Benjamin Franklin and the Franklin College

Benjamin Franklin and the Franklin College

October 23, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


I teach Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography,
his memoir I usually call it, almost every year to undergraduates and graduate students
at the University. And whenever I start teaching that book I always ask them what they know
about Benjamin Franklin. They know the usual things: lightning, and the experiments with
lightning; some of them will know Poor Richard’s Almanac; and nearly all of them will have
some vague memory that he invented bifocals. They don’t know when, they don’t know
why, but shortly after starting to read his book they begin to realize that bifocal vision
is something like the heart of the Franklin College. It’s the Franklin College of Arts
and of Sciences, of two ways of seeing. Franklin was committed to the double-visioned implications
of that ideal and all his life insisted that education would not necessarily be a matter
of specialization, but a matter of breadth. When the governor of Georgia invited Abraham
Baldwin to come down here and help set up an educational system for the state in the
mid-1780’s, he knew was getting a dyed-in-the-wool Connecticut Yankee. And he probably knew he
was getting a Connecticut Yankee whose education and whose ideals had been marked in part by
the influence of Benjamin Franklin. Now, Baldwin and Franklin wouldn’t get to know each other
in the Constitutional Convention for another couple of years, but when Baldwin came down
here to help establish what became the University of Georgia he brought with him some of the
ideals Franklin connected with college education from the very earliest years of his life. Particularly at this time, in the spring,
students often wonder, and their parents often wonder, what a college education is supposed
to achieve. At the Franklin College, I think we follow Benjamin Franklin’s ideals. A
college education is meant to accomplish at least a couple of things – it’s to serve
as the surest foundation, those were his words ‘the surest foundation,’ for individual
happiness, that he could possibly imagine. And a college education was meant to create
men and women who would serve the public good. So, service and happiness, his joint ideals.
Another instance, I suppose, of Benjamin Franklin’s bifocals at work. Happiness is an inside goal,
it’s something we fell within ourselves privately, sometimes unexpressed. But service
to the general good is easy to measure by looking at the trajectory of a career. And
for Franklin, service followed a very strict trajectory: service to mankind, to one’s
country, friends, and family. Each circle of service getting smaller as he descended
from mankind as a whole, to family, the place where we all begin. But you never lose the perspective that your
service is directed toward the good of mankind as a whole. In this sense though, Benjamin
Franklin, our founding college name, is local and important to us personally, and probably
important to us an Americans, he’s important to us as an exemplary citizen of our species,
of mankind as a whole. It seems strange, I suppose, to have an English
professor talking about Benjamin Franklin. My colleagues in history feel that all the
time (laughs). We have a kind of fruitful disagreement with one another concerning who
knows more about Benjamin Franklin – me, or Peter Hoffer in history or Michael Winship
in history. But Franklin didn’t make the simple disciplinary division between history
and literary study that we take for granted when we got to Le Conte Hall or to Park Hall
to take courses. History was a literary discipline, and literature was a historical discipline
and I really do like the blending, and that blending is a great challenge to almost any
imagination. It’s a challenge we don’t always rise to as constructively as we should
in life, but Franklin expected us to. In fact, when he designed a college, for the citizens
of Philadelphia, he organized it around the idea of history but he broke history up into
three pieces. He said the college curriculum should be the history of man and of man’s
institutions. But that meant from Franklin’s standpoint, an integrated study of geography,
religion, philosophy, culture, languages and literature. Everything that we associate with
the humanities, and now the social sciences. Then, a college should incorporate a study
of the history of nature, or natural history, what we now call the traditional sciences:
biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and so on. And he added a third element to the
college’s organization: the history of commerce. Commerce meaning both mechanical engineering,
the ingenuity to make devices and things to ease human labor or to ornament human life,
but also the history of man’s commercial engagement with his fellowman and with the
planet as a whole. Whenever I walk along this quadrangle and
look at Old College I think that it’s not just that building, it’s the ensemble of
buildings up here that resemble, or emblematize, what Benjamin Franklin thought a great college
or university should be.