Kirkus Star


Twelve Great Americans and the Education That Made Them
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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.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59691-290-8
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2008