Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

N. holding an original issue of Poor Richard's Almanack (1757)
In early May Tim and N. finished reading Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography as part of their improvised auto/biography curriculum.  Franklin began writing his account of his life for his son, and his narrative of his early years immediately appealed to N.  As it happened, Tim and N. were also working their way through the Constitutional Convention years in A History of US by Joy Hakim, so the two texts dovetailed productively.  All of this reading is done aloud, most of it by Tim, but N. reads several paragraphs aloud to Tim daily as well, both for the practice in reading aloud (which N.  enjoys doing) and for a different kind of focus on the text.

I've mentioned before in reference to reading the King James Bible with N. that there is so much to gain from reading older texts with children in their original form, not in modernized versions.  So while there are many cool child-friendly retellings of Franklin's life, Franklin himself was an accomplished stylist accustomed to writing for the popular audience of his day, so his prose is quite readable.  To top it all off, N. had an opportunity to see (and hold!) an original issue of Poor Richard's Almanack and the first French edition of the Autobiography (1791) in my university library's Rare Book Room!

As with so many of the autobiographies Tim and N. have read, Franklin's account of his education is particularly interesting.  Franklin's father was a soap- and candle-maker who for a short time began to have his tenth son educated for the clergy until he discovered how expensive it would be follow this course through to university as necessary.  Thus after only two years of schooling, from age 10-12 Franklin worked for his father, learning through the apprenticeship model that was the dominant mode of trade education in the eighteenth century.  Seeing how much Benjamin hated the chandler business (and afraid he would consequently run off to sea to escape), his father took him on a tour of the other trades available to him: "He therefore sometimes took me to walk with him, and see Joiners, Bricklayers, Turners, Braziers, c. at their work, that he might observe my Inclination, & endeavor to fix it on some Trade or other on Land."  Eventually, in view of his son's "Bookish Inclination," his father apprenticed Franklin to his brother, a printer.  Once in the printing business, Franklin learned on the job and taught himself through voracious reading and imitating the style of popular writers.  "From a child I was fond of Reading, and all the little Money that came into my Hands was ever laid out in Books."  I am especially struck by Franklin's father's attention to what work would suit his child, by the strong role played by the practical in an apprenticeship model of education, and of course by Franklin's self-directed learning through reading. 

I enjoy seeing N. make use -- sometimes in ways that surprise me -- of the life stories he and Tim study.  One Saturday N. and I were having lunch with friends before the recent primary election.  We were discussing the much lamented (and now regrettably passed into law) state constitutional amendment on the ballot proposing that “Marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."  As my friend was explaining to her son that not only would the amendment institutionalize discrimination against gay couples, but it would also likely harm other unmarried couples, N. shouted out: "But Benjamin Franklin wasn't married!  He lived with a woman and they had kids and never got married and HE SIGNED THE CONSTITUTION!"  Despite his confusion of the state and federal constitutions, I could not have been prouder of the independent critical thinking and historical knowledge my 7-year-old made use of at that moment.  Thank you, Benjamin Franklin!

1 comment:

Mom and Kiddo said...

More proof of the intelligence of 7 year olds!