"What astonishes me is that I keep learning things about [Franklin], and he keeps teaching me."

History Professor Michael ZuckermanPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

History professor Michael Zuckerman has found himself in the public spotlight a lot this year.
As a Ben Franklin expert living in Franklin’s adopted city, Zuckerman has been the go-to scholar for numerous radio shows, TV documentaries and newspaper articles in this year of Franklin’s 300th anniversary. Less publicly, Zuckerman has been at Penn, writing and teaching about American history—from democracy to family life, children’s rights to religion—for almost 40 years. His office in College Hall is stacked with books, under the desk, piled on the window sill, lining every wall. “One of the reasons I can’t retire,” he says, “is that I have no room at home for any more books.”
We sat down with him to find out some of the other reasons he still enjoys calling Franklin’s university his professional home.

Q. You’ve been teaching at Penn for four decades now. What was it like to teach here in the ’60s?
A. When I started in the late ’60s, I felt virtually no constraints. I had run-ins with my department chairs and run-ins with the rules of the University, but I felt very much free to do as I pleased in the classroom, to invent forms that didn’t exist. I had a very immature contempt for the people who did toe the line and teach in a conventional way. That seemed to me to waste the potential of the classroom. And it was very hard in those years to get past what your students were game for. So it was a wonderful opportunity to re-conceive teaching. It was great fun.

Q. Tell me about your approach to teaching.
A. A lot of what I do in my classes is really try to turn the class over to the students as far as possible. So once we get rolling in a course, groups of three or four students prepare and then teach the class for the entire term. Often their classes are livelier than mine and I come along and try to do some analytic mopping up that they maybe didn’t do. They’ve done every imaginable thing. They’ve done sound and light shows, they’ve done media extravaganzas, they’ve composed original music, they’ve done videotaped interviews, they’ve gotten the kids down on the floor finger painting or playing kids’ games, they’ve changed the venue of the class to a cramped closet, to the locker room of the Penn basketball team, to whatever seems appropriate to the topic.

I try to make clear that their papers are fine if they come in in a conventional expository way but if they do something else that would be great, so I will routinely get poetry for a paper, I will get little playlets, satires of movies and TV shows, comic dialogues. I once had a paper that was simply five cartoons done by a would-be syndicated cartoonist who was a student here. I never give final exams. I hate it when students tell me what I already said and I hate it when they don’t get what I already said, so there’s no profit in it.

Q. How have your students changed over the years?
A. I think the last 10, 15, 20 years of students can’t write nearly as well as students of 30 years ago technically, but imagistically, they write much more engagingly, much more dramatically and much more vividly because they’ve grown up on TV and movies rather than on books and newspapers, so it’s much more image driven and much more conscious of hooking the reader. Also, I must have half a dozen of my students from the last three years who are now in Teach for America or programs like it ... and I’ve been so struck by this change toward a much greater degree of social service, doing something for others as well as themselves. One of the things that exhilarates me is they begin to see that doing for others actually enlarges the self and is spectacularly gratifying.

Q. Did you have any great teachers when you were growing up?
A. I did. My greatest teacher was my father who was a lawyer, a lover of poetry, an adorer of Sigmund Freud, with whom I argued incessantly from the time I can remember talking with anybody seriously. And then I had a succession of splendid teachers both at Central High School and here at Penn, though no splendid teachers I can think of in grad school.

Q. You recently edited “Beyond the Century of the Child” (Penn Press, 2003), a series of essays on the history of childhood. Can you tell me about that?
A. There was a famous book by Ellen Key called “The Century of the Child.” Half a dozen of us from several countries had this idea to see whether we could collaborate on this question of the century of the child. Had this been the century of the child? Was it still the century of the child? And the issue was really acute because developments in history and developmental psychology had come to question the priority of the child … the cutting edge was moving away from enshrinement of the child as a distinct creature. Our idea was to look at this not just in 20th-century America, but through time and space. We ended up spinning endlessly around this question of the separation of kids from adults, this kind of youth garden, this apartheid of age. One [scholar] said there really had been a separation and that was a terrific thing. Several of us argued they were separated and that was terrible since they could never learn how to be adults and some of our modern ills grew from kids not learning to be adults, kids growing up irresponsible and uncontrolled and not having discipline. Another group said they’ve never been separate, it’s just that the tasks of adulthood have changed and kids are being raised differently to be adults. Another argued they’re not that separate but that’s because adults have ceased to be adults and adults now want to be kids. One way and another we were strewn all over the map and I think the book is a very lively swirling around the complexities of those issues.

Q. This year, the 300th anniversary of Ben Franklin’s birth, you’ve been much in demand by the media. Can you summarize what lessons you think Franklin has to teach us today?
A. The sheer revitalizing that comes out of curiosity and playfulness. Franklin quit work in his early 40s and never worked another day the rest of his life because he had better things to do. It was urgent to him not to work. He thought that was a constriction of what he wanted to do, and what he wanted to do was what he called leisure and philosophical amusements, and that included science, that included every other kind of invention, that included politics. But overwhelmingly it left him free for public service. Looking out for number one is where his life begins, it’s what he does in his early manhood. The first book of his autobiography is all about scams and schemes and ripping other people off and living in a milieu where other people are ripping you off and everybody is self-seeking, and he ultimately concludes that’s not wrong, not false, it’s probably the way life is. It’s certainly the way life is in America and you’ve got to make your peace with that somehow or other, but he also concludes that that’s no way to live and that if you can find ways to be useful and helpful and find ways to cooperate and collaborate for common good you’ll be better off, the world will be better off, and that’s a better life.

Q. Is Ben Franklin still fresh for you after so many years?
A. What astonishes me is that I keep learning things about him and he keeps teaching me. Somebody told me that when [urban planning guru] Jane Jacobs died one of the obituaries said she used to go around the house talking to Ben Franklin. She had started out in this conversation when she was much younger with Thomas Jefferson and she found he quickly ran out of things to tell her but Ben Franklin kept talking to her all her life. My sense is Franklin is inexhaustible.

Originally published on September 21, 2006.

Originally published on September 21, 2006