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The Educational Theory of Benjamin Franklin

Steve Hand




Born in 1706, Benjamin Franklin accomplished more during his lifetime than most dare dream about. He created the first public library in the United States[i]. He invented countless items, such as wood stoves, bifocals, and the lightning rod[ii]. He even signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution[iii]. All of this makes it even more amazing when you consider that Franklin only had 2 years of formal education.[iv]

It was at the age of 13, while working for his brother at a printing press that Franklin continued his education on his own, teaching himself to read, do math, and write.[vi] He began publishing his own work, titled Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1732 at the age of 26.[vii] It was through his Almanac that Franklin began distributing many of his ideas and philosophies, in the form of sayings that are still used today. He became increasingly involved in the rising conflict with Britain, protesting the Stamp Act and even going overseas to try to negotiate peace[viii].

I. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Franklin enjoyed learning, and hoped that others would follow his example. He was idealistic to the extent that he hoped students could learn everything, but realistically, he understood that "their time is short. It is therefore propos’d that they learn these things that are likely to be most useful"[ix].

It was that way of thinking that also allowed Franklin to propose a grammar school whose focus would be on the English language. The new nation was a chance for a fresh approach to education, and while the norm to that point were studies in Latin and Greek, Franklin felt those languages made up the "quackery of literature"[x]. And that rather than force students to learn material they won’t need, after they finish studying the English language, they can then go on to study whatever language would be useful to their career.[xi]

Science and experimentation were integral in Franklin’s learning, that he felt they too should be centerpieces of the new education system.[xii] Based upon the progress that he made, and the discoveries of others of the time, he once lamented to his friend Joseph Priestly that "The rapid progress of true science … occasions my regretting that I was born so soon"[xiii]. He knew that he had only touched upon the potential that lay ahead for this growing field.

One of the goals of education was to help create a sense of unity or nationalism among the colonies, by creating a uniform method of education. By resolving to plan for their future, the leaders of the new country were also preventing the British from using any weakness against them[xiv].

One of Franklin’s biggest influences was the ideas of a man named John Locke[xv]. Locke believed that the goal of education is for the betterment of one’s country[xvi]. Franklin took this a step further in stating that the only way to make the country strong is by bettering the individual. "Wise and good men, are, in my opinion, the strength of a state", Franklin wrote to his colleague Dr. Samuel Johnson [xvii]. So it was that Franklin encouraged & promoted moral education throughout his life.

II. What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? A lie?

Franklin followed closely in the footsteps of others engaged in the Age of Enlightenment. Francis Bacon, one of the founding fathers of the movement, felt that the only knowledge needed by man could be drawn from the natural world, and that science would provide the means for it.[xviii]

Franklin put his full confidence in the ability of man and his ability to reason to overcome difficulty [xix]. This belief in man provided a pathway to knowledge, according to Franklin. In a brand new country, where one’s fate was not predetermined by birth-right, and success could be found through determination and hard work, Franklin and other thinkers of the time found themselves asking "How should I live?"[xx]. The idea of how to live a morally sound life is what Franklin considered knowledge.

Franklin was a part of a movement where writers and thinkers no longer blindly accepted information presented by the Church as truth[xxi]. People began questioning their faith, and in doing so, came to rely upon Rationale and Reason as means to believe[xxii].

Franklin felt that mistakes were a natural part of the learning process, and has been quoted often as saying "Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out."[xxiii] In the sciences which Franklin was involved, experimenting and hypothesizing are integral parts of the discovery process, so mistakes can be seen as a step towards the correct conclusion.

Throughout his life, Franklin developed a list of thirteen virtues through which people could lead a morally good life[xxiv]. Sincerity is amongst these virtues, so we can deduce that lies are something that Franklin frowned upon.

III. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

For insight on Franklin’s feelings on what it means to be human, we can again look at the ideas of John Locke. Humans, according to Locke, start out untrained, and only through the proper education can we reach our full potential. According to Locke, we start out seeking power and control over all other living things, and enforce our wills and ideas upon others[xxv]. It is that seeking of total control over others and our ability to seek out, recognize, and lead a virtuous life that sets us apart. Franklin felt that there was no limit to what one could do in a lifetime, but that the lifetime was the limit itself. "Art is long, and their time is short", Franklin wrote[xxvi]. As mentioned earlier, he regretted not being able to see all that the new sciences would discover.

IV. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

Since Franklin had very little chance to learn in a formal schooling system during his younger years[xxvii], most of what he learned he had to pick up on himself. This would make learning a self relied upon endeavor. The learn by doing approach, allowing himself room to fail and try again, proved most success for Franklin.

V. Theory of Transmission: Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

In order to grasp Franklin’s approach to teaching, one need only look to one of his biggest influences, John Locke. Locke’s Of the Conduct of the Understanding[xxviii] thought that teaching & instruction should be done by whomever is available, whether it be an at home tutor, the parents of the student, or the student themselves. Locke stressed the importance of educating the individual, via the use of tutors, as every child learns differently, and using personal instruction, one is able to overcome and address difficulties in learning more easily[xxix]The age of the Revolution also brought out three very important types of intellectual figures, all of whom were able to influence and train students in sound moral judgment. These figures were: The clergy-man, the politician, and the academician[xxx]. As we have discussed, while Franklin felt experience was the best teacher, he also sought to provide advice via his published works.

            Franklin felt very strongly that a new approach to education would be needed for the developing nation. Drawing from his own exploration of many areas of study, he began devising his own curriculum, publishing a pamphlet, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, laying out ideas that led to the creation of the University of Pennsylvania[xxxi]. In this pamphlet, he describes an open program where students are free to explore whatever career path they chose, whether it be in the arts & humanities, or in craft and trade. He stressed not only that students have access to libraries, but also chances at practical application of that knowledge[xxxii]. In this way, Ben Franklin became America’s first cognitive Educational theorist.

VI. Theory of Society: What is society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Thousands of miles away from the power of the authorities that have governed societies for years, the establishment of the New World provided opportunities for a fresh look at the foundations by which people live. Eighteenth century America’s idea of society was still forming as Franklin was growing up. No longer was society a system of ascribed status. Mobility was now much more common, not just from location to location, but also from class to class[xxxiii]. As Franklin felt each should be able to pursue their own path, and education, according to Franklin, was a life long process[xxxiv], then all institutions in some way should be responsible for training and educating their members.

VII. Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Formal education, ie, schooling, was not readily available when Franklin was growing up[xxxv], but both men and women, should, if possible receive some level of formal education. As described in his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania[xxxvi] , Franklin encouraged the basic fundamentals of schooling, and then allowed a more open ended education. These included opportunities to serve apprenticeships to learn trades.

VIII. Theory of Consensus: Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

Franklin was brought up in a society was that much more self-aware than previous generations[xxxvii]. This focus on the individual and the family brought about competing interests, as people striving to find success, if not acting carefully, could easily offend a society in which tact was highly regarded. Consensus, Franklin felt, could be achieved a number of ways. He provided advice in his publications to help the public avoid the "Spirit of Wrangling & Modesty"[xxxviii]. Or one could use one of the newest tools of the Age of Enlightenment, persuasion[xxxix]. As mentioned previously, during this time ascribed status had become less important, and as such, the opinions of the middle class were beginning to be deemed important. This shift onto popular opinion helped put extra emphasis on the ability to persuade one’s opponents.


[i] "Benjamin Franklin" http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/franklin.html

[ii] "Ben Franklin & His Inventions" http://sln.fi.edu/franklin/inventor/inventor.html

[iii] "Benjamin Franklin" http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/franklin.html

[iv] "Benjamin Franklin" http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/franklin.html

[vi] Dickson A. Mungazi, The Evolution of Educational Theory in the United States (Praeger Publishers, 1999), p. 68.

[vii] "Benjamin Franklin" http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/franklin.html

[viii] Mungazi, p. 70.

[ix] Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, http://www.archives.upenn.edu/primdocs/1749proposals.html

[x] John Best, Ben Franklin on Education (William Byrd Press Inc, 1962), p.15.

[xi] John Best, Ben Franklin on Education (William Byrd Press Inc, 1962), p.14.

[xii] John Best, Ben Franklin on Education (William Byrd Press Inc, 1962), p.15.

[xiii] John Best, Ben Franklin on Education (William Byrd Press Inc, 1962), p.122.

[xiv] Dickson A. Mungazi, The Evolution of Educational Theory in the United States (Praeger Publishers, 1999), p. 70.

[xv] John Best, Ben Franklin on Education (William Byrd Press Inc, 1962), p.12.

[xvi] New Foundations, John Locke. http://www.newfoundations.com/GALLERY/Locke.html

[xvii] John Best, Ben Franklin on Education (William Byrd Press Inc, 1962), p.17.

[xviii] Francis Bacon, Biography. http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Biographies/Philosophy/Bacon.htm

[xix] John Best, Ben Franklin on Education (William Byrd Press Inc, 1962), p.9.

[xx] The Democratic Enlightenment, p. 65.

[xxi] The Democratic Enlightenment, p. 8.

[xxii] The Democratic Enlightenment, p. 8.

[xxiii] Ben Franklin Quotes, various: http://thinkexist.com/quotation/do_not_fear_mistakes-you_will_know_failure/200746.html DOA: 04/10/09

[xxiv] The Democratic Enlightenment, p. 67.

[xxv] Moral Foundations of the American Republic, p. 145.

[xxvi] Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania http://www.archives.upenn.edu/primdocs/1749proposals.html

[xxvii] "Benjamin Franklin" http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/franklin.html

[xxviii] The Democratic Enlightenment p. 90

[xxix] The Democratic Enlightenment, p. 43

[xxx] The Democratic Enlightenment, p. 187.

[xxxi] Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, http://www.archives.upenn.edu/primdocs/1749proposals.html

[xxxii] Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, http://www.archives.upenn.edu/primdocs/1749proposals.html

[xxxiii] Democratic Enlightenment, p.64.

[xxxiv] Democratic Enlightenment, p. 91.

[xxxv] Democratic Enlightenment p. 90.

[xxxvi] Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, http://www.archives.upenn.edu/primdocs/1749proposals.html

[xxxvii] Democratic Enlightenment, p. 69.

[xxxviii] Democratic Enlightenment, p. 70.

[xxxix] Democratic Enlightenment p. 71.