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Education Reporter

How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations that Made Them, by Daniel Wolff, Bloomsbury USA, 2009, 346 pps., $26.00

In How Lincoln Learned to Read, the early lives of 12 notable Americans provide 12 'snapshots' of the history of American education. Author Daniel Wolff tells the story of each figure's formative years, considering not only classroom education, but also experiences at home and elsewhere that shaped each child's future life and vocation. This is especially appropriate since many of the featured Americans received little or no formal education.

The book begins with Benjamin Franklin and ends with Elvis Presley. In between, Wolff covers Abigail Adams, Andrew Jackson, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln (he learned to read at home, from his mother), Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Henry Ford, W.E.B. Dubois, Helen Keller, Rachel Carson, and John F. Kennedy.

These stories demonstrate that public school education as we know it is a recent invention. School attendance became compulsory in most states in the 20th century, and only a third of 14- to 17-year-olds attended any high school in the 1920s. School days and school years were also much shorter in the past.

Wolff links John Dewey's socialist vision for schools to these changes, which split the family up each day. In Wolff's words, "Mr. went off to sell, Mrs. stayed home and did the chores, the kids walked down the hill and spent their day on School Street. . . . [Dewey] believed the responsibility for creating . . . community now fell, to a large part, on the big brick building with the bell up top."

Wolff seems to take a negative and conventionally liberal attitude toward private schooling and business. The book is full enough of valuable information, however, to interest readers of any political persuasion.

Benjamin Franklin, who completed just two years of formal schooling and half of an apprenticeship, was one of the first to attain the American dream: "Having emerged from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred," he wrote, "to a State of Affluence and some Degree of Reputation in the World," he humbly considered his story "fit to be imitated." Horace Mann and others who promoted universal public schooling hoped it would facilitate many more life stories like Franklin's. These 12 histories raise thought-provoking questions about the purpose and direction of public education. What does every American need to know? How can public schools help children to achieve their potential?

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