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How Lincoln Learned to Read

Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them

Daniel Wolff

Bloomsbury USA

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ISBN10: 1608190374
ISBN13: 9781608190379


352 Pages



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How Lincoln Learned to Read is an engaging, provocative history of American ideas, told through the educations (both in and out of school) of twelve great figures. Beginning with Benjamin Franklin and ending with Elvis Presley, author Daniel Wolff creates a series of intimate, interlocking profiles of notable Americans that track the nation's developing notion of what it means to get a "good education." From the stubborn early feminism of Abigail Adams to the miracle of Helen Keller, from the savage childhood of Andrew Jackson to the academic ambitions of W.E.B. Du Bois, a single, fascinating narrative emerges. It connects the illiterate Sojourner Truth to the privileged Jack Kennedy, takes us from Paiute Indians scavenging on western deserts to the birth of Henry Ford's assembly line. And as the book traces the education we value—both in and outside the classroom—it becomes a history of key American ideas.

In the end, How Lincoln Learned to Read delivers us to today's headlines. Standardized testing, achievement gaps, the very purpose of public education—all have their roots in this narrative. Whether you're a parent trying to make sure your child is prepared, a teacher trying to do the best possible job, or a student navigating the educational system, How Lincoln Learned to Read challenges readers to consider what people need to know and how they learn it. Wide-ranging and meticulously researched, built mostly on primary sources, this is an American story that begins and ends with hope.


Praise for How Lincoln Learned to Read

"Learning is a mysterious miracle, and in this set of interconnected essays, Daniel Wolff tries to illuminate that process by looking deeply into how some iconic Americans—from Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth to Elvis Presley and Jack Kennedy—metabolized their experiences in and out of the classroom . . . He delves deeply into the letters, diaries and autobiographies of these wildly different characters, thematically connected as ones who never let school—or lack thereof—get in the way of education."—Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune

"Extraordinary Americans, history shows, have been 'educated' in many different ways. And here, we're not talking just (or even mainly) about book-learning. For much of our history, formal education as we think of it today has been available to relatively few . . . [Wolff's] working premise is the one posed in The Education of Henry Adams a century ago: 'What part of education has ... turned out to be useful and what not.' This is a terrific book. It's compact (25 pages or so per individual) but rich and thought-provoking. It draws heavily on each character's own writing, mainly letters and diaries. It gave me new insights into great Americans I thought I knew pretty well, and it taught me much about those I'd barely heard of before. Broad in scope, peppered with detail, insightful, it could be the basis for a classroom . . . review of American history from our founding as a nation through the 20th century. Between Ben Franklin and Elvis, Wolff also examines Abigail Adams, Andrew Jackson, Sojourner Truth, Sarah Winnemucca, Henry Ford, W.E.B. DuBois, Helen Keller, Rachel Carson, and John F. Kennedy. 'Whatever the particular circumstances, an American education is going to bear the marks of rebellion,' Wolff writes, provocatively. With these 12 leading the way (and at a time when the early-life lessons of a new barrier-breaking US president have been examined in detail) that's very worth considering."—Brad Knickerbocker, The Christian Science Monitor

"A keyhole view into the country's first two centuries . . . How Lincoln Learned to Read reinforces the notion that the nation's inherent rebellious streak has served it well. 'To believe your own thought,' as Emerson wrote in his famous essay 'Self-Reliance,' 'that is genius.' Poor, unconnected people such as Elvis, he writes, 'were supposed to harden into a category, to disappear.' That they sometimes don't—that they sometimes find hope—well, that's a story worth retelling."—James Sullivan, The Boston Globe

"A remarkable testament to the essential unruliness of the American experience."—Ross Douthat, Columbia Journalism Review

"Though his formal education was scanty, the young George Washington was described by an admiring neighbor as a boy who would go to school all his life. In this remarkably original group portrait of similar strivers, Daniel Wolff redefines the phrase 'education for life.' His classrooms range from a printer's shop in colonial Boston to the Pentecostal church attended by Gladys Presley's boy Elvis. Looming above them all is the unschooled Lincoln, whose capacity for self-education will both shape and justify a brutal war for human possibility. How Lincoln Learned to Read might just as well be titled How Lincoln Learned to Lead."Richard Norton Smith, author of Patriarch

"What a readable, powerful account of what education, as well as schooling, has meant to some of life's most interesting people. Start anywhere; each of the dozen accounts captures the individual, his or her time and place, and the most critical thoughts about learning that apply to our current debates. This is a collection that everyone ought to read—including our school kids, and also every member of Congress—for the sake of trying to answer the same tough question for America's future: ‘How do we learn what we need to know?'"Deborah Meier, author of In Schools We Trust

"A riveting, original examination of education inside and outside the classroom. What makes this work particularly captivating is that music historian Wolff doesn't focus primarily on the book learning acquired by a dozen Americans, from Benjamin Franklin to Elvis Presley. Rather, his interest is in how they learned—that is, the life experiences that helped transform them into the figures they became. Taught to read by his mother at home, Abraham Lincoln received little in the way of formal education. His unquenchable thirst for knowledge and constant search for new ideas led him to read widely on his own, notes Wolff, who quotes Lincoln declaring, 'I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way that I could not understand.' Automotive pioneer Henry Ford, on the other hand, had little patience for books ('they mess up my mind,' he wrote) but loved to work with his hands, which in turn led to a lifelong love of engineering. Helen Keller excelled, the author convincingly argues, because she was allowed to create her own curriculum with teacher Annie Sullivan. John F. Kennedy, a poor student in prep school, learned how to be a leader by forming an on-campus club of rebels and iconoclasts. Wolff delves into the education of other prominent figures, including Andrew Jackson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Rachel Carson, but also looks at such lesser-known Americans as a slave named Belle and Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, a Native American schoolteacher in the 19th century. Their stories attest that learning doesn't just happen in a schoolhouse, and life itself may well be the most effective teacher of the most important lessons. Well thought-out, well-argued and thoroughly engaging."Kirkus Review (starred review)

"Eclectic author and journalist Wolff looks at the training, formal or otherwise, of 12 unique Americans in an effort to identify aspects of a 'good education.' From Abe Lincoln's obsession with books and newspapers to Elvis' fascination with movies and their soundtracks, Wolff ties these varied biographies together with common historical threads, discerning how each was able to surmount difficulties and make his or her mark . . . Enriched by historical details of the Civil War and world wars, the Great Depression, and the rise of unions, and backed by extensive primary sources, Wolff's essays provide enlightening glimpses into the often-serendipitous process of education."Booklist

"Wolff allows that several factors are involved in achieving greatness, but his focus here is on the role of childhood education (roughly toddler to teen) in the success of 12 notable Americans, discussed chronologically from Benjamin Franklin to Elvis Presley. He examines the education, both in school and out, of Abigail Adams, Andrew Jackson, Sojourner Truth, Sarah Winnemucca, Henry Ford, W. E. B. Du Bois, Helen Keller, Rachel Carson, and John F. Kennedy. Employing a lively narrative style and impressive research, Wolff presents the interlocking stories that together form a brief history of what it means to be successful in this country. These individuals range from having no formal education to attending the best schools in the land, from having a reverence for book learning to having a reverence for tinkering, from facing enormous challenges to having specialized interests. But what they all hold in common is that they managed to learn what they needed to know, often against tremendous odds. All were consistently true to themselves and to their deepest interests. And from that starting point they pursued the particular education that best suited their needs. This provocative book is not only an important addition to the history of education in America, but also a valuable contribution to the history and understanding of the country's ideas and culture."—Robert Saunderson, formerly at Berkeley Public Library, Berkeley, California, School Library Journal

"This extended essay, in the form of a dozen entertaining profiles of great Americans—an unexpected cross-section, from Ben Franklin to Elvis Presley—provides an unusual look at the varieties of educational experience that shaped these groundbreakers. Along the way, many of the prejudices and misunderstandings that are part of the American fabric are shown to be overcome by each through his or her mode of learning. Poet Wolff shows how the studied yokel Ben Franklin created an American archetype, and how Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan would inspire Maria Montessori on the instruction of all children. Wolff wears his learning lightly, and there is a subtlety to his contrasting biographies. For example, the education of Lincoln, whose formal schooling ended at the age of 15, could not be further from the privileged world of JFK's; auto pioneer Henry Ford and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson, both Midwesterners, could not be more different. Above all, Wolff observes that in our national tradition 'an American education is going to bear the marks of rebellion.'"—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Daniel Wolff

Daniel Wolff is the author of "Fourth of July, Asbury Park," which was picked as an Editor's Choice in The New York Times Book Review and called a "wonderfully evocative history." He has written for publications from Vogue to Wooden Boat to Education Weekly. His other books include "You Send Me," collaborations with photographers Ernest Withers, Eric Meola, and Danny Lyon, and two volumes of poetry. He is currently producing a documentary project on New Orleans, Right to Return, with director Jonathan Demme.