- Historic Sites
I Wish I’d Known
A high school history project brings forth responses from an extraordinary variety of people
February/March 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 1
Madison understood the lessons of history and drew from them to help shape a powerful new experiment in democracy that has been extraordinarily successful over the past two centuries and is keeping us both strong and just today, a model to the world.
Long after I had graduated from Harvard, in looking back and reminiscing about my education, I realized that I truly regretted not having been exposed to the life and works of
It is quite understandable that I would pick Shakespeare, since I am an actor, but then again, I might have picked any one of a number of other writers. The reason I chose “Willie the Shake” (as I jokingly called him when I became a professional actor) is that he was, without question, the foremost playwright in history and a man of great sensitivity and awareness of the human condition. His characters and their behavior, both good and evil, could teach one so much that not only would be enlightening but would help that person become a more rounded human being and possibly one whose own behavior would have a profound effect on others. Learning about Shakespeare’s private life, his upbringing, et cetera, would be very enlightening, I think, in helping us understand how this man became so incredibly influential to so many millions of people over the centuries.
P.S. Though Shakespeare preceded him by centuries, I am sure he would agree with Albert Camus’s statement “If man could solve the enigmas of life, there would be no need for the arts.”
John Muir was a rebellious kid who followed his heart, ignored the advice of his father, and found his true calling. In so doing he helped transform the way Americans think about wilderness, and he helped preserve some of our most special places for posterity.
Unfortunately I’m not really the right person to ask whom I wished I’d learned about in a U.S. history class; except for attending drama school in New York, all my early education was in England!
But I do want to tell you about a person who was inspiring in my life. My grandfather George Lansbury was head of the British Labour party and, more important, a great pacifist who lived his life true to what he believed. I grew up in a world surrounded by people of conviction about nonviolence. My grandfather was a great friend of Gandhi and other pacifists in England, so as a young girl living in London I was privileged to be around these people. Their convictions influenced me my whole life.
I would tell you to study the pacifists in U.S. history. Learn about their lives, why they held so strongly to their beliefs, what they did that affected the country. Henry David Thoreau was one; the Quakers were a whole community of pacifists. Perhaps the most famous American promoter of nonviolence was Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m sure you study him because of his leadership in the civil rights movement, but study his nonviolence ideals as well.
When they sent a probe to outer space with information about our civilization for the benefit of any beings from other galaxies who might intercept it, it included music by Johann Sebastian Bach. He’s that great!
Emily Dickinson, because her poetry is so beautiful and has influenced so many good writers since. (Poets and novelists are a part of our national history yet they’re virtually ignored in favor of politicians. Why?)
Supreme Court Justice
Carrie Chapman Catt was instrumental in getting women the right to vote. That was a crucial change in our democracy. You will enjoy learning more about that long, hard struggle.
Being born and raised in Northern Ireland, I sadly never learned about the history of my country or the extraordinary people involved. Michael Collins was a true revolutionary hero who ranks (to me) with America’s George Washington and with Ho Chi Minh, to name only two. He was a daring, charismatic leader who loved his country and its people and who died trying to take the gun out of politics and unite the country.