Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Why Teach Biography?

By Bernice Lerner — March 15, 2005 5 min read
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    There are stars whose light reaches the earth long after they have disintegrated and are no more. And there are men whose scintillating memory lights the world long after they have passed from it. These lights which shine in the darkest night are those which illuminate for us the path.

Hannah Senesh
Hungarian poet and Holocaust victim

Who does not love a good story? Movie producers, playwrights, and authors understand the human fascination with narrative. They appreciate the importance of context and character development. And they know when and how to include elements of dramatic tension—romance, intrigue, tragedy—to capture and hold our attention.

By introducing young people to worthy lives we may, in the words of Plutarch, 'arouse the spirit of emulation.'

Educators, too, can capitalize on students’ natural interest in other people’s lives. In fact, in striving to promote good character, teachers ought to put before young people exemplars who have struggled and endured, luminaries whose actions demonstrate the human capacity for nobility, integrity, courage, and compassion. By encountering such individuals, students may learn that they are not alone, that others who have gone before them have found ways of coping, of overcoming hardship, of responding to difficult situations in well-considered, constructive ways. To the extent that we teachers carry a repertoire of stories—about both famous and lesser-known individuals—we have at our disposal a vital means of educating for virtue.

By introducing young people to worthy lives we may, in the words of Plutarch, the 1st-century biographer of notable Greeks and Romans, “arouse the spirit of emulation.” The idea is not, of course, to expose students to individuals whose achievements seem daunting and unreachable, but to illustrate, vividly and concretely, the choices that we are all presented with—in matters both large and small—in the course of our daily lives. Plutarch explained that his design was “not to write histories, but lives.”

“And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men,” he reminded us. “Sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments.”

Biography brings into focus not only positive attitudes and attributes, but also human foibles and flaws. Complex or ignoble characters make choices that are in their own ways instructive. Our students can learn to judge historical and contemporary figures fairly, from a safe vantage point, engaging, as the art historian Halina Nelken put it, in “gossip on a scientific level.” In so doing, they can monitor their own tendencies, reflect on their own choices, and consciously better their responses to various situations.

How do we choose from among the repertoire of lives with which we are familiar which ones to lift into bold relief? Sometimes, the decision is ordained by a curriculum we must follow. Otherwise, we might consider both our audience and our personal interests: Whom should our students know about? Whom do we find particularly fascinating and important?

In my work with teachers, I often choose to discuss the life of a prominent educator of character little known in this country, but widely celebrated in Europe: Janusz Korczak (1878-1942). A Polish physician, educator, and champion of children’s rights, Korzcak provides for teachers an example of a thoughtful and dedicated practitioner who saw each child’s uniqueness, and who—at a time when it was not customary to do so—asked the following useful questions about those in his charge: Who is this child? What is his or her greatest gift? What does he or she fear? How can I make this child feel valued? I believe that teachers ought to try to acquire such information about their students.

Korczak’s orphanages, organized as “just communities,” helped children to feel safe and well cared for, to know what it means to treat others and their property with respect, and to earn the esteem that comes from contributing in positive ways to an ordered society. I believe it is also worth studying Korczak’s difficult family history, the choices he made that he later regretted, and how he reacted to those who tried to take advantage of him and to those who opposed his ideas.

In studying biography, it also behooves us to ask, “Who influenced and/or inspired this person?” Janusz Korczak adopted the ideas of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), a Swiss educator who encouraged teachers to be reflective, observant, and loving. Ludwik Krzywicki, a renowned Polish sociologist who was able to intensely focus his mind despite the oppressive conditions in which he was forced to live, was another figure who impressed Korczak. This professor creatively endured life in a cramped, windowless jail cell in Spokpina prison, which he shared with Korczak when they were both arrested in 1909, during a wave of Czarist repression of intellectuals.

And finally, in his darkest moments, while faced with an increasingly desperate situation in which he and his children were subjected to Nazi rule, Korczak turned to the writings of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who endured great suffering and tragedy and composed Meditations,personal reflections in which he strove to comprehend the motives of others.

If we are curious about how an individual’s thinking and dispositions evolved; what, specifically, he or she was up against; and how we might apply lessons from his or her life to our own, our students are likely to discern our passion and to share in our interests. And by bringing biography into our classrooms, we not only capture our students’ attention and ignite their moral imagination, we also attend to what Nel Noddings terms the “great questions of life”: How should I live? What kind of life is worth living? How do I find meaning in life?

Encouraging children to pose and answer for themselves such questions is the ultimate aim of schooling. Biography can help us reach this aim. A worthy life makes for the most compelling of stories. It illustrates that we humans are the sum of our choices, that we each have the power to shape our own destiny.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Why Teach Biography?

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