A New Junto for the Soul of America
Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech — Benjamin Franklin
Every year, my son’s school chooses a Change Maker to investigate and celebrate. A Change Maker sits deeply in the center of three key traits — academics, emotional intelligence, and innovation. The entire school rallies around this person, infusing him or her into all aspects of curriculum and learning. Past years have seen the likes of Rachel Carson and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This year it is I.M. Pei.
Last year, it was Benjamin Franklin.
I realized as the year went on that I knew embarrassingly little about the life of this Founding Father. Sure, I knew about the key and the kite and that he signed all four documents critical to the founding of America, and that he graces our $100 bill, but beyond that my knowledge dropped off a rather humiliating precipice.
As my son explored the world of journalism (a la the Pennsylvania Gazette), worked on inventions and simple machines, learned colonial trades, and made kites and keys as a Kindergartner, I figured it was about time for me to investigate this Change Maker a bit more closely. I was surprised (and a wee bit jealous) to discover his astonishingly long list of professions, including author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. I had no idea how well respected he was in the world of physics and electricity, including receiving the Copley Medal and becoming one of the few early Americans to become a Fellow of the Royal Society. Did you know that he is credited with inventing the Pro/Con list? Nope, neither did I.
But here’s the thing that I think might be the most important legacy of Ben Franklin. Here’s the thing I am deeply inspired to bring back into our culture — especially because now we have the tools of technology at our disposal. Here’s the thing that our society needs now more than ever if our democracy is to continue to thrive. It isn’t bifocals (good guess, though). It is the Junto.
The Junto was a social club Franklin started in 1727 in Philadelphia. It’s purpose was for “mutual improvement” of its members. Originally, it had 12 members, intentionally drawn from diverse backgrounds and differing opinions. They came together because they wanted to improve themselves, each other, and their community. In his autobiography, he writes,
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 we 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 sincere spirit of inquiry after truth. Not seeking victory for victory’s sake. Listening to each other. Sharing ideas. Crafting solutions. Through his Junto, ideas like volunteer fire-fighting squads and a public hospital sprang forth. They even created a subscription public library so they could share their knowledge.
Want to be really inspired? Here are a few of the questions Franklin wrote to kick-start conversations in his Junto:
- Do you think of any thing at present, in which the Junto may be serviceable to mankind? to their country, to their friends, or to themselves?
- Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?
- Have you lately observed any defect in the laws, of which it would be proper to move the legislature an amendment? Or do you know of any beneficial law that is wanting?
- Have you lately observed any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?
- What benefits have you lately received from any man not present?
- Is there any difficulty in matters of opinion, of justice, and injustice, which you would gladly have discussed at this time?
We need to bring the Junto back. We need this kind of civil discourse, one in which workable solutions can be uncovered and new ideas can find roots. We need to have each other’s backs, because we understand and listen to each other. Our future depends on it.
Imagine Junto groups across our nation — built intentionally of people from different backgrounds, opinions, socio-economic strata, gender, race, etc. Small microcosms of America coming together regularly to discuss the opportunities and challenges they and their communities are facing. Imagine groups of schoolchildren doing the same thing in after-school programs. Imagine these Juntos crafting solutions for those problems and submitting them online. Imagine all those solutions easily accessible and visible by people across the country as well as by our representatives. Imagine those being acted upon. This is the kind of community building that is necessary to secure the brightest future we can create. This is an opportunity for true civic participation, and we should rise to Ben Franklin’s challenge.
He even offered a Junto oath — stated at the start of every meeting:
- Have you any particular disrespect to any present members? Answer. I have not.
- Do you sincerely declare that you love mankind in general, of what profession or religion soever? Answer. I do.
- Do you think any person ought to be harmed in his body, name, or goods, for mere speculative opinions, or his external way of worship? Answer. No.
- Do you love truth for truth’s sake, and will you endeavor impartially to find and receive it yourself, and communicate it to others? Answer. Yes.