Thursday, March 26, 2009

Before Lincoln Learned to Read

A Preliminary Reflection on Daniel Wolff's new book

As someone who dreaded going to school for about the first 12 years, and who has now found himself standing in front of two decades of English classes, I'm particularly thankful for Daniel Wolff's new book, How Lincoln Learned to Read. It helps me make sense of the contradictions at both ends of my educational experience. In fact, it begs me to think about the fact that I've spent half of my life as a teacher and half as a student. What better time to make sense of these oddly conflicted perspectives?

I'm only one third of my way through the book, but I wanted to write my thoughts down as I go rather than to try to sum it all up at the end. It's too dense a work for that. In fact, a chapter by chapter response may be the way to go. After all, each story is a life, more precisely a life's schooling, and each chapter is rich with lessons learned in and out of the classroom.

So far, most of it's been outside of the conventional classroom. After all, two of the four characters studied were 18th century women, not meant to be educated. Both were schooled in maintaining a household, Abigail Adams as a manager and Sojourner Truth as a slave. Abigail developed the wit and intelligence to famously go head-to-head with her husband John, the second U.S. President, reminding him to "remember the ladies" in his declarations of independence. She learned what she needed to know from minimal instruction by family members and access to the family's library.

Sojourner Truth learned her own brand of spirituality by building her own church in the woods, and she learned how to read and work white people to bring an end to slavery, the system that had schooled her in everything but conventional instruction. Both of these women gained enormous insights through their exclusion from mainstream education.

Ben Franklin, too, as a printer from what he called the "leather apron" class, received what education he did by the age of 10 because his father thought his bookish nature suited him for the ministry. He didn't take to that. But what he did learn was how to spot pomposity and how to poke holes in pretense (traits still not popular in the mainstream classroom).

Andrew Jackson learned war, in the meanest sense. As a Scots-Irish used to help put down possible insurrections by slaves or resistance by Indians, he essentially inherited the role of a thug. Experiencing the brutality of the occupying British firsthand, he took the role to heart, and though he never learned to spell particularly well, he did learn the art of war, a war of offense aimed at maintaining order in the newly formed United States.

There's so much to talk about in these chapters because each of these men and women--
receiving precious little formal education, much less 20th Century education like the one I got--each of them learned how to do things most of us have never learned to do. Ben Franklin learned the science of printing and Wolff goes into the complexities of this craft (as well as others) to show that this was no small feat--as with housekeeping, as with fighting, as with surviving and helping to bring and end to slavery.

Out of all these folks, Abby and Ben (as the book refers to them) probably came closest to the liberal arts education in which I was eventually indoctrinated. But they gained much of their curiosity through fiction--for Ben, it was The Pilgrim's Progress, and for Abby, it was Pamela. In their own times, this is roughly the equivalent of Springsteen's line, "We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school."

I certainly did, three minute records extending to the horizon and beyond, as well as everything I learned from my father (a manager and sometime theologian), my mother (a movie lover extraordinaire and a civil rights activist) and my brother (a reader, a music lover and a rebel with more than a few just causes).

And then I think of how much I learned from either of my grandmothers, the one who was a one-room schoolteacher decades before I was born or the one who lost a brother to World War II and her husband to rheumatic fever but never lost her ability to tell stories or to give a little boy her memories of what it was like to see the Phantom of the Opera in the silent era in a little town in Louisiana with an organist fighting to maintain the pathos on the screen.

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...