Book Report by DK Holland

Meticulously based on primary sources, How Lincoln Learned to Read, by Daniel Wolff, brings to the fore a spectrum of influences that shape a child’s mindset and future. He shows how education happens outside of school – in the school of hard knocks or privilege.

The stories he weaves span several hundred years as he follows the lives of 12 important Americans (from Andrew Jackson to Sojourner Truth to Elvis Presley). In an artful and evocative narrative Wolff shows how each of these children grew to become an important figure in our country. In the process, he connects these often hard scrabble life stories in a way that paints a portrait of America. 

Wolff talks about the development of America’s public schools to harness the minds of average American children, particularly immigrants, to work in an industrial age. He includes Henry Ford, who was a ‘maker’ and had a “disdain for book learning” and a need for subordinate assembly line workers who he felt neither needed nor wanted much of a formal education. Incidentally, Michigan was the first state in the Union to have a controlled school system, mandatory attendance and trained teachers.  

The irony of Wolff’s title is ‘reading’ does not refer so much to how these children ‘opened a book,’ but rather how they observed, interpreted and fit into the world that they were born into, grew up in and the larger world they went on to help shape. In other words, how they, by necessity, inspiration and opportunity, became educated.