The Place of Penn: Benjamin Franklin, “Founder”
“For though the American Youth are allow’d not to want Capacity; yet the best Capacities require Cultivation….” — Benjamin Franklin, 1749
n 1749, Benjamin Franklin was 43 years old: a wealthy printer just retired from business life, socially influential and ambitious, and eager to turn his attention to non-commercial pursuits like science, politics, and education. With his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania (1749), Franklin engaged Philadelphia’s prosperous merchant and professional class in the formation of an “academy,” an institution for boys with some prior elementary education which would teach them a wide range of subjects and skills. He argued that they should learn what was “most useful and most ornamental,” based upon the “several professions for which they are intended”: mathematics, drawing, writing, English language and letters, oratory, and ancient and modern history. Students preparing for the ministry or medicine would study classical languages, while those becoming merchants would focus upon “living languages.” In addition, Franklin hoped that all students would learn practical skills, including planting and natural history, mechanics and other sciences.
Franklin (who had spent little time in formal schools and often poked fun at the “learned”) did not wish to appear radically new: he cites a range of authors as precedents, and his essay contains detailed footnotes summarizing their views. His proposals resemble schools run by groups of English Protestant Dissenters, including Philadelphia’s Quakers, who advocated English language-based learning and opposed the insular pedantry of the universities. At the same time, Franklin’s emphasis on teaching practical talents, and his insistence on making education civically useful—developing students’ “Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends and Family”—may indeed be novel. Although the academy would not stress religion, Franklin did note that the study of history would teach the “Necessity of a Publick Religion” and the “Excellency of the Christian Religion above all others.”
he Constitutions of the Publick Academy, drafted and printed in 1749, announced the school’s organization and the ideals of its twenty-four founding Trustees, who argued for the moral and economic benefits of a proper “education of youth.” The Academy would consist of Latin and English “Schools” or divisions, open to students as young as eight whose parents or sponsors could pay the relatively high tuition of £1 per quarter-year. Beginning students would learn the “dead and living Languages” before moving on to history, logic, writing, and mathematics. Franklin planned the English program in his 1751 Idea of the English School, again stressing writing, oratory, and modern English literature. In the Academy Franklin’s ideas were modified, however, the Latin Master serving as Rector with an English Master to “assist” him.
In 1751, the Academy of Philadelphia opened in the “New Building,” a large hall on Fourth Street near Arch which had been built in 1740 for the revivalist preacher George Whitefield. Franklin and the Trustees continued to grow their institution, opening a free charity school for younger students months later (the New Building had originally been constructed to serve as a charity school, but not until Franklin and the Trustees opened theirs did it actually do so.) The school obtained a charter in 1755 to begin a college, the first in Pennsylvania colony. Though its small student body was composed mainly of members of the elite, the College was religiously unaffiliated, unusual in a world in which most colleges were limited to those being trained for the ministry.
Ironically,the institution became a center of religious and political conflict. Provost William Smith sought to increase the influence of Anglicans in the school and became Franklin’s enemy by supporting the Penn family Proprietors, themselves Anglicans. In a 1756 letter to his English correspondent Peter Collinson, Franklin, after ordering electrical apparatus for the Academy, condemns both Quaker “stiffrumps” in the Assembly and Smith’s fierce politics. Smith would remain Provost until 1779, while Franklin, during his long stays in England and France, grew distant from the workings of the Academy and College. Although named President of a reorganized Board of Trustees in 1789, Franklin composed a scathing pamphlet in the same year on the unrealized “intentions of the original founders.” He condemned the partiality shown to the Latin School, with the result of “injudiciously starving the English part of our scheme of education.”