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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 didnt allow wealth to be amassed. But, as the talkative tombstone continues, "By constant labor and industry with Gods 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 brothers 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 Richards 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 daythough 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 mans accomplishments are unfathomable by modern pedagogical theory. In many of his social encounters with French nobility, this candlemakers son held the fate of the new nation in his hands, because he (and Jefferson) were being weighed as emblems of Americas ability to overthrow England.
Franklins 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...I 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 of tenelsewhere he admits to being a leader of mischief, some of it mildly criminal, and to being "corrected" by his fatherbut 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 chandlers apprentice.
A major part of Franklins 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 dont 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 Franklins own development, opportunities that would have been hard to find in any school.
Josiah drew, he sang, he played violinthis 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 Franklins facility with language, only something like Josiahs incidental drills at the dinner table. We can see sharply through Franklins memoir that a tallow chandler can indeed teach himself to speak to kings.
And there were other themes in the family Franklins 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 Franklins educational foundation.
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 Pilgrims Progress my first collection was of John Bunyans works in separate little volumes. I afterwards sold them to enable me to buy R. Burtons Historical Collections; they were small chapmans books, and cheap, 40 to 50 in all. My fathers little library consisted chiefly of books in polemic divinity, most of which I read....Plutarchs Lives there was in which I read abundantly, and I still think that time spent to great advantage. There was also a book of Defoes, called an Essay on Projects, and another of Dr. Mathers, 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 de force.
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 fathers 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 Steeles 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, tryd 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 theres 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. Heres how he handled that problem with arithmetic:
Being on some occasion made ashamd of my ignorance in figures, which I had twice failed in learning when at school, I took Crockers book of Arithmetick, and went through the whole by myself with great ease. I also read Sellers and Shermys book of Navigation and became acquainted with the geometry they contain.
This school dropout tells us he was also reading John Lockes 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, practisd 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.
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