alt.thinking.hertz •Biography Syllabus •

A Syllabus for Biographic Studies


How can one make sensible decisions about one's own life?  Surely an understanding of other people's lives, other people's outlooks, what was important to them, the decisions they made and how things actually turned out for them would help?

Yet biography is not taught in schools.  This is a strange thing given that schools are there to teach children the skills they will need in life. 

Only two school subjects come anywhere close to teaching children about decisions that will affect their lives, History and English Literature, but neither History nor Eng-Lit. really do enough. 

History gives some understanding of how world events can shape a person's life, but History without a more detailed understanding of the lives of individuals is like mathematics without equations. Knowing what kinds of  historical events happen doesn't do much to help you plan or make decisions in your own life.  History in schools is taught from a single perspective - there is no attempt to show that different individuals will see the same events in different ways. 

The course of an individual's life may be charted in literature read as part of a course in English, but crucially these are fictionalised accounts designed to entertain.  The focus in English is not on understanding life decisions rather, at least as I have been taught it, it is about language and plot structure and under-the-surface meanings.  A writer's interest in making a pleasing story with symmetry and poignant parallels can totally swamp the truth about what things actually matter in an individual's life.

So what's needed is a new subject in schools.  Biography.

Biography without a proper framework for understanding it has similar pitfalls to using fictional characters as role models to emulate or to avoid being like.  This is why Biography needs to be taught.  Not only does this mean reading biographies and autobiographies, it also entails learning to interpret the distortions and to pick out the things which actually influence that shape of one person's life.

Here then is the provisional syllabus for GCSE Biographic Studies:  (If you reading this in the States, GCSE is the U.K. exam taken at age 16)

Syllabus - GCSE Biographic Studies

1.0 The Biographic Spectrum:
   Biopics, Obituaries, 
   Autobiography, fact-as-fiction, 
   Travel literature, modern biography,
   Diaries, The 'Commonplace book',
2.0 Life Decisions:
   Cause and Effect; Role Models, Mentors, Early life events; 
   War and 'external' events; Rites of passage; Turning points; Drives;
   Employment; Relationships; Creativity; Travel.
3.0 Models of Personality:
   Contexts in which theories of personality have developed.
   Personality tests and their application.
   Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
   The Seven Ages of Man.
   Body types (endomorph, metamorph, ectomorph) and Personality.   
4.0 Biographic Distortion:
   Wish fulfilment, Entertainment, 'For the sake of a good story',
   Censorship.  'With the benefit of hindsight', Hidden agendas,
   Cartoonisation, Confabulation.  Blind spots.
   Characteristics of Autobiography and Exobiography.
   Ballads.  Changes in re-telling.  Effect of presumed audience.
5.0 Comparative Biography:
   Pitfalls;  Agenda setting; 'Straw Man' comparisons.

Provisional list of set books:

This list reflects my own interests and therefore has a preponderance of scientists.  A better list will need to be compiled, counterbalancing these with other titles.  The actual syllabus should divide the titles into categories and a student would pick two titles from each category.

"In and Out of The Box", by Robert Dougall
Account of his life and his work as a radio and then T.V. newsreader and also for the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds).  Many of the steps in his life seem almost accidental.  This is an excellent introduction to biography, for it shows how a biography can shed light on historical world events, Robert Dougal was reporting them to the T.V. audience.  As well as being an individual's experiences the book also gives a behind-the-scenes view of how a medium as influential as BBC Radio and Television News developed.  The amours and early army work of the scientist Francis Crick also get a mention - Robert Dougall shared a London flat with Crick in 1946, long before he was famous for elucidating the structure of DNA.
"Tesla - Man out of Time", by Margaret Cheney
An account of this scientist's inventions and his conflict with Edison.  This is a good book for illustrating how biography can distort, for Margaret Cheney takes an uncritical eulogistic attitude to Tesla's discoveries and takes insufficient care to distinguish his genuine discoveries from his speculations.  The book also indicates how the electric chair came about.  Edison, who championed DC distribution of electricity, lobbied successfully for the electric chair - in order to show that AC electricity was more dangerous than DC and so undermine Tesla's system.
"All In a Day's Work", by Danny Danziger
Interviews with ordinary people talking about their jobs - from Advertising Director to Zookeeper.  These are 'snapshots' from people's lives.  They show something of what factors actually make people happy or unhappy in different jobs. 
"Surely You're Joking Mr Feyneman",
A classic scientist autobiography. It shows both Feyneman's passion for science and his complex emotions around his own work on the development of the atom bomb. [To better understand how scientists are drawn into weapons research, it is worth reading that section in conjunction with William Broad's 'The Scientists of Star Wars', in Granta No 16].  There are many small distortions in 'Surely You're Joking Mr Feyneman' which are designed to make for 'a better story'.  This autobiography is good at encouraging a critical attitude to autobiography.  A little too often Feyneman presents events from his life as 'a lucky fluke'.  Biographical Studies would ask the question 'why?'.
"The Road Back from Hell", by Anton Gill.
This book is an multi-biography.  It is distilled from numerous interviews with concentration camp survivours.  It is an extraordinary book and nothing like as 'black' as one might think for it shows the kind of temperament that is needed to survive the camps - and after.  [Worth reading in conjunction with Art Spiegelman's "Maus" I and II.  'Maus' provides (in cartoon format) an account of what it is like being the son of a concentration camp survivour.]
"Chromium", in Granta No 16 by Primo Levi.
Wonderfully written short 'story' about how chemical recipes gain the status of 'holy writ'.  This is the best of non-fiction and near-non-fiction pieces by Primo Levi.  Some other non-fiction by Primo Levi describe his experiences in the concentration camps - and it is clear that he is holding back on some of the reasons he survived.  One can infer them by reading 'The Road Back From Hell'.
"The Double Helix", by J.D. Watson.
Another classic scientist biography describing the discovery of the structure of DNA - or by some interpretations the theft of one scientist's work by others.  From the biography Rosalind Franklin's experimental work in determining the X-Ray patterns and particularly her telling Crick and Watson that they were wrong to build a model with the 'backbone on the inside' were clearly crucial to enabling Crick and Watson to build the right model.  [For insight into 'women's place in science' it is worth reading in conjunction with Steven J Gould's "??Evolution of Maize??", which describes Barbara McKlintock's discovery of 'transposable elements' (in plants), and 30 years later, the credit for discovery of transposable elements (in fruit flies) going to two male researchers].  The Double Helix is dedicated to Naomi Mitchison.
"Among You Taking Notes", The Wartime Diaries of Naomi Mitchison
Often tedious day-to-day diary kept for 'Mass Obs' by Naomi Mitchison.  Naomi wrote extensively.  Particularly interesting are some thinly disguised character sketches of people in her excellent science fiction collection 'Memoirs of a Spacewoman'.  I felt I recognised Francis Crick in her description of carnivorous caterpillars.

alt.thinking.hertz •Biography Syllabus •
"A Syllabus for Biographic Studies" page last updated 5-July-2003