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Education, Politics, and War in Winston Churchill’s My Early Life

James W. Muller, University of Alaska-Anchorage
Justin D. Lyons, Ashland University
October 22, 2005

James W. Muller is Professor of Political Science at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, where he has taught since 1983, and Academic Chairman of the Churchill Centre in Washington, DC. Educated at Harvard, he served as a White House Fellow (1983-84) and won the Farrow Award for Excellence in Churchill Studies (1995). He is editor of The Revival of Constitutionalism (Nebraska, 1988), Churchill as Peacemaker (Cambridge, 1997), Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech Fifty Years Later (Missouri, 1999), and the definitive edition of Winston S. Churchill, The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, 2 vols. (St. Augustine’s Press, forthcoming). He is at work on a book on Churchill’s writings.

Justin D. Lyons is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Ashland University. Lyons began his study of Churchill with his dissertation “Building the Temple of Peace: The Statesmanship of Winston Churchill.” He is the author of the article “The Temple and the Tower: Winston Churchill on the Political Language of Peace” Perspectives on Political Science (Winter 2004), has a forthcoming article on Churchill¬ís rhetoric, and is working on a book-length study of Churchill as a political thinker. His editorial, “Remembering Winston Churchill: A Possession for All Time” appears on the Ashbrook website and has been reprinted in Finest Hour: Journal of the Churchill Centre and Societies (Summer 2005). Professor Lyons teaches an upper-level seminar on Churchill at Ashland University as well as leading a university summer trip to England entitled “The England of Shakespeare and Churchill.”

Focus: My Early Life, Churchill’s most charming book, appeared in 1930 when he was in his “twelfth lustre.” Churchill describes his autobiography as “a tale of youthful adventure,” and the excitement of the narrative, as the author recounts his experiences in school, at war, and in politics, grips the reader in much the same way as the stories of Alexandre Dumas or Mark Twain. Students find Churchill’s self-portrait as a wayward but talented student engaging: they enjoy his rueful wit, and they marvel at the fullness of his adventures in his early years, when he fought in four wars and wrote five books.

But Churchill also observes that in My Early Life he has painted the picture of “a vanished age”: so much has changed in politics and war since he was young that his book demonstrates the variability in regimes as well as the permanence of human nature. This seminar explores how Churchill’s autobiography can illuminate our understanding of education, politics, and war, and how it might serve as a model for young people making choices about the right way to live.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  1. In the preface to My Early Life, Churchill writes that in his autobiography he has “drawn a picture of a vanished age.” What has changed between the years of his youth and 1930, when the book was published, and how does Churchill judge the changes?
  2. Why did Churchill not fare well in school? How bad a student was he?
  3. Why does Churchill embrace adventure?
  4. What kind of an education did Churchill give himself?
  5. How is Churchill’s youth different from the life of young people today, and what can they learn from his example?

Readings:

  • Winston S. Churchill, My Early Life.
  • James W. Muller, “Winston Churchill at School,” in Morton A. Kaplan, ed., Character and Identity: The Sociological Foundation of Literary and Historical Perspectives (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2000), pp. 83-111.
  • James W. Muller, “Churchill’s Understanding of Politics,” in Mark Blitz and William Kristol, eds., Educating the Prince: Essays in Honor of Harvey Mansfield (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000), pp. 291-305.

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