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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.