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març 24, 2009, 9:18 am

I'm interested if anyone here has read my new book How Lincoln Learned to Read.

It's about a dozen great Americans and their educations, many of which would today be called home-schooling.

I'll attach the Kirkus review, but if you have comments, let me know.


(STARRED) Wolff, Daniel
HOW LINCOLN LEARNED TO READ: Twelve Great Americans and the Education That Made Them

A riveting, original examination of education inside and outside the classroom.

What makes this work particularly captivating is that music historian Wolff (4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land, 2005, etc.) 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.

març 29, 2009, 2:11 pm

There are lots of different “reviews” a book gets.

Yesterday, the Christian Science Monitor’s website had a “newspaper” review of How Lincoln Learned to Read where Brad Knickerbocker said,

“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 or book club review of American history from our founding as a nation through the 20th century.”

(Of course, the Monitor switches this week to only internet publication. I kinda wonder if I killed the paper version?)

I’m delighted in the response and hope readers, respecting CSM’s reputation, will want to get hold of the book.

Then there are the reviews you get from people you know, family and friends. Danny Alexander and I have been having a conversation about education and how it does and doesn’t work for many years now. He’s a teacher for pay and a student out of a fierce desire to learn. On his blog, Take Em As They Come, he talked about the first third of Lincoln:

“Though I am a teacher, a member of a teacher's union, and I will fight for our rights whenever they are threatened....
I think the teacher should never quit striving to heal thyself. There are some serious sicknesses going around in our educational system, and I don't think they have much to do with the liberalization of the curriculum but rather the aspect of school that is all about teaching the institution and teaching the status quo. A past that is quickly dying used to say that we held the keys to our students' futures. We have long declared that our curriculum is essential to worldly success. But the lie in that statement is akin to all that wishful thinking down on Wall Street. What we need to do is begin seriously talking about what it is that we do have to offer.
I think we do valuable things in the classroom. I feel extremely lucky to get to teach everything I know about writing to students who could use the insights, and I know it works for a sizable number of them. But I also know we've got a lot of work to do, particularly getting over ourselves. How Lincoln Learned to Read is an extraordinarily useful compass to set us in the right direction.

At least the first third is...”

And then there’s a guy I haven’t met, yet, who had heard of me and wanted to read the book. It’s something more like a cold reading and yet another kind of review. He emailed me:

“There are turns in the prose, for instance-- those 180s you do--that made me laugh out loud... just the syntax, I mean. It's funny, in a way the prose seems perfect and proper--not a false note anywhere--and it is, but at the same time it seems there's an anarchist smiling behind it who just might pull back the curtain at any moment with a sort of malatoff cocktail of language lit in one hand--, and I found that tension exhilarating. I think that may be a way of talking about soul....”

How Lincoln Learned to Read was written not so much to offer answers but to ask questions, to maybe broaden perspectives on an on-going conversation about learning and democracy. All these reactions – and the ones to come – help contribute to that. And I’m grateful for them.

abr. 11, 2009, 5:43 pm



To drive up through New England – past the Merrimac River, past Lawrence and Lowell – is to think about Thoreau and all the factory girls whose names were once known to friends and family and are now considered nameless.
This isn’t the green New England of summer or the blazing of fall. It’s early spring, and there’s only the first reddish blush on the tips of the maples. Through the bare limbs, farms stick out on the tops of knobby hills, highways cut through pink granite, boarded-up ice cream shacks wait for warm weather and the first tourists.
It’s hard to picture the wilderness that settlers broke, but they did – right here – and almost as soon as they had, started hiring teachers and establishing schools to pass on … what? Wisdom, although who ever knows exactly what that is? It’s more like they were passing on tradition, establishing old benchmarks of knowledge in a new land.
As important as cutting down the big trees and wrestling the roots out of the rocky soil was making sure that books were available and a little time for kids to learn. That was a kind of seeding, huh, after the plowing of the land? And this second and third growth forest, these asphalt roads, those condominiums, are the results of that planting.


Up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire – a harbor town – there’s the protection of the breakwaters and an old lighthouse off in the distance. But beyond that a kind of wild loneliness. And that loneliness seeps inland, among the salt marshes and the mud flats. Docks have been built in the thin channels, lobster boats tied to them. They exist because of a whole encyclopedia of knowledge having to do with tides and weather, ropes and wood-working: a mostly unwritten encyclopedia, passed on and learned firsthand.


Highlights of the discussion at the RiverRun Bookshop on Congress Street.
The mother who stops at the edge of the crowd, listening, not sitting, till she finally speaks. She came in to buy her daughter a book ‘cause she’s been having trouble learning how to read. She stopped not because the book’s called How Lincoln Learned to Read, but because of the conversation, the Q and A. Her daughter, she says, is great at other things: the training wheels came off first day, for example, and she’s biking all over now; and she’s a wonderful dancer. Why should school define her by the thing she isn’t good at: reading?
A retired college football coach. He talks about sitting at faculty meetings and realizing he and his staff might be the best teachers in the place. Why? Because they listen to the kids and watch them and come to understand that some learn by memorizing the playbook, others need to run the plays over and over, others want to talk it out with their teammates, but all can learn – and have to – for the team to win.
The pretty young mother whose children had been going to a Waldorf school but now has to shift to public education because of the economy. She’s eager for them to get out of the “bubble” of private education, she says, but scared it means a shift from learning to learning how to take tests.
The retired history teacher who says his best classes were when he didn’t say, “Open your texts” but listened to the kids talk. And eventually, one would say, “Hey, is this stuff in Chapter Six true?”
Finally, the young woman who says her father was a factory worker and had no formal schooling, but always pointed out how the world worked: how spiders made webs or the stars turned. She never liked school that much but was always curious, liked learning. She ended up with a double major in anthropology and religious theory. Today, she’s one of the local cops in town. Do those majors help her on the job? Of course! In her police work, she doesn’t just ask what people have done but why.


maig 11, 2009, 10:22 am

Part 1

My prologue to the readings in the Northwest is a weekend stay up on the Olympic Peninsula. A walk down the beach facing the Juan de Fuca Strait reveals sea otter, bald eagles, loons, seals, grebes. Drawn by this wilderness, the folks I meet are in the middle of a re-education. They’re convinced the car-driven, oil-dependent, energy-wasteful culture is suicidal, and they’re trying to figure out another way to go. Public transportation, composting, grow your own food, used clothes, intense awareness of energy use, and a local focus that leaves the rest of the continent – from the news to the pop culture – blurry. Call it a re-Americanization: the thirty-something guys in their beards and flannel shirts, women in gore-tex and hiking boots, are like immigrants to a new, green land. They’re in the middle of inventing the language, the values, the customs.
So it makes some sense, later in the week, when the discussion of the good-sized crowd at Powell’s heads in the direction of alternative ways of learning. There’s the woman in the first year of home-schooling her 15 year old son; she talks about how he’s not only more curious but physically healthier. (Are pale, acned adolescents a product of fluorescent lights and history class?)
A soft-spoken, gray-haired guy wonders why, after all these years, our schools still can’t manage to teach the basics. A middle-aged woman behind him answers that the circumstances keep changing: both the present world and the imagined, future world kids are being prepared for. So, the basics keep changing, too. How we read and what we read shifts – or the emphasis shifts. We aren’t teaching for the farm anymore. (I wonder if 21st century green living will mean going back to educational basics, too?)
A woman up front makes a point about what she calls reverse discrimination. She has four kids, the youngest is mixed race, and that one is offered a richer variety of programs in high school. Because she’s part Hispanic the woman says.
A high school student a couple rows back answers her. Her honors program is mixed race. As are lots of the school’s programs. And, the teenager adds, what’s wrong about home-schooling is you lose that diversity.
The discussion zips back and forth, me adding some anecdotes from How Lincoln Learned to Read. One guys talks about his “a-ha!” moment in middle school when he stays up all night to finish a paper and realizes he likes learning. A librarian wonders what libraries have to do with early American learning, and we talk about Ben Franklin borrowing books, Abigail Adams holed up in her grandparents’ library.
Afterwards, the talk is more personal. One former elementary school teacher is now helping doctors with their handwriting. She sighs; penmanship has been a lifelong struggle. Another has self-published a book on the scripture. A guy wants to talk about the role of Free Masons. It’s a lovely, slightly loony conversation.
At the end, a man in his early 60’s with thick glasses and a gentle voice describes how college wasn’t very good for him: he never learned the skills he needed. It was too “de-individualized.” “Only now,” he says and looks to the ceiling, “-- what is it? May? --so five months ago, I realized what it is I need to know to do the things I want to do.” He pauses. “I believe in life-long learning,” he says and hopes his son turns out the next night when I’m reading at the University of Washington bookstore.