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Franklin’s World

Ezekiel Emanuel wanted to take a deep dive on Benjamin Franklin. So he developed a course about “the greatest person born in North America.”

Ezekiel Emanuel
Ezekiel Emanuel

Taking brisk strides away from the Young Franklin Statue on 33rd Street, Ezekiel Emanuel imagines what it must have been like for 17-year-old Benjamin Franklin to have arrived in Philadelphia in 1723, as the statue depicts, after a long journey from Boston.

“One of the crazy things is he’s the same age as an entering freshman,” says Emanuel, Penn’s vice provost for global initiatives and the Diane v.S. Levy and Robert M. Levy University Professor. “He’s discovering the world.

“The other thing about that particular statue is that no one thinks of him as a young man. I’ve asked hundreds of people and it’s always the old man [they picture], or maybe the guy flying the kite. And he was a very fit young man.”

When Emanuel was hired as the University’s 13th Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor in 2011, fresh off a stint working in the Obama administration to pass the Affordable Care Act [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2011],” the oncologist and bioethicist wanted to learn as much as he could about the University founder’s life. But despite seeing Franklin statues across campus, and hearing Franklin aphorisms at campus events, he realized there was no course at Penn devoted solely to how Franklin, in his mind, “embodied the American experience” of the entire 18th century. The aphorisms, such as “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and “A penny saved is a penny earned,” he came to learn, were “just the tip of the iceberg of the man’s brilliance.”

“I think he’s undeniably the greatest person born in North America,” Emanuel says. “Almost everything he did was to a world-class standard. If all you know are the aphorisms, you don’t understand his genius.”

Although not a historian by trade and best known for his work in medicine, Emanuel decided to develop his own course on Franklin’s life with support from the SNF Paideia Program. He taught it, via Zoom in early 2021, to Penn students—who in addition to writing papers and attending lectures, went on virtual field trips and kept a “moral diary” as Franklin did.

Stewart Colton W’62—who knows Emanuel and has donated money to the University to establish the Colton Center for Autoimmunity [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2022]— sat in on the course and came away convinced that “every student, every parent, and every alumnus should take it,” as Emanuel recalls. So with Colton’s encouragement, and continued support from the Paideia Program, Emanuel decided to turn “Benjamin Franklin and His World” into a free online course on Coursera. It launched in December, available to anyone to take at their own pace, with video recordings of lectures as well as interviews with scholars including Penn history professor Emma Hart and Daniel Yoshor, the chair of neurosurgery at Penn (who speaks about Franklin’s insights into medicine).

Emanuel figures Penn alums might be particularly drawn to the course but that anyone should be able to find something from Franklin’s life “that’s relevant to their own life.” In addition to exploring Franklin’s upbringing in colonial America, his role in the American Revolution, and his professional career as a polymath who was active as a printer, writer, scientist, inventor, and diplomat, the course also confronts the moral issues that complicate Franklin’s legacy. Emanuel is especially fond of Franklin for “recognizing the importance of compromise and the importance of learning from other people”—as well as recognizing his own flaws.

“I think he’s an incredible model of a lot of important virtues—like curiosity and moral growth,” Emanuel says. “The man was endlessly curious about everything. He knew he wasn’t perfect. He knew he had prejudices. But he changed his opinion when he got new data or thought about something more deeply.”

The issue of slavery—which Ken Burns also examined in his Ben Franklin documentary and at recent talks at Penn [“Gazetteer,” Jul|Aug 2022]—is the most prominent example of Franklin’s moral growth. Emanuel, who probes the issue in the final week of the four-week course, notes that Franklin’s views evolved after he visited a school for Black children in Philadelphia and “came to the conclusion that the problem is the environment” and Black kids were “just as smart, just as talented” as their white peers, Emanuel says. “He’s able to have those kinds of transformations because he’s open to data, open to the way the world works. I think that’s something we don’t appreciate: he was flawed but he could change, and he could grow.” To the absolutists who want to “cancel” anyone who once owned slaves as Franklin did, Emanuel hopes “we will recover from this moment in our culture where we have absolute condemnation or absolute approval of a whole life based on one moment.”

Given his background, Emanuel decided to heavily focus on other ethical issues, including Franklin’s plagiarism, which the Penn professor thinks might give his course a distinct place among the other books, podcasts, and videos dotting the crowded Franklin landscape. “He took other people’s work, and either revised it a little bit or quoted it directly without attribution. How do you make sense of that?” Emanuel says. “I think there’s a coherent explanation for it. He had a very consistent philosophy about copying—he never patented anything, for example. He refused to patent anything, because he thought, I learn from other people. I’m giving to the world. Someone will take what I’ve done and improve it. And everyone in the world will be better off because we’re constantly improving things. I think that’s an amazing perspective. He wasn’t interested in making money from his lightning rod or his Franklin stove or his bifocals. He was interested if the world was better.”

Like Franklin, “I try to do a lot of things in my life” to make the world better, says Emanuel, who’s also teaching courses at Penn on healthcare reform and the US healthcare system. And while he doesn’t keep a moral diary of his own, “I do take seriously his view on moral growth—always trying to improve myself, recognizing areas where I have deficits,” Emanuel says. “He’s been an inspiration. He’s made me rethink growth—and the fact that, until you die, you have opportunities to be better every day.” —DZ

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