through scholarly essays from several Penn faculty and staff, including Michael Zuckerman, professor of history, on “Founding Fathers: Franklin, Jefferson, and the Education of Americans”; Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the University Archives and Records Center, on “The College, Academy, and Charitable School in the Province of Pennsylvania: Simultaneously Franklin’s Triumph and Defeat”; and Lynne Farrington, curator of printed books in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, on “A Rediscovered Franklin Imprint: The Friendly Instructor.” Matt Hartley, associate professor in GSE; Ira Harkavy, founding director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships; and Lee Benson, emeritus professor, penned the afterword on “Looking Ahead: Franklin’s Theory of Education in the Twenty-First Century.”

In Franklin’s time, Pennsylvania was a diverse colony, and Quakers played an important role in educating different groups of people, including women and African and German Americans, says Pollack.

Both Pollack and Gottschalk stress that this project was a collaborative one, encompassing museums, historical societies and colleges throughout the region. One historic place, the Westtown School, still exists on its original Chester County site, and donated objects both for the 2006 show and for the book, including a three-dimensional “sampler” in the shape of a globe, and a microscope from 1800.

The authors also drew on Penn’s extensive image and object collections, both at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the University Archives, including the image at left, a compass drawn in a student notebook belonging to Jasper Yeates, a lawyer and judge. The book also includes samples of writing from adult African-American students, a handwritten student newspaper from the Quaker Latin School at 4th and Chestnut streets produced during the Revolution, and newspaper ads and account sheets. Gottschalk hopes this and other visuals from the book will inspire readers to learn more about this historical period. “It’s a way for people to learn what we have and be sparked by it.”

Many of the historical materials look very different from today’s classroom tools, but Pollack and Gottschalk note the similarities between controversies then and now. In Franklin’s time, for example, the hot button issue centered on whether to teach German alongside English in schools. Substitute Spanish for German, Pollack notes, and the debate could easily be shifted to present day.

Pollack and Gottschalk hope this endeavor will demonstrate that the Penn Libraries can facilitate research projects. “We want to emphasize that the library is not just a place to store things, but is a laboratory for scholarship,” says Pollack. “I think that’s our collective endeavor. We’re at the heart of campus for a reason.”

For more information, go to http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/benjaminfranklin300/ or www.oakknoll.com.

Originally published on January 7, 2010