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Saturday, May 13, 2017

25.Ben Franklin: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Ben Franklin 

Ben Franklin was born on Milk Street, Boston, on January 17, 1706. His father had 
seventeen children (four died at birth) by two wives. Ben was the youngest. Josiah, the 
father, was a candlemaker, not part of the gentry. His tombstone tells us he was "without 
an estate or any gainful employment" which apparently means his trade didn't allow 
wealth to be amassed. But, as the talkative tombstone continues, "By constant labor and 
industry with God's blessing they maintained a large family comfortably, and brought up 
thirteen children and seven grandchildren reputably." 

Writing to his own son at the age of sixty- five, Ben Franklin referred to his circumstances 
as "poverty and obscurity" from which he rose to a state of affluence, and to some degree, 
reputation. The means he used "so well succeeded" he thought posterity might like to 
know what they were. Some, he believed, "would find his example suitable to their own 
situations, and therefore, fit to be imitated." 

At twelve he was bound apprentice to brother James, a printer. After a few years of that, 
and disliking his brother's authority, he ran away first to New York and soon after to 
Philadelphia where he arrived broke at the age of seventeen. Finding work as a printer 
proved easy, and through his sociable nature and ready curiosity he made acquaintance 
with men of means. One of these induced Franklin to go to London where he found work 
as a compositor and once again brought himself to the attention of men of substance. A 
merchant brought him back to Philadelphia in his early twenties as what might today be 
called an administrative assistant or personal secretary. From this association, Franklin 
assembled means to set up his own printing house which published a newspaper, The 
Pennsylvania Gazette, to which he constantly contributed essays. 

At twenty-six, he began to issue "Poor Richard's Almanac," and for the next quarter 
century the Almanac spread his fame through the colonies and in Europe. He involved 
himself deeper and deeper in public affairs. He designed an Academy which was 
developed later into the University of Pennsylvania; he founded the American 
Philosophical Society as a crossroads of the sciences; he made serious researches into the 
nature of electricity and other scientific inquiries, carried on a large number of 
moneymaking activities; and involved himself heavily in politics. At the age of forty-two 
he was wealthy. The year was 1748. 

In 1748, he sold his business in order to devote himself to study, and in a few years, 
scientific discoveries gave him a reputation with the learned of Europe. In politics, he 
reformed the postal system and began to represent the colonies in dealings with England, 
and later France. In 1757, he was sent to England to protest against the influence of the 
Penns in the government of Pennsylvania, and remained there five years, returning two 
years later to petition the King to take the government away from the Penns. He lobbied 
to repeal the Stamp Act. From 1767 to 1775, he spent much time traveling through 
France, speaking, writing, and making contacts which resulted in a reputation so vast it 
brought loans and military assistance to the American rebels and finally crucial French 
intervention at Yorktown, which broke the back of the British. 



As a writer, politician, scientist, and businessman, Franklin had few equals among the 
educated of his day — though he left school at ten. He spent nine years as American 
Commissioner to France. In terms only of his ease with the French language, of which he 
had little until he was in his sixties, this unschooled man's accomplishments are 
unfathomable by modern pedagogical theory. In many of his social encounters with 
French nobility, this candlemaker's son held the fate of the new nation in his hands, 
because he (and Jefferson) were being weighed as emblems of America's ability to 
overthrow England. 

Franklin's Autobiography is a trove of clues from which we can piece together the actual 
curriculum which produced an old man capable of birthing a nation: 

My elder brothers were all put apprentice to different trades. I was put to the grammar 
school at eight years of age, my father intending to devote me, as the tithe of his sons, to 
the services of the (Anglican) church. My early readiness in learning to read (which must 
have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read) and the opinion of all 
his friends, that I should be a good scholar, encouraged him in this purpose..! continued, 
however, at grammar school not quite one year. 

Young Ben was yanked from grammar school and sent to another type less ritzy and 
more nuts and bolts in colonial times: the "writing and arithmetic"school. There under the 
tutelage of Mr. Brownell, an advocate of "mild, encouraging methods," Franklin failed in 
arithmetic: 

At ten years old I was taken home to assist my father in his business.... Accordingly I was 
employed in cutting wick for candles, filling the dipping mold and the molds for cast 
candles. Attending the shop, going on errands, etc. I disliked the trade, and had a strong 
inclination for the sea, but my father declared against it. 

There are other less flattering accounts why Franklin left both these schools and struck 
out on his own at the age often — elsewhere he admits to being a leader of mischief, some 
of it mildly criminal, and to being "corrected" by his father — but causation is not our 
concern, only bare facts. Benjamin Franklin commenced school at third grade age and 
exited when he would have been in the fifth to become a tallow chandler's apprentice. 

A major part of Franklin's early education consisted of studying father Josiah, who turns 
out, himself, to be a pretty fair example of education without schooling: 

He had an excellent constitution... very strong. ..ingenious. ..could draw prettily... skilled in 
music. ..a clear pleasing voice. ..played psalm tunes on his violin. ..a mechanical 
genius... sound understanding... solid judgment in prudential matters, both private and 
public affairs. In the latter, indeed, he was never employed, the numerous family he had 
to educate and the straitness of his circumstances keeping him close to his grade; but I 
remember well his being frequently visited by leading people, who consulted him for his 
opinion in affairs of the town or of the church. ..and showed a great deal of respect for his 
judgment and advice. ..frequently chosen an arbitrator between contending parties. 



We don't need to push too hard to see a variety of informal training laboratories 
incidentally offered in this father/son relationship which had sufficient time to prove 
valuable in Franklin's own development, opportunities that would have been hard to find 
in any school. 

Josiah drew, he sang, he played violin — this was a tallow chandler with sensitivity to 
those areas in which human beings are most human; he had an inventive nature 
("ingenious") which must have provided a constant example to Franklin that a solution 
can be crafted ad hoc to a problem if a man kept his nerve and had proper self-respect. 
His good sense, recognized by neighbors who sought his judgment, was always within 
earshot of Ben. In this way the boy came to see the discovery process, various systems of 
judgment, the role of an active citizen who may become minister without portfolio simply 
by accepting responsibility for others and discharging that responsibility faithfully: 

At his table he liked to have as often as he could some sensible friend or neighbor to 
converse with, and always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, 
which might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned our 
attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct of life; and little or no notice 
was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table. ..I was brought up in such 
perfect inattention to those matters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set 
before me. 

No course of instruction or quantity of homework could deliver Franklin's facility with 
language, only something like Josiah's incidental drills at the dinner table. We can see 
sharply through Franklin's memoir that a tallow chandler can indeed teach himself to 
speak to kings. 

And there were other themes in the family Franklin's educational armory besides arts, 
home demonstrations, regular responsibility, being held to account, being allowed to 
overhear adults solving public and private problems, and constant infusions of good 
conversation: 

He. ..sometimes took me to walk with him, and see joiners, bricklayers, turners, braziers, 
etc., at their work, that he might observe my inclination, and endeavor to fix it on some 
trade or other.... It has ever since been a pleasure to me to see good workmen handle their 
tools; and it has been useful to me, having learnt so much by it as to be able to do little 
jobs myself. As it is for most members of a literate society, reading was the largest single 
element of Franklin's educational foundation. 

From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was 
ever laid out in books. Pleased with Pilgrim 's Progress my first collection was of John 
Bunyan's works in separate little volumes. I afterwards sold them to enable me to buy R. 
Burton's Historical Collections; they were small chapman's books, and cheap, 40 to 50 
in all. My father's little library consisted chiefly of books in polemic divinity, most of 
which I read. ...Plutarch 's Lives there was in which I read abundantly, and I still think that 
time spent to great advantage. There was also a book of Defoe's, called an Essay on 



Projects, and another of Dr. Mather's, called Essays to Do Good, which perhaps gave me 
a turn of thinking that had an influence on some of the principal future events in my life. 

You might well ask how young Franklin was reading Bunyan, Burton, Mather, Defoe, 
Plutarch, and works of "polemic divinity" before he would have been in junior high 
school. If you were schooled in the brain development lore of academic pedagogy it 
might seem quite a tour deforce. 

How do you suppose this son of a workingman with thirteen kids became such an 
effective public speaker that for more than half a century his voice was heard nationally 
and internationally on the great questions? He employed a method absolutely free: he 
argued with his friend Collins: 

Very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which 
disputatious turn is based upon contradiction. [Here Franklin warns against using 
dialectics on friendships or at social gatherings] I had caught it [the dialectical habit] by 
reading my father's books of dispute about religion.... A question was started between 
Collins and me, of the propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their 
abilities to study. He was of the opinion that it was improper.... I took the contrary side. 

Shortly after he began arguing, he also began reading the most elegant periodical of the 
day, Addison and Steele's Spectator. 

I thought the writing excellent and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With that in view I 
took some of the papers, and making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid 
them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try'd to complete the papers 
again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed 
before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator 
with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. 

This method was hammered out while working a sixty-hour week. In learning eloquence 
there's only Ben, his determination, and the Spectator, no teacher. For instance, while 
executing rewrites, Franklin came to realize his vocabulary was too barren: 

I found I wanted a stock of words... which I thought I should have acquired before that 
time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same 
import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, 
would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have 
tended to fix that variety in my mind and make me master of it. 

As a good empiricist he tried a home cure for this deficiency: 

I took some tales and turned them into verse; and after a time when I had pretty well 
forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collection of 
hints [his outline] into confusions and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into 
the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and complete the paper. This was 



to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards 
with the original I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes thought... 
I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language. 

By the time he was sixteen Franklin was ready to take up his deficiencies in earnest with 
full confidence he could by his own efforts overcome them. Here's how he handled that 
problem with arithmetic: 

Being on some occasion made asham'd of my ignorance in figures, which I had twice 
failed in learning when at school, I took Crocker's book of Arithmetick, and went 
through the whole by myself with great ease. I also read Seller's and Shermy's book of 
Navigation and became acquainted with the geometry they contain. 

This school dropout tells us he was also reading John Locke's Essay Concerning Human 
Understanding, as well as studying the arts of rhetoric and logic, particularly the Socratic 
method of disputation, which so charmed and intrigued him that he abruptly dropped his 
former argumentative style, putting on the mask of "the humble inquirer and doubter": 

I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used 
it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis'd it continually, and grew very artful and expert 
in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of 
which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not 
extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always 
deserved. 

Might there be an instructive parallel between teaching a kid to drive as my uncle taught 
me to do at age eleven, and the incredible opportunities working-class kids like Franklin 
were given to develop as quickly and as far as their hearts and minds allowed? We drive, 
regardless of our intelligence or characters, because the economy demands it; in colonial 
America through the early republic, a pressing need existed to get the most from 
everybody. Because of that need, unusual men and unusual women appeared in great 
numbers to briefly give the lie to traditional social order. In that historical instant, 
thousands of years of orthodox suppositions were shattered. In the words of Eric Hoffer, 
"Only here in America were common folk given a chance to show what they could do on 
their own without a master to push and order them about." Franklin and Edison, 
multiplied many times, were the result. 

George Washington 

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