Publication Date

January 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning

I have been using biography and autobiography to teach history at Case Western Reserve University for the past ten years. I regularly teach a class called “Biography as History: Twentieth-Century World Leaders,” and occasionally I offer a class called “Medieval People” (the medieval period is really my field). Currently I am developing a new survey course in modern world history in which I anticipate extensive use of biographical and autobiographical materials. Quite clearly, I’m a believer.

Using biography in the classroom is both academically valid and a challenging way to encounter new worlds. For teachers, biography and autobiography provide initial entry to the study of periods of time and of places with which there may be little familiarity. For students, it is pleasurable, hardly like work, to learn history by reading the life stories of real people. It makes these people—whether they be monarchs, presidents, slaves, colonials, or their masters, prisoners of conscience or fighting clergy—accessible and knowable.

It is gratifying to be able to report to those of us who are interested in biography that there has been an explosion of new materials in recent years. Teachers and students alike can enjoy marvelously written books that simultaneously teach and delight. The authors of these books have engaged in a broad range of historical inquiry and then have linked their approaches to narrative structures that entice the student-reader to enter a complex world with minimal anxiety. In some measure the new upsurge of biographical literature is a corrective to the recent past, during which it was the historical fashion to deride “Great Man” theories, to minimize the role of the individual agency in history, and to downgrade the narrative. While the “new social history” has enriched our perspectives beyond measure (and I consider myself a social historian), broader views of events remain compelling, especially as teaching tools, and I welcome both the return of the narrative and of the individual to historical writing and reflection.

Biography, both written and visual (in the form of films and videos), can be used to teach a broad range of subjects while maintaining a focus on persons. We can discover that Malcolm X’s Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine, 1979) is quite a good way to introduce the subject of race relations in the United States in the 1960s; that the life story of Charles Darwin tells us more about Victorian England than about evolution; that a biography or a film about Eleanor Roosevelt takes us clear through the first seventy years of this American century; that one of Peter the Great or of Catherine the Great serves as a good introduction to contemporary Russian history. We can study China with a reading of Frank Ching’s Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family (New York: William Morrow, 1988). We can also consider that a man like Eric Erikson will give us a special picture of Martin Luther or of Mohandas Gandhi, and that there are as many interpretations of Hitler as there are books about him.

Having made something of an argument for the profitability and legitimacy of using biography as a historical teaching tool, let me divide my further remarks into three sections: commenting first on the courses I have taught to college undergraduates; second, addressing some of the theoretical questions that underlie the use of this kind of material; and finally, discussing the usefulness of biographical and other narrative material as an adjunct in teaching world history.

The class I most regularly teach is “Biography as History: Twentieth-Century World Leaders.” It is a freshman-level course, but not a requirement or part of the Case Western Reserve University core curriculum. It is attractive to liberal arts students in general and useful to engineering majors for fulfilling their humanities requirements. Non-history students are not afraid to take the class—it seems like it will be easy. Afterwards, when it turns out to have been more work than they anticipated, they nonetheless admit that they both enjoyed it and learned a lot.

I inherited the course from David Van Tassel who had in turn participated in such a class as an undergraduate at Dartmouth. Van Tassel used the format largely to explore recent American, European, and Asian history by using the biographies of the political heads of specific countries. I dropped the United States from the range of areas of my interest—my own ignorance not the least of my reasons, but also because students are most familiar here and I was anxious to explore the less familiar. I altered the format both by moving into Latin America and Africa and also by expanding the notion of leadership. Over the years my classes have studied Mao, Mohandas Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Fidel Castro, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and regularly Hitler and Stalin. Investigating an alternative type of leadership one semester, we read Peter Hebblethwaite’s Pope John XXIII (New York: Doubleday, 1987). It was a great idea but it was a pedagogical disaster. The book was scholarly but too complex; more than that, the great changes that Vatican II would set in motion came after John’s death. And so to my students the book seemed little more than a long story about how an unlikely man became pope. I still believe that the idea of examining a renewed papacy as a center of power and as a source of leadership in the twentieth century is a good one. It is a way to get at important forces within the century that have a different dimension from the purely political. I have recently read a review of Keepers of the Keys. John XXIII, Paul IV and John Paul II: Three Who Changed the Church by Wilton Wynn (New York: Random House, 1989). I have yet to see it, but I am tantalized to try again.

Typically, in teaching the class I have scheduled four or five units, each essentially distinct, with short exams or papers at the end of each unit and a final exam question that ties things together in some fashion. Case Western Reserve is on a semester basis and there are about fourteen weeks of class time. The units run from two to four weeks, based on their complexity and on the amount of assigned reading material. One problem in the use of biographies is that many of the best are extremely long. More on this subject later.

The course begins with a discussion of the meaning of leadership, of charisma, and of the relationship between leadership and power. I ask my students to list who they think are the most important people of the twentieth century and we analyze their choices. Most lists are predictable. Few if any students ever mention a woman’s name. After a couple of background lectures (Industrial Revolution, World War I), we move into the first unit. Students read a full-length biography of a “leader,” perhaps John Toland’s Hitler (abridged version and still 700 pages, New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), or Isaac Deutscher’s Stalin (2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1967) or Geoffrey Ashe’s Gandhi (New York: Stein and Day, 1968). In addition, I hand out supplementary readings that enrich the text or provide alternate interpretations. As students are doing their reading I use the class to develop and reinforce context. In a recent Hitler unit I lectured not only on German history but also on racism, on totalitarianism, and on individual responsibility and guilt. I discuss recent trends in German scholarship and the “war of the German historians.” I discuss psychological and psychoanalytic interpretations of Hitler’s behavior and query their relevance. I show films: The Wannsee Conference, Night and Fog, The Nuremberg Trials. I schedule visiting lecturers with firsthand experience. Sometimes we use small-group discussions based on the extra readings. Students who are shy in the larger class often will open up in a circle of six or seven. At the end of the unit students take a quiz that essentially tests the level of their reading of the biography. The quiz is to keep students honest. I assume that if students do the reading, come to class, and participate in the frequent class discussions, they will learn a great deal.

This past term I altered my organization of the class. I reduced the number of units to three, in this case Germany, the U.S.S.R., and South Africa, and assigned two books for each unit—one on a “leader” and one on a “follower” as it were, a more typical citizen. In addition to biographies of Hitler, Stalin, and Winnie Mandela, students read In Hitler’s Germany (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), by Bernt Engelmann, a man who survived those years morally and helped others to survive physically; they read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (New York: Ballantine, 1971); and they read Kaffir Boy (New York: New American Library, 1986) by Mark Mathabane, a young South African black now living in the United States. In effect, these books were autobiographies (technically, one was a memoir, one a fictionalized life-account, and Mathabane’s alone a “true” autobiography), counterbalancing the political biographies of the leaders. In addition, we had time for more films, including Cry Freedom, about Steve Biko, and the film version of Ivan Denisovich. Visiting speakers included both a black South African student and a faculty member who had escaped from German-occupied Poland to the U.S.S.R. as a child during World War II.

The class was very successful. The extra time in each unit gave us the opportunity to talk about issues. The partial focus on “everyday people” (something drawn from the “new social history”) personalized the learning process in a concrete way. In other terms I had tried to use books of ordinary people without the leader book. That had not worked—there was not enough background for the student in the assigned text and it was too difficult to give it all myself in class. But together the leader/follower texts were mutually reinforcing. Students took quizzes as usual on the leader texts and wrote papers on the “people” biographies. With Ivan Denisovich, students were able to discuss both the use of fiction as history and to compare two different media. They all agreed that the book was far better than the movie, that the movie would have been difficult to comprehend without first having read the novel, but that doing both significantly enhanced the evoked images. I will use this format again. Its only drawback was that it limited the range of topics.

A difficulty implicit in the biographical approach is that it perforce commits a considerable piece of students’ time to one project. In many classes there just will not be time for students to read full-fledged biographies. Excerpts sometimes work, although I find them less than satisfactory. Better still is a book such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas (New York: Knopf, 1986). It uses a biographical format to discuss the effects of the Boston Public School desegregation case. Individual chapters deal with three affected families, one black, one WASP, one Irish-Catholic, and each begins with an extended historical sketch of where these people came from and how they ended up in Boston in the mid-twentieth century. There are also chapters on Arthur Garrity, the federal court judge, on Louise Day Hicks, the chair of the Boston School Committee, on Kevin White, the mayor, on the archbishop, later cardinal, Humberto Medeiros, and on Tom Winshop, the editor of the Boston Globe. Other players in the story are also portrayed in historical context and from a biographical perspective. I could anticipate using such a text with students reading different chapters, taking on the roles of their specific characters, and then discussing their positions based on who they are before a class. I think this could be a profoundly meaningful learning experience.

In general, when I would like to use a life story in class and cannot find the time for students to read a whole biography, I read it and use a class period to tell the story. In a unit on Stalin I give biographical sketches both of Lenin and of Trotsky. Not only does this flesh out the references to these people in the text students are reading, but it shows students how varied were the backgrounds of people who came together in the Russian revolutionary period. I have given mini-biographic lectures of Churchill and Roosevelt when discussing Stalin at Yalta, of Mussolini and Franco in a Hitler unit, of Zhou Enlai and Chiang Kai-shek when learning about Mao. In my medieval classes I explore the lives of Alfred the Great, Eleanor of Aquitaine, St. Francis, Margery Kempe—real and whole people.

Thus far I have been stressing the ways in which biography can facilitate the learning process. Now let me issue some caveats. Using biography in the classroom is not really an easy way into murky waters. In fact, it is a technique that introduces highly charged and opinionated perspectives into the classroom. Biographies are laden with inferences and difficulties that can be surmounted only if one is well aware they exist. It is important to understand the kinds of material we are using when we select particular biographies as well as the biographical approach in general. Even more than in a traditional text, we must face up to the realization that we are not feeding our students “facts.” Biography is very subjective material and autobiography, by definition, even more so. “As a Freudian,” writes Bruno Bettelheim in the introduction to his new book, Freud’s Vienna and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1989), “I believe what Freud said about biographies applies even more to autobiographies, namely that the person who undertakes such a task ‘binds himself to lying, to concealment, to flummery.'” Philip Roth, after a longtime literary career of fictionalized autobiographical writing, has recently published The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (New York: Penguin, 1988). I leave it to you to query whether greater truth will be found in his fiction or in his Facts.

When we use biography and autobiography, therefore, we must give students the chance and the tools whereby they can make judgments about what they read. To do this we must ourselves develop a level of sophistication about these texts and insure that as interpreters we have established a basis on which to examine and analyze them. As teachers we need to be cognizant of critical approaches to this seemingly innocent material and to be competent to perceive the specific goals, approaches, perspectives, styles, limitations, and prejudices of different biographers and biographies. Furthermore, we need to examine, explore, and weigh the sources of biographies and autobiographies: the nature of the archival evidence, the letters, oral history, psychodynamic analysis, even the gossip.

There are good available resources to help us do this. The Journal of American History (March 1989) devoted an issue to the theme of “History and Memory,” with excellent contributions, among others, by David Lowenthal (pp. 1263–80), David Thelen (pp. 1117–29), and Michael Frisch (pp. 1130–55). David Lowenthal’s The Past Is a Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985) is a treasure, with pages 210–38 specifically discussing history. Donald Ostrowski, in “The Historian and the Virtual Past,” Historian 51 (1989): 201–20, also addresses the ambiguities inherent in trying to reconstruct any past.

More specifically in terms of biography and autobiography, James Olney has edited a fine volume of essays, Studies in Autobiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), and William McKinley Runyan has given us Life Histories and Psychobiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984). Also dealing with psychobiography are Charles Strozier and Daniel Offer, eds., The Leader: Psychohistorical Essays (New York: Plenum Press, 1985). With regard to the use of film as history, the American Historical Review (93 [1988]: 1173–1227) published a series of articles, and Robert Brent Toplin’s reviews in Perspectives are eagerly awaited. The general media also are calling upon scholars to criticize the accuracy and legitimacy of “historical” films. Readers of The New York Times, The New Republic, The New York Review, and other resources, find in them competent analyses of recent films.

Space does not allow me to explore this material in any detail, but let me here make just two comments. A remarkable chapter in Olney’s Studies is G. Thomas Couser’s “Black Elk Speaks with Forked Tongue” (pp. 77–88). Couser points out all the pitfalls both “as told to stories” and also of cross-cultural forays. Furthermore, he profoundly challenges what has been considered one of the most successful of these attempts. The article raises many important questions.

With regard to the thorny question of psychobiography, Runyan’s volume, Life Histories and Psychobiography, is a useful text. My perspective as a teacher is to point out how highly psychological almost every biography is—in fact, if it is not psychologically interpretive, we tend to feel it as flat, incomplete. We are so used to psychological interpretation these days that we notice it in its absence rather than in its presence. Train yourself and your students to be attentive to those interpretations that fall most naturally and gracefully upon the page.

Psychobiography is another thing. I recently gave my students two extra readings on Hitler, one on a psychological discussion of his “infantilism,” the other a psychoanalytic comparison of Hitler and Gandhi in terms of their relationships with their mothers. My students were interested, even fascinated with the material, but ultimately rejected it as irrelevant to larger questions of authority, guilt, and responsibility. They did not want Hitler “explained away.” I believe psychobiography is of more value to people in the field of mental health than to historians; and that while it may answer some of our questions, the road down which it takes us is so individualized as to be of modest use to historians in our larger endeavors.

Let me conclude with a reaffirmation of the helpfulness of biography, autobiography, and fiction (which is often autobiography) in the teaching of world history or Third World history classes. Nothing gives more insight to students than to discern both the connections and the dissimilarities between their lives and the lives of others in places and/or times that seem remote and somehow unreal. Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are places that are outside the experience of most of my students. Biography, autobiography, and fiction are gentle ways by which the seemingly alien can be incorporated and absorbed. Creative use of biography, moreover, can enable one to graft ethnic, gender, and religious issues onto political and geographical ones, and to do comparative studies. I have been awaiting an opportunity to teach a unit in which I could contrast Eleanor Roosevelt (or Nancy Reagan) with Jehan Sadat, Winnie Mandela, or Madame Pandit. What a chance to talk about derived power, about women, about cultures and race.

To sum up, biography and autobiography in all their guises make first-rate teaching tools, In the long view, students are likely to remember the outline of a person’s life long after the sequence of political events has become muddled. In the short term, they become engaged and willingly enter into an interactive process. “What would you have done?” is a question I often ask during class. Dealing as they have with real people whom they have come to know after a fashion, students give credible answers. They can put themselves in another’s place. Biography, autobiography, and good fiction help students understand not that nothing changes or that all people are the same, and not that disparate cultures can be reduced to a few universals, but rather that some things can be comprehended about almost anyone in however distant the past or however exotic the culture. Stories of men and women make good history.

Ann K. Warren is an adjunct associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University.