On the Contrasting Educations and Outcomes of Ben Franklin and Montaigne

by Justin Skycak on

Montaigne's education, strictly dictated by his parents and university studies, resulted in an isolative work with scholarly impact but limited public reach. Conversely, Benjamin Franklin's goal-oriented self-teaching led to influential creations and roles benefiting his community and nation.

(Written for a literature class assignment. Was received poorly by the instructor, who was more fond of Montaigne.)

Each year, countless parents attempt to give their children optimal educational predispositions by creating structured plans for their children to follow. As a popular example, Baby Einstein products attempt to give young children an academic advantage by exposing them to cognitive skills through specialized DVDs. However, other parents leave their children to function almost entirely on their own throughout school. Does a child’s type of educational upbringing affect his or her future? In consideration of a specific case, contrast between lives of Benjamin Franklin and Montaigne suggest that an intelligent person’s educational upbringing may play a significant role in his or her types of contributions to society.

Montaigne’s educational upbringing was decided in no part by himself. Rather, Montaigne’s education was designed by his father and his father’s friend before he was even born. According to his father’s plan, Montaigne spent his first three years of life with a peasant family so that his first language could be Latin. After Montaigne returned home, he was to be spoken to only in Latin for a while, and he was educated by a private teacher.

On the other hand, Benjamin Franklin’s educational upbringing was geared more towards his own interests. Franklin was born to a very large family (seventeen children in all!) which was most likely not very wealthy, since the kids went to work at young ages. Thus, the Franklins could not afford private teachers for their children. Although Franklin’s father first placed Franklin in grammar school with the intent that he would later pursue a life in the Church, Franklin’s father did not enforce the plan. Rather, he pulled ten-year-old Franklin out of school so that Franklin could make candles and soap with him, and upon seeing that Franklin was more fond of books than manual labor, he put Franklin to work with Franklin’s brother, James, who was a printer.

The education techniques of teenage Montaigne and teenage Franklin differed even more drastically. Come time for college, Montaigne followed the Latin track that he had known all his life – he studied under George Buchanan, the greatest Latin scholar of his time. However, Franklin quickly entered the workforce and taught himself all he needed to learn. While working for his brother James, Franklin borrowed many books from the local bookstore and developed his own writing by imitating the professionals whose works he read. Franklin worked as a delivery boy and wrote anonymously for a newspaper started by James, and once conflict ensued between him and James, Franklin began a circuitous journey through jobs and living quarters that took him to New York City, Philadelphia, and even England.

Montaigne and Franklin impacted the world in different ways and to different extents. Montaigne’s greatest (or, at least, most widely known) contribution to society is his Essays, in which he attempted to describe various aspects of human nature. He wrote the Essays while in secluded retirement from his public life, and he claimed to be writing for his family and friends (although he may have actually been writing for a larger audience). His Essays are quite popular in the poet and writer communities; however, they are (arguably) unknown to the common person.

However, Franklin’s works were far more interdisciplinary. In addition to authoring several works, including his autobiography, Franklin invented practical products such as the stove, the lightning rod, bifocals, etc., and other less practical but immensely creative products such as the glass armonica, a musical instrument that consisted of a series of glass bowls which, paired with friction, made sound. Rather than producing his works in seclusion, as did Montaigne, Franklin was immensely involved in his community’s affairs: he founded the first U.S. hospital, the first circulating library, the first police department, and the first fire department, the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, etc. He also held numerous government positions and was an essential part of American politics during the Revolution. His accomplishments were popular not only with the experts in their respective fields, but also with average citizens.

The resulting works of Montaigne and Franklin reflect their previous education. Montaigne’s education was quite linear and confined: he was educated in Latin from birth throughout college, and he did not branch out to unexpected disciplines. As he was not exposed to diverse applications of his knowledge and did not interact largely with the common folk, it is fitting that Montaigne is known in several communities for a large body of introspective work called the Essays. Conversely, over the course of Franklin’s journeys and jobs, his education was extensively branched, with each branch following the most direct path towards some goal. Unlike Montaigne, who was indoctrinated with knowledge from an early age, Franklin taught himself practical knowledge in accordance with his setting and allowed his mind to make associations between otherwise unconnected topics. It comes as no surprise that Franklin, whose branches of knowledge extended through many disciplines such as science, politics, printing, etc. is widely known for many ideas and inventions that changed all of society.

By viewing the accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin and Montaigne in light of their educational upbringings, we’ve seen (at least, in this specific case) that an intelligent person’s educational upbringing may play a significant role in his or her type of contribution to society. Montaigne, who was educated in Latin according to a strict plan dictated by his father and furthered by university studies, wrote in isolation a work that impacted fellow scholars, poets, authors, and avid philosophy readers, but (arguably) left the average person unaffected. However, Benjamin Franklin, whose practical education arose from his teaching himself whatever he needed to learn to accomplish his goals, created works and inventions and fulfilled roles that impacted his community and his entire nation.