How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them

How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them

by Daniel Wolff


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An engaging, provocative history of American ideas, told through the educations (both in and out of school) of twelve great figures, from Benjamin Franklin to Elvis Presley.

How Lincoln Learned to Read tells the American story from a fresh and unique perspective: how do we learn what we need to know? 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 offers a challenge to consider what we need to know and how we learn it. Wide-ranging and meticulously researched, built mostly on primary sources, this is an American story that begins and ends with hope.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608190379
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 03/16/2010
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Daniel Wolff is the author of 4th of July, Asbury Park, picked as an Editor's Choice in the New York Times Book Review. He has written for publications from Vogue to Wooden Boat to Education Weekly. His other books include You Send Me, two volumes of poetry, and collaborations with the photographers Ernest Withers, Eric Meola, and Danny Lyon. He is currently producing a documentary project on New Orleans, Right to Return, with director Jonathan Demme.

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How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
lindapanzo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
TLCrawford on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Daniel Wolff in his book, How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the educations that made them tries to examine how education developed in America. He does by looking at the early lives of a dozen famous Americans in the context of the times they lived in. He makes use of their own words, gleaned from their writings. It is an intriguing subject and an interesting approach to the subject. Don¿t we all recall our schooldays? The push for an educated electorate is as old as the Republic. Jefferson wrote about the importance of having educated voters electing our government. A century later John Dewy was making the same argument. The idea promises to be interesting, unfortunately Wolff¿s book falls short of that promise. My first concern with Wolff¿s book was how he chose to address his subjects. He uses diminutive forms of their proper names, some more diminutive than others. In Wolff¿s defense he is looking at these icons as children so I cannot object to `Ben ` for Benjamin Franklin and `Andy¿ for Andrew Jackson. However, I feel that using `Nabby¿ for Abigail Adams and `Willie¿ for W. E. B. DuBois cross¿ the line into dismissiveness. Maybe Abigail¿s family did call her by that name but we, and he, are not her family. I have to wonder why `Willie¿ but not `Benny¿? I don¿t recall DuBois referring to himself as `Willie¿ in The Souls of Black Folk.Does a history of education really need speculation about parent¿s illegal activities and people¿s sexual preferences? Editing out such irrelevant speculation would have improved the books credibility. There is a lot of genealogical information in the book that is not irrelevant to the person¿s education, information that contradicts the `rag to riches¿ myths that surround several of its subjects. Mythology is one theme in the book, principally the American myth of the `self-made man¿. Why bother naming Lincoln¿s early teachers if they are not intended to receive any credit for his education? Why mention Ford¿s love of McGuffy readers if you are claiming his education came from tinkering in the barn? Jackson and Lincoln both worked as lawyers but no mention is made of any legal education of the fact that they might not have needed any. The book takes a dismissive stand on the value of formal education. Jackson and Lincoln, the lawyers, got their principle education from fighting in the Revolution and splitting logs according to Wolff. Kennedy attended some of the nations most expensive private schools in the country but we are told that administrators felt that who they met and conforming to expectations were more important than what students learned. I don¿t want to be completely negative about the book. Wolff writes clearly and maintains a very interesting narrative. ¿Abe Lincoln was shot and killed by Indians¿, the first paragraph of the chapter on Lincoln is one example of how compelling his writing can be. He also manages to discuss some of the milestones in American education, the beginning of high schools, and the early justification that educating the poor would teach them to behave and take orders. Wolff points out that Dewey¿s belief (and Jefferson¿s although he is not mentioned) that Americans should be educated to be good citizens, to be involved and knowledgeable about government and to able to thoughtfully vote, was a controversial idea but he fails to examine why it was controversial. What was the argument an informed electorate? As a history of American education Wolff¿s book is flawed. Unfortunately it is the best one that I know of and the topic is interesting so I have to, half-heartedly, recommend the book.
greytone on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I sat one evening in the home of a television mega-star with three other women and a Nobel prize-winning author as the honored guest. The conversation had just erupted into peals of laughter as we all agreed on a point of discussion, and as the volume subsided, the hostess turned to me and said, ¿¿We all knew that `cause we all graduated from college, right?¿ I couldn¿t respond in the affirmative like the other women at the table, and suddenly felt excluded and different from these women whom, just seconds before, I was certain were my mental equals. I feel equal to the formally-educated women I was sharing dinner with that winter evening. ¿How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Education that Made Them,¿ by Daniel Wolff reminds me that education is so much more than the college attended, and tells the stories of American notables as examples of this idea. Their early schooling was gathered in the chapters of this book in an effort to study the correlation between education and success. Wolff could have chosen any number of individuals, but chose this select dozen for the individual lessons they demonstrate as their education progressed. Ben Franklin¿s story showed how education can be gained even with a series of stops and starts, and could include abrupt changes in direction. Belle¿s chapter reveals that education can be gained in spite of race, social status, economic position or gender. You will read of the conflict education brought to Thocmetony¿s life, and you¿ll think a lot about the quest for knowledge, the importance of commitment, and the early involvement of religion, patriotism and moral character in early-American education. Once you¿ve come to that conclusion, the story of Abe Lincoln will shake loose questions of whether private or public education is the answer. Henry Ford¿s educational philosophy will be a question you will ponder; whether all men seek educational challenges or if a majority of mankind prefers not to think. I enjoyed reading this book, and encourage you to read about the other seven men and women not mentioned here. Their stories, like your own personal road to learning-what-you-needed-to-know, are the foundation on the level of success these Americans attained. I¿ve often wondered did anyone hear my heart skip a beat at the moment I was asked if I were among the college educated. I¿m going to be more responsive the next time I¿m asked. After all, we were all sitting at the same table, weren¿t we?
adamps on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What I enjoyed most about this book was how broadly it approached and defined education. This is not a book about school, although school plays a role, but a book that tries to discover what about our early experiences makes us into the people we become. Wolff does a thorough job of scouring primary documents to draw inferences on what growing up taught these twelve great Americans. His conclusions should give educators pause about the actual impact of their work as Wolff seems to argue that more often than not traditional education was not all that useful for these American archetypes. If there is a weakness to the book, it would be that it takes on and uses the traditional American narratives (self made man, perserverance=success) without too much critical reflection the veracity of those claims. Sometimes it read a little like a patriotic primer than a complex exposition on childhood. It is worth the read for any American history fan, but I was left wondering about the generalizability of the text. Are there lessons to be learned from great Americans or are their achievements and personalities outliers which hold little explanation for modern life?
morningrob on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
How Lincoln Learned to Read is a book about the education of twelve famous Americans. However, Wolff¿s idea of education is broader then teachers and schoolrooms. He gives examples of a broad category of how people are educated through their own initiative, interests, and work. While interesting and well written, I would have to ask, so what? There is no real purpose to this book. Unless you want to guess at its purpose. It seems that Wolff¿s thesis is that education happen in more places then the classroom.Alright, if that is his thesis, then has anything new been told to us? I would say no. Is he saying that education should be similar to the way these people were educated? Who knows, since the books is just a series of episodes, mostly about the early childhood of his subjects. Is this a study about what makes a person ¿great?¿ Who knows, since greatness is also in the eye of the beholder. Is it about reforming the education system? Who knows, since there are no constructive proposals put forward. Essentially you can take out of this book, what you want to take out of it.Therefore, if one is looking about the childhood experience of a variety of different Americans, than this book is one to pick up. It was an interesting book from a historical perspective. But as to contributing something new, there is not much here. But, if you are interested in the historical part, I would pick it up.
sweeks1980 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was a pleasantly surprised by Daniel Wolff¿s "How Lincoln Learned to Read." Although the subtitle, ¿Twelve Great Americans and the Educations that Made Them,¿ is an accurate description of what the book is about, this book is much more than just a mini biography of these figures. Through the stories of these 12 individuals, the book also provides an overview of the American education system in general.Wolff makes some interesting and thoughtful decisions in terms of the individuals he selects and the way that he goes about describing their educations. Some of these choices seemed perplexing at first, but they made a great deal of sense as I continued to read. For instance, the subjects are referred to by their childhood names or nicknames, which helped me focus on the information provided in the book, rather than the history that surrounds the subjects. Another, more significant, choice that Wolff makes is that he is careful to explore both the formal and informal educations of these individuals. One of my initial fears was that the book would focus just on formal schooling or on the individuals¿ education through experiences. To his credit, Wolff does a good job looking at both types of education and discussing their contributions. What's more, he subtly addresses America's sometimes dysfunctional relationship with education. A clear example of this is in the chapter on Lincoln. Wolff shows Lincoln's love of learning and books, but he also describes Lincoln's decision to portray himself as "an unschooled rail-splitter" in order to distance himself from the perceptions of elitism that came with formal education.All in all, if you are interested in education or American history (or both), you would enjoy "How Lincoln Learned to Read." Not only is it thoroughly researched, but Wolff¿s writing is engaging and his treatment of the subject is very thoughtful and provides a fresh perspective on these well-known figures and on education.
jd234512 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book took me quite a bit longer than I would have expected, and for the longest time I couldn't put my finger on why I just wasn't enjoying it as much as expected. Upon first reading the description of this book, I assumed it would be a study in education by means of 12 important figures(without odd childhood nicknames to "keep me guessing?" I might add also!). Instead, what we have are tiny biographies of the 12 individuals that are oddly specific in some cases and quite vague in other's.Instead of having a steady stream of tracking the progress(or potentially lack thereof) that would tie these individuals together we have a chapter on each where the other's seem to be stretched to compare/contrast to the other's. Overall while some of it was interesting I wish he would either have focused on a third of the people or really sought out to study education throughout the years. Either way, he did not do justice as a biographer of the 12 and as a historian or educator on education. It really is a shame because I had very high hopes for this.
skslib on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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
ellynv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Arranged as vignettes focusing on twelve children - just Ben, Abe, Henry, Helen, you know, kids. Not only does this give a unique view into twelve periods in American history, it takes us into the lives of twelve significant Americans and the childhoods that shaped them. As a parent - particularly one who has homeschooled - I was fascinated by the interplay of educational objectives and religious beliefs compounded with family dynamics. This is solid - and fun* - history reading for both parents and young people. *Packed with interesting details, this book was endlessly amusing. For example, I never expected to find out that Elvis had volunteered in his high school library!
benjclark on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A casual tone and well researched chapters lead readers through the education of some of America's famous and not so famous faces of history. I was interested to read it, but did't expect it to be as engrossing as it was. My only annoyance was that although there are extensive citations, the reader must guess when they pop up in the text. Personally, I would have preferred footnotes, but I understand why the editors' treatment of the citations to make the book more approachable.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this book start to finish in one afternoon. Couldn¿t stop reading. It¿s all about twelve famous Americans¿ educations, both formal and informal, and how they acquired what they needed to know to become the people they became. I won¿t give away who the people are as that is part of the fun; each chapter is titled with a little-known nickname of the person so you aren¿t always sure who the story is about until you get to the last page. It gives one a lot of hope to see how little formal education most of these people obtained in light of the amazing successes they achieved.A fun trip through American history.
pbadeer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I¿d like to say I had a ¿love/hate¿ relationship with this book, but it was more like a ¿hate/let me sleep on it and we¿ll see how we feel in the morning¿ relationship. The premise behind this book was a strong one ¿ immediately upon seeing it, I knew I wanted to read it. Unfortunately, it completely failed to live up to my expectations, and for that reason I probably feel a stronger sense of disappointment. Each chapter is dedicated to a ¿significant¿ individual from American history, focusing primarily on their childhoods as opposed to their accomplishments, the author extrapolates these early events into how they developed their characters as becoming adults. Some of the stories were interesting and well researched; however, many relied too heavily on generalizations from the era as opposed to specific examples, and the correlations between the events and their impacts later in life, were often questionable.It¿s also possible that a couple of the author¿s writing techniques interfered with my ability to enjoy the book. The first, although minor, proved annoying ¿ the reference of each individual by their ¿childhood¿ names. If the idea was to be ¿mysterious¿, the trick didn¿t work ¿ many of the chapters included a last name in the first paragraph, and how many children named ¿Elvis¿ do you know? If it were designed to be ¿cute¿¿it didn¿t work. The second technique I blame on his editor ¿ since the book was technically about their ¿early educations¿, each chapter is peppered with references such as: ¿we¿ll consider that his elementary education¿, ¿these were her `high school years¿¿, etc. Again, if it were designed to be ¿cute¿, it served only to annoy. But as a whole, there was enough of interest to keep me going, and some of the chapters ¿ particularly ¿Helen¿ were extremely well written and compensated for myriad ills. Of interest more to history buffs than educators, this book will make for an interesting skim.
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