Franklin – 250 Years Later

Franklin at UPenn's Locust Walk

“As to their studies, it would be well if they could be taught everything that is useful… and their time is short.  It is therefore proposed that they learn those things that are likely to be most useful”   (Benjamin Franklin, 1749).

Franklin’s vision would lay the foundation for building the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), an Ivy League institution recently ranked 12th in the world by US News and World Report. However, perhaps more impressive is that the vision he espoused over 250 years ago is likely as relevant today as it was when he was establishing his plan to educate the youth of Pennsylvania.  Franklin’s message has two timely and relevant pieces of advice for those interested in higher education today:

1. Time is Short

First, time is indeed short for many students.  The longer we force students to be ‘in school’, the more expensive it is for them and the taxpayer who ultimately underwrites public and private higher education today*.  The lack of student mobility pathways in North America only exacerbates this issue.

Industry expects colleges and universities to re-skill students in a much more expeditious manner.  Colleges and universities must be more effective in recognizing prior learning and continue our efforts to move away from our centuries-old, time-based concept of teaching and learning.

2. Learning that is Useful

Second, we need to challenge the romantic notion of the purpose of higher education.  This is a debate that can lead us back to Plato’s Academy.  However, at a time when resources are not likely to increase and competition continues to grow, we must be more practical in terms of who will receive scarce public funds.

I would argue that institutions that provide learning that directly leads to gainful employment is one differentiating criteria in terms defining learning that is useful.  This has certainly caught the attention of Senator Harkin, among others.  However, it is here that government must make the choice to invest in colleges and universities that are most able and willing to graduate students who have the skills and knowledge required to ensure North American communities remain economically and socially productive.


* When we look closely at how institutions actually receive revenue, the reality is that there are neither fully private nor completely public institutions today.


About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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