Benjamin Franklin was a paragon of self-taught education. To learn how to write he literally took scholarly articles apart and put them back together (like a type setter would). Abigail Adams had no choice; being a woman in the 1750's, she had to teach herself. Andrew Jackson, an Irish farm kid, grew up in a sort of cowboy environment, open land, the time of the Regulators, no law, British invading and pillaging. His education was honor and violence.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sojourner Truth was growing up as a slave after the war when Noah Webster was writing his grammar book, arguing for abolition and a national language and education system. But her master could care less about emancipation, so she (literally) walked off to freedom with her one year old baby, living in the woods and finding work to survive. She realized that freedom was another form of slavery, and then became “Sojourner Truth,” a traveling minister and truth-teller like Frederick Douglas (When she met Lincoln he apparently tensed up and called her “Aunty,” as he would his washerwoman).
The boy Lincoln, who was obsessed with reading and mostly self-taught, said “among my earliest recollections, I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand…that always disturbed my temper and has ever since.” This thirst and curiousity made him. Lincoln thought that reading separated him from the Natives. Thocmetony, aka "Princess Winnemucca," a Native "turned American," actually agreed. She grew up surviving, then tried to create a school for her people: "A few years ago," Sarah wrote the parents of her students, "you owned this great county; today the white man owns it all, and you own nothing. Do you know what did it? Education." Her school was to be different; it would not have this motto--"You cannot become truly American citizens...until the INDIAN within you is DEAD"--as the current ones did. It would be culturally integrated. Sadly, it failed and her people were virtually wiped out by the Trail of Tears.
Henry Ford, industrious to the core, had to learn by physically touching the machines (sort of like how Einstien had to visualize math). He thought education gives you a fundamental base, but after that vocational school is best (Booker T Washington might agree). Du Bois represents the beginning of high schools, which were actually created to Americanize the Irish immigrants bringing "discord, immorality, and poverty." Du Bois, a very poor boy with a poor, single, handicap mother, became the black kid that excelled among white kids; he was proving something. A man named Frank Hosmer became his mentor: teacher, president, progressive school reformer--a man who became part of Du Bois's "talented tenth" way of thinking.
Helen Keller is the story of the blind prodigy child. Rachel Carson (environmentalist) was a product of the "Montessori" school movement (back to nature, learn like the Natives). Elvis learned music at a poor, Pentecostal church. In fact, most of these great Americans grew up poor.
So what is the difference between Lincoln, Sojourner Truth and JFK?
Just as Carnegie thought libraries were "the great equalizer" between rich and poor, Horace Mann (founder of public schools) thought "free schools" were going to be the great equalizer. But many Americans were simply left out entirely (Sojourner Truth, Abigail Adams), and even those who could be schooled (Andrew Jackson) weren't schooled the same, as the chapter on JFK's education shows--privileged, private, rich. Even the teenage JFK says "how much better chance has [the] boy with a silver spoon in his mouth of being good than the boy who from birth is surrounded by rottenness and filth. This even to the most religious of us can hardly seem a 'square deal'." Talking about private schools, JFK's classmate said if you weren't "incorrigibly stupid or lazy" you could go to "any college you wanted."
I highly recommend this book. The author interweaves the stories brilliantly.
How Lincoln Learned to Read