Interlude: What is the Value of Book Learning? The American Indian Answer:

So, Augustine’s writings about how his education may not have been worth it made me think of something that Ben Franklin wrote about how the American Indians viewed education. Here, from a letter Ben Franklin wrote in 1753, is another way to think about all of this.

“The little value Indians set on what we prize so highly under the name of learning appears from a pleasant passage that happened some years since at a Treaty between one of our Colonies and the Six Nations; when every thing had been settled to the satisfaction of both sides, and nothing remained but a mutual exchange of civilities, the English Commissioners told the Indians, they had in their Country a College for the instruction of youth who were taught various languages, Arts, and Sciences; that there was a particular foundation in favor of the Indians to defray the expense of the education of any of their sons who should desire to take the benefit of it. And now if the Indians would accept of the offer, the English would take half a dozen of their brightest lads and bring them up in the best manner; The Indians after consulting on the proposal replied that it was remembered some of their youths had formerly been educated in that College, but it had been observed that for a long time after they returned to their Friends, they were absolutely good for nothing, being neither acquainted with the true methods of killing dear, catching beaver or surprising an enemy. The proposition however, they looked on as a mark of the kindness and good will of the English to the Indian Nations which merited a grateful return; and therefore if the English Gentlemen would send a dozen or two of their children to the Onondago the great Council would take care of their education, bring them up in really what was the best manner and make men of them…”

Franklin does not go on to recount what happened, but I suspect no youths were exchanged. Still, this makes me consider what really is the best education for people, and how that might change depending on circumstances.  While I think the readers of the set intended it for those who already knew how to provide for their sustenance, I think it is worth considering what skills we might want to have and how we might educate ourselves beyond just great books. I also think it is worthwhile to consider the Great Conversation in context of how we live the rest of our lives.

 Incidentally, the above passage appears in A Benjamin Franklin Reader, edited and annotated by Walter Isaacson.


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