Ben Franklin, Education and the 21st Century, Part 1

Ben Franklin, Education and the 21st Century, Part 1

I must admit that I do not like the term “21st Century” anything; learning, skills, literacy.  Learning and thinking have not really changed, the tools may have, but not the process. I have been reading Benjamin Franklin’s Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania, Philadelphia, 1749.  This document laid the ground work for the Academy of Philadelphia later to become the University of Pennsylvania.  As I was reading I was looking at Franklin’s proposal for study and thinking how it relates to now.  I highly recommend taking the time to read the entire pamphlet particularly the introduction.

In his introduction he describes how the Academy should be established.  He includes specifics about the need for diet, and exercise as these are essential for maintaining the body and facilitating learning.  These ideas seemed like a surprise to many when reading Brain Rules, by John Medina.   The more things change the more they stay the same.  However, I wish to focus on the more academic section of the proposal.

Franklin writes:

As to their Studies, it would be well if they could be taught every Thing that is useful, and every Thing that is ornamental: But Art is long, and their Time is short. It is therefore propos’d that they learn those Things that are likely to be most useful and most ornamental.  Regard being had to the several Professions for which they are intended.

All should be taught to write with a fair Hand, and swift, as that is useful to All.  And with it may be learnt something of Drawing, by Imitation of Prints, and some of the first Principles of Perspective.

“Art is long, and their Time is short”  Often I hear educators complain we have so much more to teach now then ‘back then.’ I find it comforting that Ben Franklin also thought there was too much to learn.  What we do have that Mr. Franklin did not is easy access to all and I do mean ALL information.  It is still essential that we establish a core set of knowledge that forms the foundation of our education but equally important is to teach how to find and evaluate information – two skills also deemed necessary in the Proposal.

He said all should be taught to write with a  fair and swift hand.  You need to communicate quickly, succinctly and legibly. Today this would include penmanship and keyboarding, in this day and age we have added a skill to the mix.  Franklin deemed drawing an essential skill so much so that it was the second study on his list.  He believed that drawing is a “Universal Language, understood by all Nations.”  A figure, today we would say a graphic, added to words can convey more information then just words alone.  This has been commonly understood for centuries, supported again with current research in learning as well.

Communication was the essences of these first areas of study.  Writing and Art are essential to communication but not just drawing. Today we also need to learn about color composition and lay out.  These are as important as the ability to find and use digital images. The tools by which we can communicate today allow us to easily integrate text and graphics, therefore these are skills that must be part of our educational foundation.

End part 1

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