Ben Franklin Wanted a Useful and Ornamental Education for the Young

A quarter century before the thirteen colonies declared their independence, Ben Franklin printed a pamphlet (1749) in which he proposed how Pennsylvanians should educate the young.  After quoting from several well-known Western authors, Franklin began:

The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths. 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 Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country.

Many of the first Settlers of these Provinces, were Men who had received a good Education in Europe, and to their Wisdom and good Management we owe much of our present Prosperity. But their Hands were full, and they could not do all Things. The present Race are not thought to be generally of equal Ability: For though the American Youth are allow’d not to want Capacity; yet the best Capacities require Cultivation, it being truly with them, as with the best Ground, which unless well tilled and sowed with profitable Seed, produces only ranker Weeds.

That we may obtain the Advantages arising from an Increase of Knowledge, and prevent as much as may be the mischievous Consequences that would attend a general Ignorance among us, the following Hints are offered towards forming a Plan for the Education of the Youth of Pennsylvania….

He goes on in the lengthy document to argue for particular fields of study, including things like penmanship, oratory, and history. Franklin prefaces his curricular proposal with what he considers realistic parameters for academic study.

As to their Studies, it would be well if they could be taught every Thing that is useful, and every Thing that is ornamental: But Art is long, and their Time is short. It is therefore propos’d that they learn those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental, Regard being had to the several Professions for which they are intended.

Do good and look good.  So says the 33-year-old sage.  He did both, and so much more.

Photo by david__jones

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