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Convocation Continues American ‘Pursuit of Knowledge’

FullTextImage/img/@altJonathan Lyons addresses the Corps today in Cameron Hall.-- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.

LEXINGTON, Va., Sept. 4, 2013 – An intellectual historian addressing Virginia Military Institute’s annual convocation on Wednesday said that the ability of the United States to produce science and technology pioneers such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the Wright brothers began not with the birth of any of those individuals, nor with the founding of the nation, but with a group of thinkers meeting in Philadelphia in the 1720s.

Jonathan Lyons, an intellectual historian and former foreign correspondent for Reuters, spoke about his new book, The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America.

Lyons, who holds a doctorate in sociology from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said that his book “is really the story of knowledge in colonial America – how it was produced, how it was understood, shared, preserved, and then deployed.”

Traditionally, Lyons said, the American ingenuity that produced both the airplane and the Model T Ford within five years of each other has been ascribed to the nation’s political and social systems, with their emphasis on liberal democracy and strong patent laws. This, he believes, is a misreading of history.

“My overarching purpose in writing The Society for Useful Knowledge is to propose a very different view of American history,” said Lyons.

In this view, he continued, “The American Revolution represents less a turning point and more of a significant milestone in a journey that began not at Lexington or Concord in 1775 but in the study circles, public libraries, and useful knowledge societies that first took shape in colonial cities and towns almost 50 years earlier.”

Laying the groundwork for generations of innovating Americans yet unborn, said Lyons, was Benjamin Franklin’s Leather Apron Club, first organized in 1727. That group of 12 artisans, craftsmen, and farmers met secretly at the Indian King Tavern in Philadelphia each Friday evening to talk about science and social improvements. The group also valued physical exercise – meeting outdoors for calisthenics in nice weather – and enjoyed sampling fine wines.

From this gathering, also known as the junto, sprang ideas that are now commonplace realities – paper money, volunteer fire departments, and street lights, to name a few.

Because of the junto and other groups like it, said Lyons, a “knowledge revolution” preceded the American Revolution – and left an indelible imprint on America. Lyons referred to these groups as “a new class of social actors” whose belief was “that the value of learning and knowledge is directly proportional to its practical importance, or utility.”

After the revolution, said Lyons, nearly 100 “societies for useful knowledge” similar to the junto were founded, in locales as far west as Kentucky and as far south as Mississippi. It is because of groups such as these, Lyons argued, that the values of those who work with their hands, as epitomized by Franklin’s Leather Apron Club, became a part of the fabric of America.

In Europe, Lyons explained, scientific and technical knowledge became more and more the province of an educated elite working in laboratories, libraries, and universities. That transition happened in this country, too, he acknowledged, but not before the usefulness of the artisan, the tinkerer, and the experimenter had become enshrined among the pantheon of American values.

American inventors “shared a number of key traits,” Lyons remarked.

“They were largely or wholly self-taught. That is, they were not products of formal education. Because of this, they had freed themselves from the constraints of conventional wisdom and traditional authority. They preferred practical solutions to theoretical discussion.”

The American Revolution, said Lyons, left the former colonists with an uncertain future, cut off as they were from the political and social systems that had formed the framework of their world. In this new environment, “Franklin’s Society for Useful Knowledge, with its many imitators, collaborators, and successors, pointed the way to an American future,” said Lyons.

Today’s academic convocation ceremony is a part of that heritage from the earliest days of the republic, the speaker told the Corps of Cadets, in that it “celebrates the pursuit of knowledge.”

–Mary Price