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 (4th of July, Asbury Park) 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." (Mar.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal
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. It should appeal especially to those teens who wonder where their particular education might lead.-Robert Saunderson, formerly at Berkeley Public Library, CA
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 effectiveteacher of the most important lessons. Well thought-out, well-argued and thoroughly engaging. Agent: Sandy Choron/March Tenth