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How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great…

How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations… (2009)

by Daniel Wolff

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Well, more skimmed than read. This book could be subtitled "How the Very Poor Became Rich and Famous". I might have liked it better if Wolff hadn't started every story at least two, more often three, generations back from the person being highlighted.

I read all of Ben Franklin, most of Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth and Elvis Presley. Skimmed the others or skipped them entirely.

Wasn't may favorite but might catch the attention of someone else. ( )
  bookswoman | Mar 31, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
At the outset of "How Lincoln Learned to Read," Daniel Wolff offers a straightforward question: "How do we learn what we need to know?" To answer, he considers the varied educations of twelve loosely-connected Americans, from the titular Abraham Lincoln (not a bad way to attract attention to your book) to Elvis Presley (who was not really known for his schooling). In each case, the preparation for life that each received during adolescence had lasting impacts.

The dozen individuals selected, who include three presidents along with famous writers, intellectuals, and scientists, have notable achievements. By simply focusing on their education and formation, Wolff demonstrates that there are a variety of ways to be intellectually prepared for leadership and influence. Some, like Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, had little formal education, but were clearly self-starters who indefatigably took advantage of any opportunity they could find to learn and grow. Others were intellectuals whose schooling nurtured them, but whose lives were somewhat dictated by the cultural expectations of their times, like Abigail Adams, Sarah Winnemucca, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Throughout, the high value that Americans have historically given education -- in its many forms -- is critically examined and disturbing undercurrents emerge. Not surprisingly, children of the wealthy have tended to have more educational opportunities, including multiple chances to take such opportunities seriously, as is demonstrated by the lackluster approach John Kennedy took toward school for many years. Those more disadvantaged, including women and minorities, could sometimes pursue higher education, but only if they demonstrated special gifts and had sponsors -- parents, influential benefactors -- who could help open doors for them.

Perhaps the most interesting, and disturbing, consideration of formal education is the chapter on Helen Keller. The story of a blind and deaf girl learning to communicate has long been inspiring, even becoming an acclaimed movie, but in Wolff's description, it also should be characterized by one of incredible coincidences and even exploitation of Keller by the complex system of wealthy contributors and specialized schools that provide Keller's teachers and educational opportunities.

While Wolff makes numerous explicit and implicit connections between the formative educations and subsequent lives of these twelve Americans, he is not overly dogmatic. Instead, this patchwork quilt suggests a broad appreciation for the many ways in which children learn the essential lessons for their lives -- how they learn to think, to communicate, to relate with others, to pick and pursue a career. It offers both encouragement to those who would heavily structure a child's formal education and discouragement of the same. It shows that some children will become successful if they have independence in how they learn as children, but it also provides examples of some who needed fairly forceful guidance to achieve their potential.

Instead of providing a careful "how-to" approach for education, there is a certain amount of wonder in the process of education itself. This appreciation, coupled with Wolff's light-handed and pleasant narrative style, makes the book an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. ( )
  ALincolnNut | Mar 6, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is a series of interesting vignettes on 12 very different Americans and how their education shaped their lives. Daniel Wolff creates these mini biographies of one chapter per person, but cleverly links them together when appropriate. He uses an interesting technique in not revealing who is who at the beginning of the chapter, sometimes waiting until the very last paragraphs. As much as this is about individuals, it is also an essay on the history of education in general in America.

Wolff begins with Ben Franklin and shares how the young upstart tries the traditional route for education but ends up making his own way. He entered Boston Latin School and if he’d followed the traditional plan would end up at Harvard. But, Ben was not a traditional scholar. His story of self-education is a familiar one told of a number of those featured in the book. Abe Lincoln was a voracious reader, who was called “lazy” because he preferred to read, rather than farm. Abigail Smith Adams fought for her right to be educated in the classics and relished her education in literature, taking great delight in sharing literary discussions with friends.

One of the few featured who enjoyed a private education was Jack Kennedy, and Wolff shares the tales of Kennedy’s antics at Choate, where he didn’t seem to take his education seriously in any way. The book concludes with a look at Elvis’ education as a poor white in Mississippi and Tennessee and how he took advantage of the public education offered to him.

This book will be of interest to teachers who want to take a look at the history of education in America, as well as those interested in learning more about these 12 individuals.
-LMW ( )
1 vote skslib | Jul 16, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book has an interesting premise: throughout our history, Americans have learned "what they need to know" via formal education and in other, more informal and more personal ways. The author takes a look at 12 Americans--from Benjamin Franklin and Abigail Adams to JFK and Elvis Presley--and examines how they learned what they needed to know. Most of these were famous Americans but some, not so famous.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, in execution, it's not as great as I'd expected, leaving me feeling somewhat disappointed with this slow-moving book. The "educational biographies" are uneven and, at times, tended to ramble. The chapters on Belle, a black woman slave who was later known as Sojourner Truth, and on Thocmetony, an Indian woman who was the daughter of Winnemucca, were my favorites, I'd say.

It's not a bad book if you've got the patience to read through some slow parts or maybe skip them altogether. Overall, I feel somewhat neutral about this book. Interesting premise and some fascinating parts but I'm not sure it's worth the effort. ( )
1 vote lindapanzo | Jul 13, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
It was interesting to read each of the biographies, I'll say that.

Taken as a whole, though, it is clear that the author has an agenda. The string that goes through each story, tying them together, is the idea that organized educational institutions are harmful instead of helpful in teaching young people.

Which, in a country that rewards ignorance and stupidity, and continues to deprioritize and underfund public education, is irresponsible at best.

It's really great that Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Sojourner Truth, et al were able to educate themselves in the ways they did. And it's really great that some young people continue to be able to seek out and find the education thy need and want of their own accord. However, these people are the exceptions, not the rule, and the educational philosophy this book promotes can not work on a grand scale.

Maybe someone should write a companion book called How Everyone Else Learned to Read. ( )
1 vote rowmyboat | Jul 5, 2010 |
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Wolff presents an engaging, provocative history of American ideas, told through the educations (both in and out of school) of 12 great figures, from Benjamin Franklin to Elvis Presley.

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