Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“While they are reading Natural History, might not a little Gardening, Planting, Grafting, Inoculating, &c. be taught and practised; and now and then Excursions made to the neighbouring Plantations of the best Farmers, their Methods observ’d and reason’d upon for the Information of Youth.”

Summary Overview

Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania was published anonymously and presented to readers as a project approved by a group of “publick-spirited Gentlemen.” It was distributed along with Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and responses were to be sent to “B. Franklin, Printer.” Benjamin Franklin’s involvement was clear from the beginning. (The phrase “publick-spirited Gentlemen” was probably used to make the project seem generally popular.) The pamphlet set forth Franklin’s plan for an institution devoted to the teaching of young men and located in Philadelphia, which was the capital of the British colony of Pennsylvania. It sets forth how the institution will be structured and organized, how its students will be expected to live, and what its curriculum and goals will be. It also sets forth many aspects of Franklin’s educational philosophy, one he expected would have a broad appeal to the Philadelphia elite whose support would be necessary to get the academy off the ground.

Defining Moment

Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania was published when Philadelphia was beginning to rival Boston as the intellectual center of the American colonies, in large part due to the efforts of Franklin himself. The Philadelphia intellectual community was more open and less institutionally based than that of Boston and New England generally, which was dominated by an entrenched intelligentsia of ministers and university professors. Philadelphia itself was being transformed: The traditional Quaker elite was being challenged by numerous immigrants, including Franklin, with different religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds who contributed to the growth of the city and led to an increasing interest in the tradition of humanistic learning that went back to the Renaissance. At the time, there were few institutions of higher learning in the colonies, where education for most was more oriented to vocational needs through basic education in literacy or apprenticeships. Some schools taught Latin for the purpose of learning to pass the college entrance exam. The leading intellectual institutions of the colonies were outside Pennsylvania and the entire mid-Atlantic region—Harvard and Yale in New England and the College of William and Mary in Virginia. For advanced schooling, many prominent American families sent their sons across the Atlantic to schools in Britain.

The mid-eighteenth century was also a time when education in Europe and America was becoming increasingly secularized, particularly influenced by the secular nature of the Enlightenment. Christianity, although constituting a significant portion of the curriculum, was being challenged, particularly in the natural sciences, and the training of clerics was less important to the educational mission in many institutions. The growth in the volume and cultural prominence of scientific knowledge after the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century meant that science was also intruding into the humanistic curriculum, which was based on Greek and Latin. Many Enlightenment thinkers such as Franklin also believed that education should be more oriented for use, including economic development, than the traditional curriculum was.

Author Biography

Benjamin Franklin, the first native of the American colonies to win European recognition as a philosopher, was the son of a tallow chandler (candle maker) and soap boiler in Boston. At an early age, he began working for his brother James’s newspaper where his first journalistic writings appeared. After a quarrel with James, he moved to Philadelphia in 1723 and visited London between 1724 and 1726. As a printer in Boston and Philadelphia, the young Franklin was a prolific writer spreading Enlightenment ideas of toleration and pragmatism. His Pennsylvania Gazette was the most popular newspaper throughout the American colonies. In Philadelphia, Franklin was not only the leading printer, but a leader in intellectual life, a very active Freemason, and an enthusiastic and successful organizer of libraries and discussion clubs, including the Academy of Philadelphia.

Upon retiring from his printing business in 1748, Franklin devoted more of his time to electrical science and politics. Franklin’s greatest contribution to science was the one-fluid theory of electricity. Franklin identified electricity as a universal fluid and distinguished between electrified states as “positive,” saturated with the electrical fluid, and “negative,” deficient in it. Franklin’s theory eventually formed the basis of electrical science. His book Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751) was printed in London and translated into French, German, and Italian. Franklin also supported, although he did not originate, the idea that lightning was electricity. It is not clear whether he actually performed the famous experiment with a kite and a key, but his invention, the lightning rod, had a huge cultural impact as an outstanding example of the practical benefits of science.

Franklin went to London in 1758 as Pennsylvania’s agent to the British government. He originally worked for closer relations between Britain and its American colonies, but he eventually came to believe that British arrogance and its uncompromising nature made this project impossible and supported the American Revolution, returning to America in 1775. As the ambassador of the American rebels to Paris, he played a crucial role in forming the alliance with France that became vital to American success. The universal respect he enjoyed among “enlightened” French people helped raise the prestige of the American cause. On his return to America, Franklin helped devise the new constitution and was one of the earliest prominent advocates of the abolition of slavery.

Document Analysis

Benjamin Franklin’s program for the education of the young men of colonial America—the education of women is not mentioned in the document—is a blend of traditional Christian humanistic learning with a more scientific approach, oriented to public service, economic development, and the creation of an intellectual and social elite. Since Franklin was an innovator in thinking about what education should cover, it was necessary to explain the plan of the new institution at some length. Christianity remains an important part of education, but Franklin’s approach has many secular elements and does not distinguish between Christian denominations.

Throughout the document, Franklin’s concern is utilitarian and emphasizes the social and personal use of learning rather than individual intellectual development for its own sake, claiming that the present generation of American settlers lacked the intellectual training of the first colonists partially due to a lack of institutions to educate them. The institution’s graduates are expected to be useful to the British Empire, in which the American colonies play an important but subordinate role. The proposed institution will contribute to the creation of a political and economic elite as well as an intellectual and cultural one in Pennsylvania and perhaps throughout the colonies. (Although the institution began as a charity school, Franklin anticipated it growing into a college, which would lessen the temptation for Pennsylvanians to send their sons to school elsewhere.)

Franklin begins with a tribute to the importance of educating male youth, which is a theme in Western culture going back at least as far as Plato. Education served both the needs of the family and of the state, and the importance of education is therefore such that it should be supported by publicly funded institutions. (Although Franklin was mostly self-taught, he did not expect his path to be widely followed.) Franklin’s picture of the intellectual development of Americans is one of decline, explaining that the original settlers, who included many learned men from Europe, had been too busy to fully educate their descendants. American youths had the “capacity” (potential) to excel, but they were failing for want of education, despite the wealth and prosperity of the colonies. Without education, the work of the first generation could collapse. Rather than create a state-controlled institution, which was not the usual practice, Franklin suggests that a group of “publick-spirited” individuals with the wealth and “Leisure” (time) carry out the project and receive a charter from the Pennsylvania government to found an academy. The charter, which was a necessity in establishing an institution of this kind, would create a corporation endowed with certain rights, among them the right to own property.

In a break with tradition, the proposed institution would be nonsectarian. Given that higher education institutions in Europe (along with those few that existed in the colonies, such as Harvard) were church entities dominated by clergy and largely devoted to training new clergy, this was an innovation. (This innovation would have been impossible in church-dominated New England, where Franklin had been raised.) Franklin’s brief description of the origins of schools discusses how they were founded by “governments,” and it obscures the central role played by churches and religious institutions. In discussing the qualifications of the head of the institution, the “Rector,” Franklin states only that he be of “good morals” and not that he be a clergyman, as was the standard practice of the time.

The Academy of Philadelphia, however, was not a secular institution in the modern sense. Franklin believed that religion would be taught in his new academy, an idea he, at least rhetorically, strongly supported, but his references to it are ambiguous. Religion is introduced as a subject subordinate to history and is viewed in terms of social utility and not in terms of understanding the cosmos or in the salvation of the soul. “Superstition,” commonly defined in the Enlightenment as an excessive fear of God that led to irrational and ineffective religious practices, was to be avoided, and the teaching of religion was regarded as a preventive measure against it.

However, Franklin does not carry his secularism to the point of treating other religions as equal to Christianity, the promotion of which is an important purpose of the institution. What distinguishes Christianity from all other religions for Franklin, however, is not its truth, but its “excellency,” which is a far more ambiguous term. Philadelphia was a religiously divided city, and the original Quaker elite were increasingly challenged by members of the Church of England, a broad range of other Christian denominations, and the Quaker sects of German immigrants to Pennsylvania. Franklin, who was not a member of a church, treads carefully and does not identify his educational program with a particular Christian sect, nor does he make a distinction between Protestantism and Catholicism. Given the Protestant dominance in the British colonies, however, Franklin’s readers may well have assumed that Christianity meant Protestantism. Furthermore, many eighteenth-century Protestants identified superstition with Roman Catholicism, so Franklin’s attack on superstition would have positioned him on the Protestant side.

History was an important part of the curriculum, and as was common among humanists, history, particularly ancient history, served as a stock of moral examples. The virtues it taught were among the primary reasons for studying it. In discussing the teaching of morality, Franklin emphasizes virtues such as temperance, diligence, and order, which are most conducive to occupational success and the promotion of which was an essential part of Franklin’s cultural mission, as exemplified in his Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732) and other writings.

Rhetoric and oratory were also important in discussing education, although Franklin broadens the concept of oration beyond its original spoken form to include written political argument, marking an important distinction between the “ancients” and the “moderns.” Franklin was a printer who made his living by the written word, so it is unsurprising that he views this change to written and published eloquence as an improvement. Knowledge of oratory and rhetoric would enable students to participate effectively in public life. Franklin also sees debate as a worthwhile activity and hopes that ambitions for victory in debate will encourage the study of logic.

The students would also learn an approach to politics in which governments were created for the protection of life and property. Franklin makes no mention of God in the establishment of government or the support of its authority. Governments are to be evaluated by utilitarian criteria, and there is no suggestion that monarchy is intrinsically superior to republican forms of government. “Liberty” is considered an important political value, and Franklin’s politics is clearly identified with the dominant Whig view of British politics rather than the more authoritarian and theocratic Tory position. (The modern English writers he recommends elsewhere in the proposals are virtually entirely Whigs, and in London, he frequented the Club of Honest Whigs.)

A boy’s education in the eighteenth century was largely based on the classical tradition of Greece and Rome, and Franklin rhapsodizes over the beauty and importance of the Greek and Latin languages and the classical tradition generally. His own writing includes allusions that would be recognized by anyone educated in the classics, such as his paraphrase of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates’s famous saying that art is long and time is short. However, Franklin does not envision Greek and Latin being required for all students. (Franklin claimed to value the reading of the classical languages but was much more openly skeptical about teaching boys to write them, which he viewed as a waste of time and a distraction from the serious task of learning to write English well.) He makes a distinction based on what profession the student planned to enter: Future clergymen, or “Divines,” would learn Latin and Greek; future physicians would learn Greek and Latin, the “learned” languages of their profession, as well as French, the language of much contemporary science; and prospective merchants would learn the modern languages of major trading partners. As electives, Greek and Latin would not dominate the curriculum, and it would be possible to graduate from the academy without Latin, which was not possible in a traditional European college preparatory school. However, the learning of languages generally would be encouraged even outside the context of vocational preparation. The teaching of ancient or modern foreign languages would not, however, be allowed to take precedence over the teaching of English, which Franklin regarded as central to the academy’s intellectual mission, even specifying skill in English as a qualification for the rector or head of the institution.

Despite the humanist influence over the curriculum, Franklin also endorses a much more prominent role for science than was the case at many educational institutions at the time. As in the discussion of other forms of learning, utility is uppermost in Franklin’s mind. The teaching of the “History of Nature” is important in its pragmatic use in a variety of professions and not just for the mental exercise it provides. For merchants, natural knowledge would provide a background for dealing with a wide range of sometimes unfamiliar commodities. For artisans, knowledge of nature would open the door for technological improvements, which was a major concern of Franklin’s, who made many such improvements himself. For clergymen, natural history would provide examples of “Divine Providence” at work in the world. This concept of natural theology was popular among many clergymen in the eighteenth century, both members of the Church of England and of other English-speaking faiths. Natural knowledge also promoted stimulating conversation and good health.

Agricultural development was another of Franklin’s interests and an end that he hoped the new academy would serve. The students would not just study agriculture, but even learn by practicing it. Metaphors of vegetation abound in Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, both in Franklin’s own writing and in the short verse passage beginning with “Tis Joy to see” quoted from “The Four Seasons: Spring” by the popular eighteenth-century Scottish poet James Thomson (who Franklin refers to as Thompson). The work of cultivating young people is explicitly compared to the work of agricultural improvers. Colonial America was an agrarian society, and Franklin and a broad range of his readers would be familiar with agricultural processes. Additionally, the people Franklin planned to attract to the academy derived much of their wealth from the production of the land. The improvement of agriculture was a common theme in the Enlightenment both in America and Europe. The academy itself would be endowed with a garden, meadow, and orchard, placing it firmly in a context of productive cultivation.

The vision of the British Empire Franklin gives here is still one where the colonies are subordinated to the overall needs of Britain. In learning the history of the colonies, which comes after the history of the “Mother Country,” students would learn how useful the colonies were to Britain. However, their education would also be aimed at promoting the prosperity and liberty of the colonies themselves. References to the colonies are collective, indicating that despite the title of the work, Franklin may have been thinking beyond the borders of Pennsylvania in terms of student recruitment. As a emigrant from New England who had spent time in London and as someone with business connections among printers in many colonial American cities, Franklin had a broader perspective than many of the Philadelphia elite, whose knowledge tended to be confined to Pennsylvania.

Despite Franklin’s initial insistence that the endowment of educational institutions was a proper function of government, he makes little mention of public funding elsewhere, perhaps knowing that such a proposition would be difficult to get through the Pennsylvania legislature. Nor does he assert that the institution would be funded by the tuition and fees of the students. Presumably the benevolent, civic-minded founders would also largely fund the institution. Its endowment would include a library, although the thrifty Franklin points out that if it was located in the city of Philadelphia itself, the students could use the already established libraries. (Franklin himself was a founder of the Library Company of Philadelphia, one of the first public circulating libraries in the American colonies.) Franklin, a master experimenter, emphasizes the scientific equipment the school will possess.

Student life is envisioned as communal and is marked by a distinctive garb that would set them apart from other men their own age and allow the community to monitor their behavior. This was common in many schools and institutions of higher learning. Health is to be maintained by a frugal diet and frequent exercises. (In a footnote, Franklin suggests that the students not be allowed to dine away from the academy.)

The academy is expected to have a far-reaching impact on society, well beyond that of merely producing educated men, and to be tightly intertwined with the Philadelphia elite. The individuals who applied for and gained the charter would function as more than patrons of the institution. They would operate as hands-on supervisors of the work that went on there, visiting it frequently to encourage and assist both students and masters. Indeed, Franklin expected many of them to become so enamored of education that they would become unpaid teachers themselves, and their involvement with the students would continue after graduation. Franklin envisioned the academy as at the center of a familial and patronage network that would advance its graduates’ careers. The founders would take an active interest in the students’ careers and would treat them as their children (as, presumably, many of them would literally be) and work to advance them even beyond persons of equal merit. The advancement of the students would extend not only to include business and public office, but even “Marriages.” The graduates of the academy would become a social and economic elite, guiding the colony, and perhaps other colonies as well, in the way they thought best.

Essential Themes

The academy that this document envisioned was founded as the Academy of Philadelphia in 1749, with Franklin as its first president and an active promoter of the institution. It opened its doors to students in 1752, although it did not receive a charter until the next year. Franklin continued to be involved with the academy, particularly in its early financial troubles, using the Pennsylvania Gazette to promote fundraising ideas such as lotteries. By the late 1750s, however, Franklin’s involvement was diminishing, partly due to the numerous commitments that took him away from Philadelphia (and eventually from America entirely) and partly due to his personal and political struggles against the provost of the academy, William Smith. Franklin and Smith, whose early career Franklin had promoted, were champions of opposite factions in Pennsylvania politics, Smith of the Proprietary Party representing the Penn family, founders of the colony, and Franklin of the more popularly based Quaker Party. The conflict between the two men for control of the academy was often bitter. Franklin’s belief in the importance of teaching English, natural sciences, and technology was also challenged by more conservative educators, including Smith, who wanted a traditional curriculum based on Greek and Latin and geared toward training clergymen. Quarrels between the classical faculty and the school for teaching English grew bitter, and the underfunded English school lost much of its academic standing. Franklin’s belief that the academy be nonsectarian was also challenged by those who wanted to make it an Anglican institution. Smith, an Anglican clergyman, led the challenge and was rumored to have hoped to become the first Anglican bishop in British North America.

The Academy of Philadelphia was the kernel of the modern University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1791, the first American institution of higher education to proclaim itself a university. Even before that, the academy had fulfilled Franklin’s dream of being a nursery of colonial leaders and played a leading role in the formation of the Pennsylvania elite. Among its alumni were several signers of the Declaration of Independence and revolutionary leaders, and the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are related to those Franklin put forth. In the long run, Franklin’s combination of a humanist and scientific curriculum with an emphasis on utility rather than an education focused on Greek, Latin, and theology also proved influential in the subsequent development of American higher education.

  • Clark, Ronald W. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004. Print.
  • Franklin, Benjamin. Franklin: Writings. Ed. Joseph A. L. Lemay. New York: Literary Classics, 1996. Print.
  • Lemay, Joseph A. L. The Life of Benjamin Franklin. 3 vols. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2006–09. Print.
  • McConaghy, Mary D., Michael Silberman, and Irina Kalashnikova. “Introduction: From Franklin’s Vision to Academy to University of Pennsylvania.” University Archives and Records Center. University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center, 2004. Web. 20 June 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Burns, William E. Science and Technology in Colonial America. Westport: Greenwood, 2005. Print.
  • Fisher, Sydney George. The True Benjamin Franklin. 1899. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 2012. Print.
  • Franklin, Benjamin. The Ingenious Dr. Franklin: Selected Scientific Letters of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Nathaniel G. Goodman. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000. Print.
  • Monaghan, E. Jennifer. Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2007. Print.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. Print.
  • Urban, Wayne J., and Jennings L. Wagoner Jr. American Education: A History. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
  • Wolf, Edwin. The Book Culture of a Colonial American City: Philadelphia Books, Bookmen, and Booksellers. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.

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