March 28, 2021

Defending Benjamin Franklin

I am a graduate of  Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Benjamin Franklin was established by the Orleans Parish School Board in 1957 as a school for gifted students. It has always had a selective admission process and a college preparatory curriculum. I entered Franklin in 1961 and graduated in 1964. Virtually all Franklin graduates attend college.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and damaged the school’s facilities in 2005, Franklin became a public charter school. It continues to be the highest-rated Louisiana high school and one of the highest-rated high schools in the country.

Recently, the Orleans Parish School Board became concerned about schools named for slaveholders, Confederate officials, and advocates of segregation. Remarkably, Franklin is one of the schools the board may rename. I had no idea that Benjamin Franklin once owned slaves (but see below). Fortunately, the board has solicited public comments regarding current school names and possible alternatives.

Below is an essay I sent to the Orleans Parish School Board a few days ago in defense of the name “Benjamin Franklin High School.” Although I address morality-based renaming of objects and institutions only obliquely, you can possibly guess that I have some ambivalence about the enthusiasm with which renaming has lately been pursued throughout the nation. That ambivalence also applies to the way individuals are being shamed or fired for past statements or actions. But I have no ambivalence about the need to retain the name “Benjamin Franklin High School .”

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As a member of the Benjamin Franklin High School Class of ’64, I was aghast upon learning that the name of my high school had suddenly become subject to change. Renaming Benjamin Franklin would be a travesty. I am writing to discourage such an eventuality and to offer rationale for the status quo.

I am proud to be a Benjamin Franklin alumnus, and I am confident that this attitude is common among Franklin graduates. I am supremely grateful to the Orleans Parish School Board for creating the unique school that gave me and many other New Orleanians an educational opportunity that would have otherwise been unavailable. The affection in which Benjamin Franklin is held by its alumni is attested by the existence of an alumni association and by graduates willing to support the school financially.

I do not recall being lectured on the accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin during my high school career, but I am confident that students were generally aware of the significance of the school’s eponym and harbored no reservations concerning the school’s name.

Not infrequently do I brag about my high school, an institution that has justly received national recognition and which has a reputation that will require a degree of rebuilding should it become known by another, less appropriate, name.

It is difficult to know where to begin enumerating the virtues and accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin. They are legion, but brevity will, no doubt be appreciated. What follows is not comprehensive.

Benjamin Franklin is probably best known as one of the nation’s Founding Fathers. The story of our nation’s early history cannot be told without many references to Franklin, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Paris, and the U.S. Constitution. He was our first Postmaster General and, as Ambassador to France, was instrumental in enlisting France on the American side during the Revolution and in concluding the peace with England.

Additionally, Franklin was an inventor, scientist, writer, philosopher, and civic activist. He was a dedicated proponent of free speech and of the value of religion generally. He made significant contributions to the fields of publishing, demography, physics, oceanography, meteorology, music, and the practical arts. Through his writing, Franklin encouraged virtues we have often considered fundamental to the American character: thrift, honesty, desire for education, industry, tolerance, piety, and communitarianism.

Yes, Benjamin Franklin once owned a couple of slaves. In his time, this was common among the well-to-do. However, Franklin freed his slaves and, thoughtful, philosophical, and progressive man that he was, became an abolitionist later in life. He argued for the education of blacks and their integration into white society, and he led the Pennsylvania Abolition Society as its president. By contrast, George Washington, whom Americans rightly hold in the highest regard, owned many slaves but failed to free them even upon his death. Other Founding Fathers were likewise less enlightened regarding human freedom than was Benjamin Franklin.

We do our forebears a disservice when we judge them by contemporary standards, thereby depriving ourselves of enlightening rôle models. But we need hardly devise excuses for Benjamin Franklin. Whereas he was not a perfect human being, we cannot conscientiously accuse him of approving of chattel slavery. Although he once accepted the institution of slavery, he came to see it as wicked. To deny Franklin’s value as a rôle model because he once held views we today find odious, despite his eventually repudiating those ideas, is to deny the value of repentance and rehabilitation, perhaps even the value of education itself.

“Benjamin Franklin” is, in fact, an excellent name for a high school in general and for the college preparatory high school in New Orleans in particular. Franklin students are encouraged to pursue excellence, to seek out and act upon facts, and to contribute to the improvement of society—activities Benjamin Franklin pursued throughout his long life.

If we choose to name our schools only after persons who, according to contemporary standards, led not only exemplary but spotless lives, I fear we will only name schools after Jesus Christ. Not even Moses or Mohammed are viewed as completely faultless, even by those who most admire them.

I applaud the effort to remove from places of honor the names of those who advocated for slavery or who rebelled against the Union to preserve the peculiar institution. Let us not memorialize the names of John C. Calhoun, Robert E. Lee, or Jefferson Finis Davis. But no American should be embarrassed to claim Benjamin Franklin as a fellow citizen. New Orleans should be proud to have an extraordinary secondary school named for him, as I sincerely hope it will continue to have.

Lionel E. Deimel, Ph.D.
Benjamin Franklin High School Class of ’64
Indiana, Pennsylvania
March 26, 2021


1 comment:

  1. Walter Isaacson published a terrific essay arguing that Benjamin Franklin is a fine model for students.

    ReplyDelete

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