My recommendation is certainly not beyond High School juniors and seniors, in fact, I think it might be perfect for that time in life. As a post-middle aged man, I read it differently than they would. I used it to gauge my own successes or lack there of in my personal history, but believe it might be a perfect vehicle for a young person to chart a course for living a well lived life. It has an introduction and ten chapters which I will have to review because the Table of Contents is cryptic and my memory is feeble.
Summary: three (3) of eight (8) personalities are women.
Upon edit: One thing that I strongly recall from this book, was how one particular woman was very good at all of her subjects EXCEPT for science and she was pushed by her counselors and academic advisors to major in Biology as a result. The wisdom being that if you can survive there where you have the least natural ability-- baby, you can survive anywhere!! I did not stumble across it while looking up the other stuff, but it made me see things differently when I first read it. I cannot tell you where to find it, but I can tell you that it did remind me that my parents grew up in a whole different world than I did and that things have changed even more since my days. That realization informs me that many things that are outdated are still valuable (and I say that as a devout progressive). The entire book is about rising to face the current challenge and that is the definition of integrity by my accounting.
It starts with an introduction that I found very meaningful. He mentions the difference between resume virtues and eulogy virtues- something I had never considered but understood immediately. I found it touching and profound, but I am often very sentimental.
In the first chapter he brings up the fact that the United States was humbly grateful by the ending of the second World War, by our victory that was by no means assured. He contrasts that societal view how almost every American football player at every level of play celebrates and dances after even very pedestrian plays most of the time. A suggestion that we were much better when we considered ourselves part of a whole society rather than special and unique individuals. (He does allow for the reality that we can be both, but are best when we can be humble and part of all society. Or perhaps I have not so humbly assigned my own bias to the chapter.) I found it to be a convincing illustration of how our very definition of character has shifted since the late 1940’s.
Chapter Two tells the story of Francis Perkins who witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as it was happening. Her moral indignation over the business owners placing profit over human life gave her life new meaning. She moved from “genteel good works” of a wealthy woman to a tireless worker for worker safety. She was summoned for a moral task as a result of seeing so many die before her eyes. She eventually became an advisor in FDR’s White House. Political enemies later accused her of being a Communist (falsely), but Roosevelt did not want to be sullied by the scandal and did not come to her aid. Still she worked on and endured the persecutions with great amounts of grace. She was later known as “The Woman Behind the New Deal”. Her devotion to integrity allowed her to persevere and accomplish something remarkable, but it took an entire lifetime.
Chapter Three is about how Dwight David Eisenhower had to overcome a tendency to rage when things did not go his way. Eventually, he learned the Aristotelian lesson that if you act well, you will eventually re-wire your brain and become good. Apparently, all of his success were a result of practicing small acts of self control over and over. Over his entire lifetime, his success was attributed to self conquest.
The next chapter is titled: Struggle. It is about a woman named Dorothy Day and I do not recall much about it. She was very well read and sometimes worked as a journalist. In later life she joined the Roman Catholic Church and spent the middle and end of her life serving the poor. (I would hope that your students would get more of this chapter than I did!)
Chapter Five: Self Mastery is about George Marshall. He never went to school until he was nine years old and was so limited that he could not answer a single question asked to assess his abilities which embarrassed his father. Although he eventually led the US through WWII, served as Secretary of State, and won a Nobel Peace Prize, he had very humble beginnings. A rivalry with his brother first motivated him to make an all out effort at anything and he thrived at Virginia Military Institute. There he studied Plutarch and Thomas Aquinas. He always compared himself to the pinnacle, either an ideal or the most accomplished of mortals. Like Eisenhower, staff work was his particular strength and the organization of these two unassuming men was as much the reason for Allied victory as anything that Patton or Montgomery or MacArthur ever did. He never got the glory, always in the background like a wallflower – but he did organize and build the army that won the war, then rebuild Europe and made us many allies. In his old age, he was never sure if his father would have approved of him.
A. Philip Randolph was an African American civil rights activist born in 1899. He also had a connection to FDR and met with him He was able to display unmatched dignity throughout his life. He was raised in a poor but immaculate home where he was taught perfect elocution. His composure caused other men, often white men, to treat him with dignity and fairness and equality. That is chapter six.
George Eliot, a woman born Mary Anne Evans turned out to be a pretty darn successful author. The descriptor the author uses for her is: LOVE. She was melodramatic and narcissistic as a teenager, and was apparently quite severe when she went though a religious phase. She was often isolated and longed to have connection. It seems she was quite something and I am sure your students will enjoy this chapter.
Chapter Eight concerns the life of Augustine. I have never failed to meet a follower of the Church of Rome who did not refer to him as Saint Augus-TEEEEEN, nor have I met a Lutheran who did not refer to him as plain old AUGUST-in. It seems his mother was the role model for Marie Barone, from the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond- she was a bit over involved in her son’s life.
I have ten page markers in that chapter but remember little of it. It does seem that Augustine was pretty damn self centered and selfish. For someone who influenced Christendom so much, he was not very devout and I believe his conversion came on his deathbed. “Ordered Love” is the title of his chapter.
Chapter Nine: Self Examination is about Samuel Johnson who had a terrible childhood. Without doubt he went on to accomplish much, apparently as a result of self examination.
Chapter Ten: The Big Me is a summary of where we have evolved to as a society. It takes some of its lessons from the third Superbowl where Joe Namath was pitted against Johnny Unitas. Since I can recall the rivalry if not that specific game, I knew ahead of time who was on team humble and who was on team Broadway Joe. Obviously I need to re-read the book myself, but the message of this last chapter is that however wonderful and special you are as an individual-- you are really just one person, very small in the context of time and space.
So by actual count, the book features three (3) women unless you count Augustine’s mother (who did dominate his life and the life of everyone around her which was no small task in the first millennium-- still not a great role model!). Of the five men featured, Augustine is African and two more were African American. Despite not featuring women as prominently as might have been, there are plenty of good role models in this book and they all had to overcome some personal demon to accomplish what they did in their lifetime.
Summary: three (3) of eight (8) personalities are women.
Post script- seeing as how everyone in the book (excepting Augustine) is connected to FDR, I suspect Brooks was doing research on a bio of Roosevelt but found these other, peripheral characters more compelling. But that is just a guess - - - and I am never right with my guesses.