COLUMN: Biographies as mentors for our students

Tommy Fairweather, Teachable Moments

Thomas Carlyle once said, “No great man lives in vain.  The history of the world is but the lives of great men.” I might add, “And great women.”  Most eminent individuals have biographies written about them and we can learn by studying their lives.  Today’s young people can begin to set courses for their own lives after reading about people who have made a difference in the past. I will outline some of the information that young people should look for when reading a biography so you as parents can help guide their reading.

Usually biographies and autobiographies are written chronologically, making it easy to find out what the individual did as a child. If you help your child formulate questions that are to be answered while reading, it will help the child be more focused. Examples could be:

What were the traits of this person as a child? (Familiarize your child with the meaning of “traits.” Examples are: perseverance, creativity, and visionary.)

What did the parents do for a living?

What hobbies did the parents have?

What hobbies did the individual have?

What activities did the person enjoy when young?

What did the person collect as a child?

What books and magazines did the person read as a youngster?

What college did the person attend?

The answers to these questions should be recorded in a spiral notebook for future reference. When your child has finished this first part, it would be good to discuss the information found.  Ask your child:  How was this person like you as a child and how was this person different from you as a child?

The next part of analyzing the biography would be to discuss the person’s struggle to move up in his or her chosen career. Developed questions help comprehension.   Sample questions:

How did the person decide on the career?

Who helped this person along the way?

What kind of training was needed for this career?

What traits were needed for the career?

What were the positive and negatives of this person’s career?

How did his/her passion for his interests develop into benefit for mankind?

The answers to these questions should be documented in the same log.  The child can then discuss the findings with you. One question to ask the child is: do you think there will be a need for that career now or in the future? Or how might that field change?

Answering the above questions should lead the child to further research (with your help). The Internet will be helpful, but interviews with individuals in the field would also be good. You can check the local area first, and follow-up with online sources. If an individual has written a book about the field, you can have your child write to the author via the publisher. Many universities list their staff online with email addresses and they are not hard to find. 

My research into the lives of eminent individuals found that most of them read biographies as children and continued into adulthood.  Harry Truman mentioned “Plutarch’s Lives” as one that he read over and over.  This book, written in the late 1st century is a series of biographies of famous Greek and Roman men and is arranged to illuminate their common moral values or failings. Truman, when faced with a contemporary who did not think the way he did, would reread about the character in the book he felt was most like the person causing him a problem. His newly gained insight helped him change the person’s opinion. 

My quick search of Amazon found that there are more than 700,000 biographies and autobiographies. You should be able to find a biography of an individual in the field in which your child is interested in the local libraries or online. Using the biographical approach should help your child focus on a course for his or her life.

Tommy Fairweather is a retired Walton County teacher and educational consultant who lives in Destin.