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    Norms and Nobility: Biography and Autobiography

    May 28, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    The title of chapter 4 of Norms and Nobility is The Tyrannizing Image. If I could summarize this chapter as briefly as possible {because I already discussed it a bit last year}, it would be to say that classical education is prescriptive by nature, while contemporary education is descriptive by nature. What this points out is the difference between what man is naturally like and how he should be. Contemporary education, therefore, tends to begin from the idea of what people are like, children are like, and so on. It teaches them where they are at. Classicism, however, is trying to make man into what he should be. Teaching in this situation aims at nothing less than the man he will become. What Hicks calls the “tyrannizing image” is the Ideal Type–a man both beautiful and good.

    Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on EducationI could go on, but what I really want to talk about biographies. I am about to begin kindergarten for the second time around here, and I’ll be writing about that throughout summer as I’m pondering what to do with this second child of mine, who is so like, and yet unlike, her brother. Like anything else, I don’t think kindergarten can be put in a box and sold.

    With that said, I think the best thing we did for “kindergarten” was to read.

    We read for about two hours per day. There were no lessons, though my son did ask questions. Near the close of the year, when I knew Ambleside was creeping up on us, I taught him to narrate. But for the most part, we simply read.

    Approximately 90% of what we read was biographical. By the end of the year, my little guy was in love with George Washington, Buffalo Bill, Crazy Horse, Thomas Jefferson, and all of the traditional American heroes that have been forgotten by the masses, except in name.

    Popular culture has, for the most part, replaced the biography with the memoir. This is where we read of the nitty-gritty, sometimes grim, details of the life of an average {for the most part} person. While I have appreciated those books {I adored Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Eric Brende’s Better Off}, they do not give us much of a glimpse of the Ideal Type {though it can rightly be postulated that those memoirs we often love the most propose an Ideal Lifestyle, which is a close second}. There is a very real sense in which the memoir, at its worst, is a direct attack on the Ideal Type.

    But I don’t want to get distracted by memoirs, for I certainly think they have their place.

    If we want to give young students a glimpse of the best that humanity is capable of, biographies and autobiographies of the truly great are an obvious means.

    I just ordered a couple biographies for my son, Albert Einstein: Young Thinker and Thomas Edison: Young Inventor. When he was in kindergarten, I primarily used the Signature Series biographies {which are around 60-years-old}. The D’Aulaire’s books are also wonderful, and better suited for young children who like pretty illustrations.

    Anyhow, my point is not exactly what we have read or are reading, but rather that biographies and autobiographies are the perfect starting place for instilling that concept of an Ideal Type. Long before the student is ready to discuss an ideal on the philosophic level, before he can name all the qualities of a good or great man, he will internalize the idea that great men exist in the first place.

    And he will have healthy heroes, men who have actually accomplished something worth reading about.

    For my daughter, I will add in women’s biographies {Pocahontas is already a favorite of hers}, of course, but I still think the concept of great men is imperative in a girl’s education.

    If we consider education to be a forming of the soul, an elevation of sorts, biographies and autobiographies–and later examination of important documents such as the Constitution or the Mayflower Compact, as well as personal letters and essays penned by the great–are a sort of cornerstone for developing that internal picture of the Ideal Type.

    After all, one must have an image in the first place if one is to be tyrannized by it.

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts May 28, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Well, I suppose you know you’ll use them! πŸ™‚

    But I know what you mean…Amazon used books are my big weakness. Where else can I buy a (good!) book for a penny plus shipping??

    Admittedly, I’m trying to use PBS more and Amazon less because I have so many book to get rid of, I don’t know what to do!

  • Reply Mystie May 28, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Woohoo! I found 2 of the Signature Biography Series on PBS. Two others that qualify for super-saver shipping are cheap on Amazon….but should I really make another $25 purchase? Sigh. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Mystie May 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    My mom told my oldest the other day that he didn’t get a birthday this year, because 6 is so nice and we’d rather he stayed six than turn 7. He replied that everyone has birthdays until they die. πŸ™‚

    Ok, I thought I was done buying books for next year, but I keep adding more that would “just round us out nicely.” πŸ™‚

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts May 28, 2010 at 4:16 pm


    Actually, no! Who’d have thought there’d be more than one? πŸ™‚ All of our titles start with “The Story of…” so, for instance, “The Story of Crazy Horse” or “The Story of General Custer.” My dad recently told me there was a similar series when he was a boy, but it was called “We Were There” or something like that, and it was about specific events. I’d like to check those out for history reading soon, even though they don’t fit with the biography theme.

    We have also benefitted from a family nearby who owns a complete set of missionary biographies! Our son has borrowed three in the last month, and we are hoping they’ll let him read them all!

    A FIVE-year-old? Goodness, I keep telling everyone to stop growing up.

    I have found over and over that biographies seem to be more helpful as far as retention. We still do regular history reading, but I find it is the biographies that “stick.” Interestingly enough, though, my son’s favorite history book right now (Our Island Story) is sort of like a collection of minibiographies of the kings and major figures of England (except for two or three really major battles). There is always a PERSON who is the central focus of the chapter.

    Okay. Time for school!!

  • Reply Mystie May 28, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Is this the Signature Series to which you refer?

    I had also shifted focus for this coming year from American history in general to focusing on biographies and people, which will be for both my second grader and kindergartener (who just turned 5 yesterday!)

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