2006 Penn Humanities Forum Essay Contest

"If Ben Had Had His Way"
Call for Applications

Essay Contest in Honor of the 300th Anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's Birth

Cosponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum
and the Marvin and Sybil Weiner Fund of the Penn Library
Open to all Penn undergraduates in any school.
Essay contest deadline: Friday, January 20, 2006

First Prize: $1000
Runners-Up (2): $500 each
Questions? Please contact Jennifer Conway at the
Penn Humanities Forum, 215.898.8220 or

2006 PHF-Weiner Essay Prizes

First Prize: Tal Raviv, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences '09, Chemical Engineering. Essay: "Spark"
Honorable Mention:
Gena Katz, College '06, English. Essay: "Franklin's Ivy Leagues and the Junto of Education"
Dvorit Mausner, College '07, Biological Basis of Behavior. Essay: "Of Virtue, Wit, and Wisdom"

Prizes awarded at the February 24, 2006 Symposium, "If Ben Had Had His Way," in honor of the 300th Anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's Birth. (Program pdf; right click on link to download to desktop.)

Benjamin Franklin was one of the founding trustees of the Academy in Philadelphia, which became the University of Pennsylvania. In creating the school's charter, he insisted that the Academy train students in English grammar and oratory—a revolutionary move given that institutions in his day taught only the classical languages. Over the years, Franklin presented the rationale for his position in essays such as his "Idea of an English School" and "Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsilvania [sic]." Education, he argued, should cultivate a person's thought and expression and provide knowledge of practical subjects such as mathematics, geography, history, logic, and moral philosophy. With this background one could become an effective citizen: "to serve Mankind, one's Country, Friends and Family...which Ability should be the great Aim and End of all Learning."

Near the end of his life, Franklin concluded that the Academy had consistently violated its charter, slighting English in favor of Latin instruction. He demanded that the English section of the school break away: "claiming an equitable partition of our joint stock, we wish to execute the plan they have so long defeated, and afford the public the means of a complete English education." Though this demand was not met, in time English did replace Latin and Greek as the language of instruction at Penn and the curriculum came to include the full panoply of disciplines. In other words, even though Ben did not "have his way," time brought about the kind of institution he had envisaged.

Or did it? Franklin was advocating much more than the choice of one language or discipline over others. He was advancing a controversial view of a university's relation to tradition, class, citizenship, and speculative knowledge. Where do you think Penn stands on these matters today? Where do you think Ben Franklin would have liked Penn to stand? Whatever your major—from history to engineering, English to marketing—this essay contest is an opportunity for you to explore the meaning of a Penn education in light of its founder's ideals. What would Penn be like if Ben had had his way?

Penn undergraduates in any school are invited to submit an essay of approximately ten double-spaced pages (c. 3,000 words), suitable for delivery as a 20-minute lecture. The winner will receive $1,000 and the opportunity to present the lecture in a faculty symposium on Benjamin Franklin. Two runners-up will receive $500 each.

The faculty committee judging the award will be looking for qualities dear to both Franklin and Penn: depth of research, clarity of expression, and originality of thought. To ensure fairness, students should not identify themselves or their majors on their submission, but should register a pseudonym with the staff of the Penn Humanities Forum.* Submissions (in double-spaced hard copy) must be received at the Penn Humanities Forum, 3619 Locust Walk, no later than January 20, 2006.

*Students will need to identify themselves, along with their school and class, when registering their pseudonym. This is strictly for administrative purposes and will be shielded from the committee until the awards are decided.


Suggested Reading

Penn Library's 'Penn in the Age of Franklin' (be sure to check out the 'text & documents' and 'essays' sections).

Penn's 'About Our Founder' (with great links).

The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary official site.

Penn's gateway page on the Tercentenary (includes event links).

Images courtesy of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library,
University of Pennsylvania and The Benjamin Franklin
Top: Benjamin Franklin L.L.D., M. Thomas, Publisher, Charles Goodman (1796-1835) and Robert Piggot (1737-1797), engravers, David Martin (1737-
1797), painter, 1818.

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