Penn Charter was honored to participate in a program in the courtyard of City Hall on Friday, Oct. 18, in observance of William Penn's 375th birthday.

Quakers Dozen performed "Lift Every Voice and Sing" for the crowd, and Michael Moulton, PC director of educational technology and co-chair of the Religious Studies and Philosophy Department, offered the following insights into Penn's vision and legacy in education.

Happy Birthday, Billy Penn!

 

Penn's Thoughts and Laws on Education
by Michael Moulton

I think of William Penn as a grower of both gardens and schools.

My name is Michael Moulton and I am a co-chair of the Religious Studies and Philosophy Department at the 330-year-old William Penn Charter School. My job has me working with students in the classroom by day and on the Schuylkill River coaching rowing by early evening.

William Penn's first footsteps on this land were in 1682 by the Delaware River. He was barely ashore when, in his first letters to the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, he proposed that “Care be taken about the Learning and Instruction of Youth.” Penn continued in his “Fundamental Laws” that all children in this new colony have access to education. He wrote that these laws were introduced as “the ground and rule of all future government.”

This care with education was because our “greene country towne” he went on to found was, then, thick with both masses of trees that he endeavored to keep and a deep poverty and a lack of housing that he wanted to eliminate. Penn’s faith called him to see “that of God,” that which is divine and to be cherished, in each person. He felt called to make a difference in people’s lives by providing an education to children that develops a connection with nature, powers of reason, and liberty of conscience. 

Getting more specific about his vision for education he wrote to fellow Quakers in 1689 urging them to organize a school on the bank of that Delaware. At that time, there were no public schools. This school was to be radical. This school was to be open to all. 

The first location was a small wooden building on the South Side of High Street, now Market Street, west of Second. Alongside the gardens he designed into individual home lots — alongside the green squares he penned into city public places — Penn's vision for education had also taken root. Penn’s school was for girls and boys from the beginning. By establishing a fund in 1697 he grew access to education to those who could not pay. On branches growing from the seed Penn planted in his first frame of government is Penn Charter — where I teach and learn — and more than 75 other Quaker schools throughout the US. We share that tree with Philadelphia’s public education system, established by a law in 1836 that extends from Penn’s original laws. His garden has grown.  

Penn’s life speaks today. Reading about him you get the overwhelming feeling that he would want more of us working on plans to green the city and educate its children. Whenever we make Philadelphia greener, whenever we lift children’s lives through education, we are walking in the footsteps that William Penn pushed hardest into the foundation of our city. Celebrating Penn today, we are called to walk alongside this radical gardener and make a difference in the lives of Philadelphians. Thank you for the invitation to speak and sing at Penn’s birthday party.

Sources:

  • A Virtuous Education: Penn’s Vision for Philadelphia Schools by William Kashatus

  • Better than riches, A Tricentennial History of William Penn Charter School, 1689-1989

  • Fundamental Laws of the Province of Pennsylvania by William Penn in William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania: A Documentary History by Jean R. Soderlund