Study Guide

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Education

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My early Readiness in learning to read (which must have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read) and the Opinion of all [my father's] Friends that I should certainly make a good Scholar, encourag'd him in this Purpose of his [of sending Franklin to school]. (1.9)

These words seem to convey a desire for readers to know about Franklin's precocity. His ability to read is tied up in his memory of and knowledge about himself. He can't recall a version of himself that couldn't read. It's interesting, too, that the root of "readiness" and "read" is the same – this connection helps us associate the qualities of eagerness and preparedness with the act of reading, just as Franklin seems to do throughout his text.

From a child I was fond of Reading, and all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books. (1.15)

If there's one thing we get out of this book, it's how much Franklin likes to read. To which we say: great! Us too. Here Franklin is also connecting money to education, though. The act of reading, through purchasing books, becomes a reward for working for and saving money. Reading and education become prizes for industry and thrift. It doesn't hurt that education, as a kind of self-betterment, can also be seen as a virtue. Instead, it leads to a cycle where education brings out good qualities, which lead to the desire for more education.

Often I sat up in my Room reading the greatest Part of the Night, when the Book was borrow'd in the Evening and to be return'd early in the Morning lest it should be miss'd or wanted. (1.16)

Franklin loves to learn so much that he's willing to lose sleep over it. Because he's been working a traditional day job since he was a pre-teen, he's constantly making up for lost time. He also doesn't have a lot of money. This scene, then, shows his resourcefulness and determination. He makes use of every possible spare moment, by reading when he should be resting, and borrows books instead of buying them.

[B]eing on some Occasion made asham'd of my Ignorance in Figures, which I had twice fail'd in learning when at School, I took Cocker's Book of Arithmetic, and went thro' the whole by myself with great Ease. I also read Seller's and Sturmy's Books of Navigation, and became acquainted with the little Geometry they contain, but never proceeded far in that Science. (1.21)

Education for Franklin isn't just about reading, although that's what he likes best. He wants to know everything. Even though he was only in school for a little while, he managed to flunk out of math twice. So he's compelled by both his desire just to be better educated and his embarrassment at not knowing better math, to seek out subjects he finds difficult and master them.

The two works I allude to, Sir, will in particular give a noble rule and example of self-education. School and other education constantly proceed upon false principles, and show a clumsy apparatus pointed at a false mark; but your apparatus is simple, and the mark a true one (2.12)

Vaughan makes an argument for why Franklin should keep writing in a way that suggests he knows very well how to influence his old friend. Since Franklin's been so invested in educating himself throughout his life, Vaughan encourages him to keep writing by telling him his life story (and the Art of Virtue, which Franklin doesn't finish) will help other people engage in that same kind of "self-education." This may appeal to Franklin even more than flattery or compliments: seeing his work as an instrument that will help other people to do something he believes in so much.

Reading was the only Amusement I allow'd myself. I spent no time in Taverns, Games, or Frolics of any kind. (2.36)

Franklin's such a crazy, wild man. Right. What we really mean is, he comes off here as constantly virtuous and industrious, not as someone who likes to party. Whether that's true is another story. According to what he says here, though, in order to motivate himself to keep getting better educated and continue learning, he considers reading a pleasure as well as a practical or important activity. He equates it to more traditional "Amusements" like gambling and drinking, and uses it as a replacement for fun social time.

[I recommend] that Branch of Education for our young Females, as likely to be of more Use to them and their Children in Case of Widowhood than either Music or Dancing, by preserving them from Losses by Imposition of crafty Men, and enabling them to continue perhaps a profitable mercantile House with establish'd Correspondence till a Son is grown up fit to undertake and go on with it, to the lasting Advantage and enriching of the Family. (3.8)

This is one of the few times in the Autobiography that Franklin gets into issues of gender. Even though he kind of ruins things at the end here by saying that the ultimate goal of female education is to pass business on to another man, we're going to run with what he says in the middle. That is, women should be educated in literature and arithmetic, like men, and learn about practical things that can serve them well in the business world. They shouldn't focus only decorative things like music because, in the (for this society) unlikely event they have to fend for themselves, they won't be able to cope with business unless they've been well educated. The next step, we'd like to tell Franklin, is to let women into that university of yours you've been organizing.

But when I had attained an Acquaintance with the French, Italian and Spanish, I was surpris'd to find, on looking over a Latin Testament, that I understood so much more of that Language than I had imagined; which encouraged me to apply myself again to the Study of it, and I met with the more Success, as those preceding Languages had greatly smooth'd my Way. (3.12)

Believe it or not, this is revolutionary education at work. People used to have to learn Latin first, even though it's so darn difficult, before they could learn other, comparatively easier languages. Franklin offers a theory, complete with his own experience as evidence, that it's actually easier to start with simpler, building-block languages, and work your way up to the more difficult ones. (However, Franklin's such a smarty-pants, and so committed to his own education, that he doesn't really make the best "ordinary" example for his theory.)

The Trustees of the Academy after a while were incorporated by a Charter from the Governor; their Funds were increas'd by Contributions in Britain, and Grants of Land from the Proprietaries, to which the Assembly has since made considerable Addition, and thus was established the present University of Philadelphia. (3.48)

That's right, founding a university is just that easy. Seriously, though, while Franklin makes the process sound simple and straightforward, we shouldn't let that take away from the importance of what he's doing here. His little idea that Pennsylvania needed an institution of higher learning has taken on a life of its own, receiving government support in America and Britain, gifts of land and money, and continued assistance from the Assembly. It's amazing to watch the construction of an institution that we now take for granted as prestigious and extremely well-established, and to think that, without Franklin, it wouldn't be here at all.

[T]he College of Cambridge of their own Motion, presented me with the Degree of Master of Arts. Yale College in Connecticut, had before made me a similar Compliment. Thus without studying in any College I came to partake of their Honors. (3.65)

This just goes to show how, despite not getting to have a formal education Franklin still ends up with its benefits. These aren't just any colleges giving him degrees – he's talking about Harvard and Yale. Two of the oldest (well, then they were pretty young), most prestigious universities around, and they're giving advanced degrees to someone who dropped out of traditional school at age twelve. All that reading Franklin did really pays off here.

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