What Would Ben Franklin Think?



Caroline V. Hamilton has a PhD from Berkeley. Her scholarly articles have appeared in The Paris Review, The Journal of American Studies, Oxford German Studies, The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, and elsewhere. She lives in Pittsburgh.

The founders and framers had numerous, often scathing disagreements -- about slavery, the scope of federal and state power, standing armies, and foreign policy -- but they agreed on one thing: the necessity of a well-educated citizenry. Yet politicians who claim to revere the founders are in the process of dismantling public education, state by state. This is particularly true of Pennsylvania. As the axe of Governor Tom Corbett’s budget hangs over the bared neck of Pennsylvania public education, we would do well to review the history we claim to admire.

What would Benjamin Franklin think of Corbett’s assault on public education? It’s not hard to find out Franklin’s views on education; his papers are posted online at franklinpapers.org. Well before the Revolution, in 1749, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania. There he declared:

The good education of youth has been esteemed by wise men of all ages as the surest foundation of the happiness both of private families and of the commonwealth. Almost all governments have therefore made it a principal object of their attention, to establish and endow with proper revenues, such seminaries of learning, as might supply the succeeding age with men qualified to serve the public with honor to themselves, and to their country (italics added).

The pamphlet lists the fields of study that Franklin advocates: ancient and modern history, ancient and modern languages, geography, arithmetic, natural history, and “mechanics” (engineering). Education, he argued, should inculcate “that benignity of mind, which shows itself in searching for and seizing every opportunity to serve and to oblige.” Franklin was a practical man, a successful businessman, but he did not believe that the acquisition of wealth was the hallmark of a good life. The “great end and aim” of education, Franklin concluded, is “an inclination joined with an ability to serve mankind, one’s country, friends and family.”

What about other founding-era Pennsylvanians such as Benjamin Rush and Hugh Henry Brackenridge? As an assemblyman, Brackenridge lobbied for state funding for his academy, now the University of Pittsburgh and facing terrible funding cuts. Benjamin Rush, an eminent physician, advocated the education of women, founded Dickinson College, and championed the establishment of “free schools” throughout the state of Pennsylvania.

Thomas Jefferson’s personal heroes were not kings, generals, or wealthy merchants, but intellectuals: John Locke, Issac Newton, and Francis Bacon. When he founded the University of Virginia, Jefferson took an active interest in hiring the best faculty members, even luring some away from (gasp!) Europe. In a letter dated October 15, 1785, Jefferson addressed the subject of education: “What are the objects of a useful American education? Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish, and Italian; Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, Civil history, and Ethics.”

Like Franklin, Jefferson emphasized the study of history, which he regarded as essential for the citizens of a self-governing republic. Yet historical ignorance, as Michelle Bachmann has unwittingly demonstrated, is rampant. And cutbacks in education are threatening, and even abolishing, other subjects that Franklin and Jefferson regarded as essential: classics and modern languages departments in many public American universities.

Jefferson wanted “national education” to be publicly funded. He said so in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) and again in his 1806 State of the Union address. He even advocated financial aid. In a Virginia state bill “for the more general diffusion of knowledge,” Jefferson wrote, “it becomes expedient for promoting the public happiness that those persons, whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard, the sacred deposits of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance … sought for and educated at the common expense of all.”

The founders’ veneration for learned men makes it all more painful that Vice President Biden recently and inaccurately implied that academics make high salaries. In fact, contingent university faculty members, the new majority, make lower salaries than high-school teachers. Community college faculty labor under crushing teaching loads. It feels like factory work to mark stacks of student papers to meet a deadline. Work is not limited to the classroom. Professors and teachers spend hours preparing for classes, serving on committees, reading to keep up with new developments in their fields, meeting students by appointment as well as in office hours, and writing letters of recommendation. Compared to successful doctors and lawyers, the salaries of even the most illustrious faculty members are low.

The American founders supported public service and public services. Franklin, for example, founded a library and a fire-fighting company, yet these institutions are under threat all over the country. The founders would surely disapprove of our current enthusiasm for privatizing their contributions to “public happiness.” Our selfishness, our budget priorities, our unwillingness to pay taxes to support the “common good” would shock them. They would frown upon our penchant for state lotteries, gambling, millionaire competitions, get-rich-quick schemes, and our inordinate respect for rich businessmen.

The language of the market now dominates political campaigns. If a particular policy doesn’t turn an immediate profit, it is attacked. Yet education offers another kind of value, one that is not measurable in terms of profit and loss, supply and demand. Universities are, after all, far older than capitalism itself, and they should not be assessed according to the logic of exchange value. Adam Smith, whom contemporary conservatives (or more accurately “neoliberals”) profess to admire, was himself a university professor. In addition to The Wealth of Nations, he wrote another major work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. There he defended benevolence, compassion, generosity, sympathy, and other “social virtues.” One chapter begins:

However selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him.

Neoliberals who decry any project for the common good -- public education, public transportation, public health, public parks, and government itself -- as “socialism” are forgetting a great truth. Human beings are a social species. We exist, not as isolated individuals, like the Unabomber, or in families, like Mark Twain’s feuding Sheperdsons and Grangerfords, but in communities.

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