Ben Franklin Gets Involved

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.”

Now, before you say anything, I know this quote is not Benjamin Franklin’s. It is actually a somewhat inelegant version of a Chinese proverb that has been speciously attributed to Franklin so ubiquitously that it appears to have been printed with his name on at least four different floral greeting cards.

But it isn’t crazy to attribute this proverb to Franklin; it actually fits neatly alongside the ones he offered by the hundreds between 1733 and 1758 in the voice of “Poor Richard,” the hero of his annually self-published Poor Richard’s Almanack. You may not even know you know some of these pithy maxims, but you probably do:

God helps them that help themselves.
Necessity never made a good bargain.
Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.
At 20 years of age the Will reigns; at 30 the Wit; at 40 the Judgment.
Haste makes Waste.

Incidentally, you likely don’t know this one; and I’ll confess I don’t really get it, though I’d like to:

He that lives upon Hope, dies farting.

There is speculation that this was a typo, and it should be “dies fasting,” which makes more sense but isn’t as fun. Anyway. There are lots of them, and some have faded away for good reason.

My point is, that first quote—“Involve me, and I learn”—is just likely enough to be Franklin’s that it is too handy for educators to pass up, especially Dewey-influenced educators dedicated to learning through living. We’d like to think there is something fundamentally American about the idea that real, messy experience needs to be part of learning.

We've asked students and faculty to read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography this summer, as a way to launch a more general contemplation of the idea of “Involvement” during the upcoming school year. Involvement is one of Springs’ “core values,” 1 and we have chosen to begin exploring these periodically, so that they will be well known by the school community as we do our work together. Involvement is an unmistakable requisite of being at Indian Springs—for one thing, our genuinely functional student government, which is essential to the school’s identity, depends upon it. But none of the other joys of education are truly available to any of us if we are not willing, even eager, to become involved.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Having been a student of history and literature, and sometime “Americanist,” I have taught Franklin’s Autobiography a number of times, and in a number of contexts, and am always gratified by how avidly students respond to it. They are happily surprised to find that Franklin was an actual human being with foibles, humors, and desires (many, many desires), and not only a mythic figure. We tend to canonize our Founding Fathers to such an extent that they can lose their humanity—and it is their humanity that allows us to engage them as supple examples instead of stiff icons. Indeed, none of them were saints; and Franklin writes so candidly about his own shortcomings, so honestly shows himself struggling to find purpose, that his account of his life feels particularly real (his biographer, Walter Isaacson, suggests that he is “the founding father who winks at us” 2 ). And insofar as his story was embedded in a time and place, that time and that place come to life as well.

Franklin’s time and place (1706-1790, early America) was a great deal like our own in many ways. The proliferation of new media (newspapers, gazettes, broadsides, pamphlets, almanacs) was creating an unprecedented flood of information and “news,” which was often more opinion than fact; the world’s economy was convulsing in response to the products being generated in the American Colonies; new inventions and discoveries were changing people’s lives at a fast pace; and people argued endlessly about taxation. All against a backdrop of dramatic disagreement about what America should stand for, how it should be governed, and how its people should or shouldn’t be subject to absolute power.  

And Franklin was at the center of the novelty and excitement. His work as a printer led to his becoming everything from postmaster to Ambassador to inventor—of, among countless other things, bifocals, the “electrical battery,” rudimentary refrigeration, the public library, and my personal favorite, a soup bowl that stayed steady in a rolling boat—to Founding Father of the United States. This is how most of us know him—as a bespectacled, tricorn-hatted statesman inextricably involved in the founding moments of our country.  

But he became that only after years and years of trying things—of diving into projects and endeavors with optimism and wit. Franklin’s modus operandi was to become involved wherever he happened to be, and to create the conditions for involvement if they didn’t exist. He is famous for founding several clubs and salons where people would exchange ideas and share work, and his early sharing library is the model for our current system of public libraries. In his early life he shows a similar penchant for getting mixed up in things, whether as a rabble-rousing anonymous writer for his brother’s newspaper or as the leader of a pack of neighborhood boys stealing stones from a building project to build a pier out into a local pond. Franklin saw clearly how involvement of others in execution of one’s ideas was the definition of leadership. And because he understood how being in the printing business allowed him to create the conditions for his own involvement in public conversation—and so to his own leadership through ideas—he continued to sign himself “B. Franklin—printer,” until the end of his life.

Three pence Colonial currency from the Province of Pennsylvania, printed by Benjamin Franklin.

Three pence Colonial currency from the Province of Pennsylvania, printed by Benjamin Franklin.

So the Autobiography and its context provide unique ways to explore what it means to be “involved.”  The word derives from the Latin “volver,” to roll, and “in-,” into. To be involved is to be “rolled-in”—to be enfolded, part of something fully, entangled, entwined, not just alongside or observant, not just a bystander, but a crucial and inextricable element. We prize involvement as a sign of worthy enthusiasm for life and work, and look to young people especially to be involved in things.

There are so many ways we can speak about involvement—we’re involved in a project, involved in a relationship, involved in a community, a political cause, a movement, etc. When we involve ourselves in each other’s lives—when we don’t just watch at a remove, hold ourselves apart, and criticize—we understand our experience as deeply contingent and shared, and ultimately come closer to understanding our common humanity.

And when you do that, the fact is, you can start changing the world. Just ask our friend Ben. I bet he’ll say something like:

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.

That, or:

Fish and visitors stink in three days.

1 The others are Intellectual Curiosity, Inclusion, Innovative Thinking, Integrity, and Infinite Respect.
2 Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.