As some classes know, for the past three days I’ve had a horrible tune running through my head. The song is based on the jingle for the Strawberry Shortcake dolls which were being foisted on children throughout the 80’s. If you’re too young to remember these commercials, here’s a commercial for Strawberry’s citric friends Lem & Ada, accompanied by the, uh, charming jingle:
Okay, so this was one of the later versions of the song, so the lyrics had evolved, but you get the idea. Now, in my head last weekend this innocent little jingle morphed into the following abomination:
Benjamin Franklin, my you’re smelling nice,
The cute little girl made of sugar and spice!
I feel this is totally disrespectful of the man I have personally nominated “Best American Ever.” Not only that, it’s driving me mad. I tried to exorcise this petite, freckled, fruity-aroma-ed nightmare from my brain two days ago by forcing myself to stand in front of the class and sing the jingle in my prettiest voice. I hoped that the emotional trauma of the performance (my trauma, not that of the class) would shock it out of my system. It didn’t work. So now it’s on the blog, for all the world to see. Pray for me, people, I need help.
Anyway, we had class this week.
Here’s a picture of Benjamin Franklin.
In class we looked at this picture and tried to infer, or make educated guesses, about details of his character, based on details in the portrait. We talked about his fur collar (the “rough-refined American” persona he wanted to portray to Europeans), his wry half-smile (his sense of humor and irony contrasted with the Puritanical piety we’ve been discussing), his glasses (he loved science and technology, plus had the money to afford specs and the time & ability to read), and other features of the picture.
Then we read a selection from his autobiography. This reading contains Franklin’s plan for becoming a more “perfect” person. His initial idea, drawn from his understanding of Socrates, was that if someone learns the truth, then they should be able to act wisely. In other words, knowledge leads to goodness. Being America’s first uber-nerd, Franklin really runs with that idea. He creates a list of his top 13 values, and then makes a book where he can keep track of his offenses against those values. It’s all very systematic and organized, but he immediately finds that it doesn’t work quite like he thought he would. He wears out the pages of his book writing in demerits and erasing them again, and there are certain “values” he can never quite master. He begins to wonder if the whole “knowledge leads to goodness” thing might not be true after all.
But here’s the cool part. At the end of the passage we read he says that basically all of the happiness and goodness of his life (which is a lot of happiness and a big fat barrel of goodness) can be traced back to his little values ledger book. Although he was never able to master most of the values, the struggle itself made life more meaningful and gave him the discipline to achieve far more than he would have without it.
I find that idea of the “successful” failed experiment incredibly powerful. I think the most successful people on earth (however you define success) are the ones that can turn a defeat into a productive experience–often, in fact, a victory. We see this in sports all the time, when a losing team shows more determination, energy, and skill than a team with a comfortable lead, often leading to a spectacular, come-from-behind victory. Golly, do I love sports. But there are plenty of other examples of this from other realms of life.
Anyway, I digress. The next day we looked at Franklin’s other famous literary product, the Poor Richard’s Almanac series. This serial publication contained a collection of facts and figures about temperatures, planting seasons, and animal husbandry, plus some aphorisms (or proverbs, or maxims) about how to live a more enlightened life. While the information about animal husbandry has gone by the wayside (or, possibly, underground?) the aphorisms have stood the test of time, as evidenced by their inclusion in our giant red Textbook of Good Stuff Written in English.
In class, we studied a bunch of the 1733 edition aphorisms, and each member of the class had to come up with a story from their own life to illustrate (or contradict) one of Franklin’s sayings. It turns out that these proverbs can be a little tricky. They each have a literal meaning, but to truly understand them you’ve got to figure out their symbolic meaning. It’s the symbolic extension of an aphorism’s meaning that makes it sort of universally applicable.
Take this little nugget of wisdom, for example:
Fools make feasts and wise men eat ’em.
Now, it is certainly true that I have cooked a lot of meals for people, and that some of those people are “wise men,” but not all of them. (You know who you are!) But this literal view, and its implication that I am a cooking “fool” is too limiting. The thing about aphorisms and proverbs is that they have a rich symbolic meaning that goes far beyond this literal interpretation.
Here’s one way to see the aphorism from its “symbolic” perspective:
I am a teacher. I spend my whole life dreaming up ways to get kids to be creative, produce great art and writing, work hard, and gain the ambition and skills they need to succeed, however they choose to define success. But I’m the fool: I’m a teacher–not a writer, or artist, or filmmaker, or CEO, or whatever–not a person who gets to create a product and enjoy using it. I’m just “cooking” meals–preparing the curriculum for those “wise” people who will take advantage of my teaching services–those who will eat the metaphorical “meal” of learning.
Now, the fact that I am a mere teacher-not-a-doer alone doesn’t necessarily make me the biggest fool in the world. It gets worse. You might say that the “wise men” eating the fruits of my labors are the citizens and taxpayers of Utah who, while avoiding any financial sacrifice whatsoever, have managed to get tens of thousands of service-minded people into very difficult jobs that pay less than a living wage. How have they been able to do this? Well, I’ll do what they do: Blame teachers. Teachers are “fools” for caring about what they do and genuinely wanting to help children. This makes teachers less likely to walk off the job en masse in protest of the insult they call a “salary,” leaving scores of children to re-live Lord of the Flies at a teacherless school each day. This has resulted in a situation where society “wisely” (or perhaps, “cunningly”) devours the sacrifice of us fools. And yes, we Utah teachers are fools. But we have hearts–doesn’t that count for something? What is the value of a human heart?
That little rant illustrates my final point about Ben Franklin. Although a lot of old square people have made second careers out of quoting these maxims to their grandkids in order to get them to cut their hair, turn down that music, stop skipping school, get a job, watch that language, chew with your mouth closed, scrub behind your ears, etc, etc., Benjamin Franklin wasn’t like those old fogies. He was a subversive. Look at a long list of these aphorisms and you can’t miss it. He loved turning conventional wisdom on its head and making us re-evaluate our, well, values. His wisdom often turned against conventional wisdom and encouraged people to do things their own way.
From that perspective, it’s easy to see that little aphorism I quoted earlier as a nice little Marxist slogan, all ready to be painted on factory walls and freeway overpasses.
Anyway, that’s Ben Franklin. You can download a selection from Poor Richard’s Almanac down below.
Downloads: Poor Richard’s Almanac selection