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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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This is really about a dozen people & how they were educated, only one being Lincoln. Wolff does a great job of showing us not only the schooling, but the environment & circumstance of each person's life & how that constituted their education. There are a lot of solid historical facts & they're arranged to show how these people developed into what they would be & why, not necessarily in chronological order. That made sections jump around a bit too much at times, but was worth it.

More, he takes a broad look at our educational system & how it developed. Sometimes his facts seem to be skewed a bit & other times he shows how the histories I've read prior were. Very good stuff! Made me think.

One fact that particularly struck me was how the early school books were written with the idea of teaching a common language & set of morals to children. It's an idea that is somewhat out of fashion today what with the press for diversity. Back in the first century of our nation, we had too much diversity & it was causing problems. Without a common language or purpose, the country couldn't work properly toward a common goal. Of course, that's a historical fact, which is why no one pays any attention to it today. (Did you see how poorly all the talking heads did on Jeopardy in the history categories? It was plain scary.)

On the other hand, he shows how straitlaced the educational system became & how poorly it fit some of these extraordinary people, their rebellion actually fueling their education. Some had no benefit from it at all, either being born before it came into effect or being denied it because of their sex or race. Still others used what they could to springboard their own studies.

All told, it's a pretty awesome look at what a varied education these people had & how it brought them to prominence.

Ben Franklin is a great example to start with. Wolff shows just how far off the autobiography was in places, which made it even more interesting. The contrast was excellent.

Nabby or Abigail Adams, wife & mother of presidents was inspiring. Here we're introduced to the amount of work an woman of the 18th & 19th centuries had to do. It was an amazing amount. No wonder they had servants & kids working, if they could. Running a household was more than a full time job. This chapter would have made me believe, if I hadn't already, that behind every great man there's a greater woman. (I know I fudged it a bit, but you read this & if Nabby doesn't just knock your socks off, nothing will.)

Andy Jackson was one tough SOB & it's not hard to see why after reading this brief bio of his early years. As the child of immigrants caught up in the American Revolution & Indian issues, he had to be. He didn't seem very likable, but it did explain a lot of his later policies.

Belle is Sojourner Truth. Her life sucked & she didn't get much of an education as I'd think of one, save for the school of hard knocks. Wolff definitely dispels some of the myths surrounding her & shows us the real person. She wasn't perfect, but wasn't even recognized as truly human for much of her life because she was both black & a woman. That she managed to bring any kind of positive message to anyone is incredible.

Abe Lincoln is another one where a lot of myths are broken. His story only covers his early life before he is 20. That's plenty since so much has been written about him. His mother is another example of how important the wife/mother was to the family. How the woman, the absolute central star of the family was ever looked down upon is beyond me.

Thocmetony is Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, a Paiute raised in both the Indian & White worlds thanks to her grandfather, Truckee. Well, I suppose thanks are in order. Her road might not have been as physically hard as Belle's, but I think it was harder mentally & spiritually. She serves as a realistic view of what the westward expansion cost, but also how important education can be & how easily it is ignored & even rejected.

Henry Ford is an icon, of course. Again, some myths perpetrated by him get busted & we get to see the real young man. He is an example of someone with a native talent that worked hard to complement it by learning on his own with the benefit of a public & standardized education. He used to recite a line from a primer by memory & others could recite the next one, even though they went to a different school in different years. I was raised on Dick & Jane, so can perform the same trick. That's kind of scary in some ways, comforting in others. One sized didn't fit all, but it creates an instant bond with most others around my age.

Willie Du Bois, founder of the NAACP was a charity case for his entire early life. That he had to be & still wanted & managed to get ahead is a testament to his drive. There's definitely a different perspective of the black/white schism here, especially in the different conclusions he came to about education from Booker T. Washington.

Helen Keller is another icon for education, those with disabilities, but more than that, her story teaches us about how we learn & how important language is to our thought processes. This chapter actually spends as much or more time focusing on Annie, her teacher, though. I liked that as it shows more on the thought behind tailoring education to individual needs. The insights into Helen's family weren't unexpected, but certainly the contrast between the north & south after the Civil War was well shown. IOW, more good historical facts & attitudes.

Rachel Carson, is the author of [b:Silent Spring|27333|Silent Spring|Rachel Carson|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1167880280s/27333.jpg|880193], the book that kicked up the environmental movement in the 60's. (It had been going for a while.) While there have been a few examples in earlier chapters about how we used up the land, that's the whole point of 'Silent Spring' & what she learned as a child growing up in a pest hole of pollution caused by industry run riot. Again we see how poorly early schooling fit her & find out how she really learned to love learning.

Jack Kennedy was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth & says he never even realized he grew up in the Depression except for reading about it. A great contrast for so many of the other stories here. While he was raised in affluence, in many ways his childhood was the most rigid.

Elvis Presley's education was of the least interest to me. I'm not a fan of his music nor did Wolff get into that too much, although the historical facts of the time & place were of great interest. How the economy & people were manipulated & held back by those with money was horrendous.

Overall, it is a super read. I'm a bit disappointed by some of the people that weren't covered, but I'm sure it was from lack of space. I would have liked to learn more about John Dewey. Reading this author's account of Booker T. Washington & being able to contrast it directly to his account of Du Bois' would have been a real bonus. They both managed an education when it was practically impossible & came to different ideas about how equality for blacks needed to be achieved & their debate has echoed for over a century.

(If you're not up on that debate or their differences, Atlantic Monthly has some great info including essays & interviews by both here:

Anyway, an educational & interesting read. I can't recommend it highly enough. ( )
  jimmaclachlan | Aug 18, 2014 |
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 |
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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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