If I were to have my choice, I would teach history through the study of biography. In fact, if I really had my way, I would do away with textbooks altogether, and have students of history concentrate on learning history through biographical study. History is made by people and their actions, or in some cases, like the papacy’s unwillingness to truly challenge Luther, inaction. People make history move, make events happen. What drives people to the decisions they make is one of the best reasons to study them, and that is made most feasible through biography. Autobiography is also useful, and interesting, but too often tainted by the authors bias or delusion of themselves. For many, especially those in power, they cannot conceive of their own weakness or frailty. This does not diminish the autobiography as certain insights can be useful, but to my mind, they are not the most reliable. The only exception that I can think of is Rousseau’s autobiography. The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is as honest and truthful as I can think of, although The Confessions, by St. Augustine is certainly along side Rousseau (some would say surpasses). Both went to great lengths to tell the reader who they were in the most honest fashion, and while one may question Rousseau’s sanity, his honesty about his life’s events is laid quite bare. It is a worthwhile read. In the case of St. Augustine, his work has been called the rock that Christianity was carved from. Does it get any more honest than that?
This, then, brings us back to biography. Bias in writing is always a concern. Should an author have a particular affinity for the subject, there is no doubt that the contents of the biography will be slanted in favor of the subject. There are so many admirers of the late President John F. Kennedy that, until recently, one would be hard pressed to find a biography that would be overly critical of his actions as president. Certainly there would be a bit of critical analysis, but the overall tome would be one of high praise. Kennedy’s record may not reflect such high praise, but with the manner of his death and the elevation of his person by history, deservedly or not, a critical biography would be hard to find. This is the cross of the historian, and one that virtually every historian has struggled with since the first chronicles were written. This does not diminish the biography as a legitimate tool of study, but the student should beware of overt bias on the count of the person writing the biography. For the historian, this cannot be stated enough, but in truth, bias on the part of the writer cannot be completely wiped clean.
Finally, biography allows the common man to read and imagine uncommon things. How are we to understand greatness, in all of its forms, if we do not learn of such things? How are we to see the ingredients of success or greatness if we do not expose our students to such things? These are two of the key questions that are answered through the study of biography. The reader gets to journey into the life of the subject, see his flaws, his great decisions, and the path that he took to arrive at heights that we can only dream about, and strive to accomplish. We see the pitfalls that befell the great person as she strove to overcome all obstacles laid before her. We can study the conditions that were current that gave rise to the subject’s greatness, and we can read again and again to ingrain those habits that allowed the subject to overcome and eventually succeed. I would argue that through biographical study, the reader can get a panoramic view of a period as a great biography will provide that view through explanation of the period and the conditions that existed at the time the subject was maturing.
Finally, I would ask…Who are our heroes today? Who is a source of great inspiration today, the one that lights the way for future generations? Who comes from a background like you and has overcome great odds to achieve? These are the stories that are told to us through biography and why I think it is imperative that we incorporate more of this into our students, and our personal reading habits.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.