Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Jonathan Lyons’s "The Society for Useful Knowledge"

Historian of ideas Jonathan Lyons has turned his attentions from the Muslim world to the roots of America’s penchant for the practical over the theoretical, for engineering over mathematics, and for useful knowledge over that which is ornamental. With Benjamin Franklin as his guide, Lyons finds that colonial America underwent a knowledge revolution that preceded – and then made possible –political rebellion against British rule.

Viewed in this way, the American Revolution represents less a turning point than a significant milestone in a journey that began not at Lexington or Concord in the spring of 1775 but in the study circles, public libraries, schools, and the useful knowledge societies that first took shape in colonial cities and towns almost fifty years earlier.

Lyons’s publications include Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism; The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization; and Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-first-Century Iran, (co-authored with Geneive Abdo). He has a doctorate in sociology and lives in Portland, Oregon.

Lyons applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America. Here’s what he found:
Pages 99 (and 98) introduce the aspirations of Franklin and his circle of artisans and craftsmen for an institution of higher learning that would advance the cause of practical knowledge and undermine the power of the traditional social and political elites, with their attachment to the Classical tradition.

Franklin and his fellow “mechanics” contributed ideas, funds, and sweat equity to establish the Academy and College of Philadelphia (the future University of Pennsylvania), only to see their grand vision later undermined by the political and civic leaders who controlled the board of trustees and who demanded that their sons receive a Classical education fit for “true Gentlemen.”

The struggle for practical education in America was part of a broader challenge to the existing economy of knowledge, one that had to be overcome before the colonists could fully contemplate a campaign for political independence and the creation of a new, American society.

Pages 98 and 99 picks up this storyline:
Central to Franklin’s vision was a dedicated English School as the central component of the academy. There, the language of everyday American (and British) life was to be given scholarly attention typically reserved for Latin and Greek. Students would address the works of “the best English Authors,” including Milton, Locke, Addison, Pope, and Swift—the very writers that had shaped Franklin as a voracious young reader and an aspiring essayist. The great books of the Ancients would be read in translation, saving students from many years of preparatory language study which could now be devoted to more useful subjects.

The emphasis on the cultivation of practical skills—those of the farmer, the mechanic, the small merchant, the government functionary—echoed the social reformer and Puritan philosopher William Petty’s exaltation of the tradesman and the artisan at the expense of those “lazy men in gentlemen’s houses” turned out by the universities of seventeenth century Britain. It also echoed one of the fundamental laws of William Penn’s original colonial project—long since abandoned by Franklin’s day—for the mandatory education of the young “so that they may be … taught some useful trade or skill, that the poor may work to live, and the rich if they became poor shall not want.”

Franklin reckoned that completion of his proposed curriculum would leave graduates well prepared to lead useful and productive lives. “Youth will come out of this School fitted for learning any Business, Calling or Profession, except such wherein Languages are required; and though unacquainted with any ancient or foreign Tongue, they will be Masters of their own, which is of more immediate and general Use.”

The proposed social basis for the Franklin’s new school was also noteworthy, for it was to be under the management of an independent board of trustees, a self-styled “voluntary society of founders,” with no direct reliance on any existing power or institution. Historically, European colleges and universities, and their American imitators, had been founded or controlled by religious orders seeking to train ministers and instruct believers, or by rulers eager to provide skilled workers for their state bureaucracies and to enhance their own prestige. In contrast to the other colonial institutions of the day—Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, newcomer Princeton and Columbia—the Philadelphia academy and college was understood from the outset to be nonsectarian, and its program of study made little direct reference to the study of religion in general.
Learn more about The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America and follow the Useful Dr. Franklin blog.

--Marshal Zeringue