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Benjamin Rush (1745-1813)

60 min

Students will:

  • explain Rush’s contributions to social reform in his community and country.
  • compare the late eighteenth-century goals for education to modern philosophies.
  • analyze Rush’s goals for education.
  • evaluate modern educational theories and practices in terms of Rush’s ideas.
  • appreciate the political roles Rush played during and after the Revolutionary period.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Benjamin Rush.

    Benjamin Rush was a Patriot, a physician, and a social reformer. He signed the Declaration of Independence and worked for the ratification of the Constitution in his home state of Pennsylvania. He was an ardent abolitionist, a crusader for humane treatment of the mentally ill, and an advocate of educational reform.

The fourth of seven children born to Quaker parents, Benjamin Rush was the most famous physician of his time. Known and respected by many of the Founding generation, Benjamin Rush treated illnesses such as yellow fever and smallpox, putting himself at great risk to do so. During the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s he often saw more than one hundred patients a day and published an account of his findings, An Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever, as it appeared in the City of Philadelphia, in the year 1793. His regular practice of bloodletting was surrounded by debate.

He did not limit his ingenuity to medicine. He also played a major role in revolutionary politics, attending the Continental Congress of 1776 and signing the Declaration of Independence. He and James Wilson led their home state of Pennsylvania to become the second state to ratify the new Constitution.

Decidedly revolutionary in his thinking, he worked to cure social ills such as slavery, alcoholism, and tobacco addiction. He was a pioneer in the study of mental illness and a champion of humanitarian reforms. He often said that, when it came to bringing about much-needed change, “Prudence is a rascally virtue.” His reputation was for innovation and candor, if sometimes to the point of tactlessness. Throughout his career, Rush pursued his revolutionary ideas with three goals in mind: to improve life, ensure liberty, and encourage the pursuit of happiness.

Ask students to consider Rush’s view that one goal of education is to create a more homogeneous society, and compare this view to the more modern focus on diversity in the classroom. How does modern American education encourage a more homogeneous society?

  1. Ask students to write a one-paragraph response to one or more of the following questions:
    1. Which of Rush’s ideas might have been controversial in 1798? Why?
    2. Which of Rush’s ideas might be controversial today? Why?
    3. Do you agree with Rush that “our strongest prejudices in favour of our country are formed in the first one and twenty years of our lives”? Why or why not?
    4. In your opinion, what is the best way to develop among young people an “attachment” to the laws and constitutions of this country?
  2. Ask students to pretend they are the principal of a school dedicated to Rush’s philosophy of education. Have them create a radio or print advertisement explaining their school’s goals to parents, and persuading those parents to enroll their children.

In his Lectures on The Mind, Rush stated that women were intellectually inferior to men. This difference, he believed, was natural and proper.

I hold it to be essential . . . to the order and happiness of domestic society, that there should exist exactly those degrees of inferiority and contrast between the two sexes. . . . Many of the disorders, not only of domestic, but of political society, I believe originate in the inversion of this order.

Source: Carlson, Eric T. et al, eds. Benjamin Rush’s Lectures on the Mind. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1981.


  1. Ask students to compare paragraph six of Handout C with the paragraph above from Lectures of the Mind and write a three-paragraph response to the question: Were Rush’s views on educating women ahead of his time? Explain.
  2. Have students research and bring to class articles about contemporary education theories and practices such as single-sex classrooms, phonics, and bilingual education. Ask students to comment on these practices in a three to five paragraph essay: How do these practices contribute to Rush’s goal of a “homogeneous society”? How do they move away from it?

Student Handouts

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