Jim's Reviews > How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them

How Lincoln Learned to Read by Daniel Wolff
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Jul 13, 12

bookshelves: biography, 2non-fiction, 1paper
Read from July 07 to 13, 2012

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 Silent Spring, 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:
http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/...)

Anyway, an educational & interesting read. I can't recommend it highly enough.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Nina (new)

Nina sounds very good; please let us know what you think of it when you're finished.


message 2: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Fantastic review!


message 3: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thanks, Kelly!


The Pirate Ghost (Formerly known as the Curmudgeon) That does sound cool!


message 5: by Nina (new)

Nina Your review of a book I'd never heard of makes me want to read it and perhaps send it as a gift. I think you should received thanks from us, your readers.


message 6: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thanks, Nina. I think it would make a great gift.


message 7: by Nina (new)

Nina I ordered "Lincoln book," and am considering another one as a gift for my son.


message 8: by Virginia (last edited Oct 07, 2014 05:45AM) (new)

Virginia Sounds phenomenal. Can't wait to order it. Thanks for the great review!! It is rare that I'm "talked into" reading a book simply by reading one review. Yours did just that.


message 9: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Super! Hope you enjoy it, Virginia.


message 10: by Nina (new)

Nina I haven't read your review yet, but intend to do so. That was my very favorite book of the year.


message 11: by Nina (new)

Nina Now, that I have read your review,Jim, I couldn't agree more with everything you said. I wish this book could be required reading in high schools.


message 12: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Glad you enjoyed both the book & my review, Nina!


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