The author of The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (2009) returns with an examination of transformative events in American cultural history—and of that great transformer himself, Benjamin Franklin.
Former Reuters foreign correspondent Lyons has two principal and intertwined stories to tell: the career of Franklin and the rise of the useful and the practical in American education and society. He notes the insecurity colonial American intellectuals felt, the difficulty of scholarly collaboration (communication was both slow and unreliable) and the disdain that many European scientists and scholars showed for their rustic counterparts in the New World. The author describes the early career of Franklin and shows how he contributed to the view of practical/useful knowledge in Philadelphia—and how that notion spread, slowly, to the other colonies and (later) states. Franklin’s successful experiments with electricity impressed the English, whose Royal Society gave him an award in 1753, and his influence soared, both in America and abroad. In Philadelphia, Franklin sought to create a university that would de-emphasize the traditional curriculum of Greek and Latin and emphasize the practical. He found stiff opposition from conservatives and grumbled about it the rest of his life. Lyons introduces us to some other notables from the era, including David Rittenhouse (famed, among other things, for his improvement of the orrery) and Thomas Paine, who in 1787 joined Franklin, Rittenhouse, Benjamin Rush and others in the Society for Political Inquiries. The author ends with a look at how we continue to revere those who make substantial practical contributions to American life—e.g., the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. Lyons does not devote much space to the battle between the liberal and practical arts, which continues to rage in schools and colleges.
Clear, focused snapshots of a movement and its celebrated leader.