George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri during the American Civil War. Like most newly freed slaves, he struggled to find a prosperous path forward. He was fortunate enough to learn to both read and write at a young age and found enough encouragement to pursue a real eduction. After many years of rejection, he finally found a college which would allow him to attend. At first he studied both art and piano, but an art teacher recognized his great intellectual gifts and his interest in plants and encouraged him to study botany instead. This suggestion changed his life.
Mr. Carver went on to earn both bachelors and masters degrees from Iowa State College in Ames. Upon graduation he became the first African American member of their faculty. Eventually he left Iowa to join Booker T. Washington at the new Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He spent 47 years as a teacher and researcher there and changed farming practices — worldwide — forever.
Why does someone today need to know about a person like George Washington Carver?
Here are my thoughts: Back in the mid-1980’s the book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. was published. I read it on a cross-county plane trip to visit my parents in California. As I remember, there is a quiz at the back of the book that measures how much “cultural knowledge” you personally have. I took it and did OK — probably 70 – 80 percent. I gave the same quiz to my mother when I got to her house and she got a 100%. Now my mother is a bright woman, well-read and has a couple of college degrees, but I was also a college graduate, I had always been interested in history and I listened to the news everyday! And yet, she knew SO MUCH MORE about important people and events than I did. In truth, many of my correct answers had been half-guesses, while she had deep knowledge about most of her right answers.
Maybe now that I’m the age my mother was back then, I’d do better. I hope so. All I know is that I ended up homeschooling my children for 15 years with this thought in the back of my head, “I need to make sure my children UNDERSTAND people, places and events better than I did as a young person!” It drove me year after year to choose their curriculum very carefully.
I think biographies and histories written for children are vital in helping them understand the world around them and becoming truly well-educated. Scholastic Biographies are a great place to start, but there are hundreds of books in the children’s section of your public library on hundreds of important topics. I found that reading 3 or 4 short picture books on one subject were a great introduction before moving on to an actual biography. Picture books always cover the high points of any subject and by the time you’ve read a few, you’ve got a pretty decent grasp on the basics and are ready to move forward.
As much as I love to recommend novels, make sure you liberally sprinkle history into your child’s reading life.
Early to Middle Grade reading levels, 96 pages, Biography, Published in 1971