Reflections and Applications: Too Many Biographies, Too Little Time: Good Books to "Think With"

By McKellips, Karen | Vitae Scholasticae, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Reflections and Applications: Too Many Biographies, Too Little Time: Good Books to "Think With"


McKellips, Karen, Vitae Scholasticae


Reading biographies is my obsession. If I don't count collections, reference books, old school textbooks, encyclopedias, Latin books, and children's books, I have about 1,200 books in my house. I even have a book titled, How to Clean Almost Anything. Counting only the books, fiction and non-fiction I plan to read in their entirety, about 300 of them are biography, autobiography, or memoirs. These books focus on anyone from assorted Popes to Angelina Jolie; From Cleopatra to Paul McCartney; from John Dewey to Don Friesen.

During the last half of my 33 years of teaching at Cameron University in Oklahoma, I was the only person teaching undergraduate or graduate courses in social foundations of education. I also taught multicultural studies courses in education and behavioral studies (for teachers, nurses, criminal justice, and counseling). I wrote the syllabi, chose the textbooks and the recommended readings. For the majority of these courses, the primary textbook focused on biography. Students read about diverse individuals, the culture in which these people lived, and then about the educational philosophies and practices of a given era and place. My undergraduate students' textbook purchases made Gerald Gutek rich. (2)

In the early days of teaching with biography, I thought I was the discoverer of the fact that students--especially those who told me at the beginning of the class that they "hated history"--usually decided they didn't hate it so much if it focused on people and their lives. I now know that is not just my discovery. Ralph Waldo Emerson learned this idea from Thomas Carlisle and then passed it on to Transcendentalists such as Moncure Daniel Conway a nineteenth-century figure who is the focus of my current research. Conway a little-known Southerner and Unitarian minister, was kicked out of his Washington, D.C., pulpit when he became an abolitionist. He traveled home to the South, brought his family's slaves north, freed them, and then wrote biographies of such people as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thomas Paine. He eventually emigrated to England to do similar work there.

Long ago, before everybody was doing it, I tried to promote the notion in my courses that historically, women's lives have been more difficult than those of their male compatriots, and that these circumstances related in part to denying them educational opportunities appropriate to their abilities and interests. Any education available to women usually aimed at preparing them to serve the men in their family, whether fathers, a husband, brothers, sons, and even, male third-cousins-twice-removed if that was the nearest male kin. And, if they did manage to attain an education that fit their abilities and interests, they had few opportunities to use that education. And when they did find such opportunities, they often ended up in subordinate positions. Any excellent work they did was credited to the men with whom they worked or those in the same field. Most, but not all, of the books I'm recommending in this essay fit the theme of women's struggles for recognition and equity in their respective contexts.

In this paper, I draw from a presentation I gave at the 2016 annual meeting of the Society for History and Philosophy of Education (SOPHE) as part of a panel our group (Martha Mae Tevis, Linda Morice, and Lucy E. Bailey) named, "Too Many Biographies, Too Little Time: Good Books to Think With," to share some of my favorite biographies. Choosing which books to include has been a challenge: At one point in preparing for this panel, I considered including the entire list of 26 books I had piled on my dining table. To narrow the list, I tried organizing them by time period, and then by theme. Neither strategy worked well, as most of my favorites had little in common with my other favorites. In the end, I present below an eclectic list of 'good books to think with', and the reasons they spoke to me, and might speak to you for your lives, pleasure, and teaching. …

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