I used to read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography once a year. Now I get to it every two or three years. Each time I read it, something new captures my attention. This time it was an excerpt where Franklin describes the formation and purpose of a learning community called Junto (or the Leather Apron club) in 1727. From this group emerged the idea of a shared library, later the subscription library, as well as the American Philosophical Society. Rather than getting it secondhand, I’ll let Franklin explain Junto to you, and follow it up with a few observations about the implications for life in a digital and increasingly networked world.
I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which was called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.
The first members were Joseph Breintnal, a copyer of deeds for the scriveners, a good-natur’d, friendly middle-ag’d man, a great lover of poetry, reading all he could meet with, and writing some that was tolerable; very ingenious in many little Nicknackeries, and of sensible conversation.
Thomas Godfrey, a self-taught mathematician, great in his way, and afterward inventor of what is now called Hadley’s Quadrant. But he knew little out of his way, and was not a pleasing companion; as, like most great mathematicians I have met with, he expected universal precision in everything said, or was forever denying or distinguishing upon trifles, to the disturbance of all conversation. He soon left us.
Nicholas Scull, a surveyor, afterwards surveyor-general, who lov’d books, and sometimes made a few verses.
William Parsons, bred a shoemaker, but, loving reading, had acquir’d a considerable share of mathematics, which he first studied with a view to astrology, that he afterwards laught [laughed] at it. He also became surveyor-general.
William Maugridge, a joiner, a most exquisite mechanic, and a solid, sensible man.
Hugh Meredith, Stephen Potts, and George Webb I have characteriz’d before.
Robert Grace, a young gentleman of some fortune, generous, lively, and witty; a lover of punning and of his friends.
– The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Notice the attributes of this group.
- It existed for “mutual improvement.”
- It included people from diverse occupations and experiences.
- Participation was not limited to people with formal education or credentials (notice the self-taught member).
- Each member was required to come with questions (from “any point of view”) on almost any subject (although they focused on “morality, politics, and natural philosophy”).
- These discussions were diverse and not limited to the official professions of the participants.
- The focus was a search for truth, not to win the argument.
- Each person was required to write an essay on a topic of personal choice and interest every three months, and read it to the group for discussion.
As I look at this list, I’m intrigued by many elements.
- It is question-driven instead of book driven (even though books were an important part of the learning in this group). Notice how that is qualitatively distinct from most schools and classrooms.
- This was not for a degree or credential. It is for self-improvement, with an eye toward that which also benefits society.
- This is not about looking good, winning a debate, or earning accolades. It is about the pursuit of truth.
- This is not driven by writings or lectures. Instead it is truly peer-to-peer learning. With that in mind, every member is expected to contribute in substantive ways.
- It is not teacher-driven.
- It is not about getting professional development so you are eligible for a raise or promotion.
- It is about growth and the pursuit of truth.
- This community empowered members to be active and engaged citizens.
- This is a vibrant learning community.
I can’t help but think that our world and societies would be better off if they were seasoned with more learners and groups like this. Similarly, I have to think that we can leverage the connections of the digital world to build and nurture such communities.