The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America

Bloomsbury: Macmillan.Jun. 2013. 240p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781608195534. $27. HIST
Lyons (Islam Through Western Eyes) here directs his attention to 18th-century America. His particular focus is Benjamin Franklin's role in developing the concept of "useful knowledge," with ideas judged by how well they apply to daily life. Lyons contends that this viewpoint originated in Europe, where knowledge had become moribund, lacking the vigor of American thinking. (He occasionally overstates the differences between American and European thought.) According to observers on both continents, the challenges of establishing a new society required useful skills that best served an enlightened people. Franklin exemplified and encouraged progress in many practical fields, ranging from science (e.g., his experiments with electricity) to political theory (e.g., his early advocacy of colonial union). His interests, from astronomy to education, in all cases related to the situations of everyday life. Lyons places Franklin at the heart of a transcontinental debate over the purpose of intellectual life, but readers may wish that he had directed more attention to the implications of this practical mode of thinking. Did the American emphasis on useful knowledge devolve into something akin to anti-intellectualism as it was more widely disseminated among the populace in later decades?
VERDICT Those concerns aside, Lyons has raised important questions about the origins of "useful knowledge" in America that will have wide appeal. Recommended.

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