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I Wish I’d Known

June 2024
13min read

A high school history project brings forth responses from an extraordinary variety of people

Three years ago I spent my summer vacation trying to find a new way to help persuade the students in my class at Haverhill High School in Haverhill, Massachusetts, that history is not a dead subject but a vital one valued by many people today. I got an idea when I was leafing through an old copy of American Heritage and saw an article by a history teacher who had written to various politicians, military leaders, and authors asking them what he should teach his students about the Vietnam War. He had received many wonderful responses.

I very much liked the idea of writing well-known people to solicit their aid in teaching history. But how would I involve the students? I decided I would let them devise a question, choose the recipients, and each write to his or her own choice directly.

I gave them a single guideline: Pick someone you respect. Receiving an answer from such a person would bring a clear message: History matters to this person you admire, so maybe it should matter to you. In September the students and I spent a good deal of time formulating the question. They wanted one that would elicit interesting and varied answers; I wanted one whose answers, rather than being ends in themselves, would be jumping-off points for the students’ own research.

The question we arrived at was: “Whom do you wish you had been taught more about in history class, but weren’t? Why?”

We hoped that by adding “but weren’t,” we were encouraging the respondent to consider why he or she hadn’t been taught more about the person. Moreover, once a response was in hand, the student would have to embark on a research project about the person named.

The results have been extraordinary. Our respondents ranged from Oprah Winfrey to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Muhammad Ali, and a confident Chuck Yeager (“I don’t have any! They taught me all I needed to know”). The wonderful variety of people who answered and their willingness to share their thoughts greatly affected the students. Even the most cynical were impressed by the number of replies. I think American Heritage readers will be too.

Tom Bergeron

Game-show host (and Haverhill High School alumnus)

I’ve always been fascinated by how we harness, or fail to harness, our creative gifts. We all have some. Depending on our circumstances, those gifts either blossom or decay. Buster Keaton’s life and work provide a look at both extremes.

He was a true visionary, and his story speaks not only to the power of creativity but to the complexity that fuels it. I think you’ll find him a fascinating subject (and you get to watch some hilarious movies as part of your own research)!

Jimmy Buffett


I always thought it would have been fun to study Jean Lafitte . He was an infamous pirate I read about and heard about from my grandfather, who was a sailing captain on big merchant ships when I was just a young boy. Lafitte actually helped Andrew Jackson defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. I was very intrigued by the type of life he led, and it inspired me to read some of the classic books, like Treasure Island.

William S. Burroughs


Brion Gysin, a great but neglected painter. He taught me everything I know about painting.

There are no great politicians in my book. All liars. Lies come as natural as breathing to a politician and as necessary for his or her political survival.

Barbara Bush

Former First Lady

I’m delighted you have taken such an active interest in history, which is why I’m thrilled to participate in Haverhill High School’s project. While I cannot pinpoint one important person whom I wish I had studied more, I do want to offer you a little personal opinion.

I firmly believe it is important to study successful people—people who have made a real difference in their family, school, community, or place of worship. Successful people do not necessarily have to be famous like Hollywood celebrities or sports figures or people you always read about in the paper or see on television. Truly successful people are all around us. My advice to you is to seek out the great role models right there in Haverhill. Find out what makes them tick and study their good qualities and habits.

Above all, remember that you determine your success. You determine what path you take in life, and if you give everything you do your all, seek the truth, and share credit, your opportunities are unlimited.

Tom Clancy


James Madison. Why him? Because he is the man mainly responsible for writing the United States Constitution. That document is what makes America great, because it’s the set of rules by which we all live, and those rules allow us to make America into what it is.

How did Madison get all these great ideas? What other men were there? What ideas did they contribute? Exactly how was the Constitution written?

Nobody ever bothered to teach me these things, and I wish someone would.

Mary Higgins Clark


George Washington, because he is far more interesting than the history books ever taught. When I was writing radio shows, I did research on him and realized that those pompous tales told by Parson Weems after he died were largely fabrication. He was a highly disciplined, engaging man. I even wrote a book about him, which no one read, but am enclosing a copy anyway.

Bill Cosby


It is not a person; it is the history of the United States as it pertains to the truth, starting with Africa and how the Africans were captured. Who brought them here? Who sold them and for how much? The truth. The indentured servants — the Italian, the French, the Irish, the Welsh, to name a few — what were the conditions of their service? How did their contracts between the old and new worlds affect their lives? How did their ethnicity affect their condition?


Geena Davis


I can’t remember being taught much at all about important women in our nation’s history and their contributions. Eleanor Roosevelt was an incredible woman and a potent political force in her own right.


Don’t forget that half of history was made by women. It’s just that too few of them get into the history books!

Bob Dole

Former U.S. Senator from Kansas

I wish I’d had the opportunity to learn more about Dwight D. Eisenhower. Unfortunately, while I was in school, it was too early for President Eisenhower’s contributions to be recorded in books. But at this time I feel many young Americans could learn from this great man’s life.

Hugh Downs


I chose Alexander the Great because while I learned a little about him in school, I did not realize what a remarkable human being he was until I read some biographies of him after I grew up, the best of which was by Mary Renault.

Most histories relate his military victories and neglect other dimensions of the man. He conquered the known world before he was thirty-three, and one of the ways he was successful in his conquests was that instead of pillaging cities and countries and enslaving populations, he forbade his soldiers to do this and granted clemency and in many cases distributed goods to the conquered people. This resulted in fanatical loyalty to him and swelled the size of his armies, until finally no one stood against him.

It is said that Alexander never needed more than four hours of sleep a night; his stamina and courage were legendary, and he never commanded anyone to do anything he would not do. He was in the forefront of every battle.

History speaks of Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great and Alfred the Great, but Alexander really was great.

Michael S. Dukakis

Former Governor of Massachusetts

I wish we had learned more about Frederick Douglass and some of the other African-Americans who led the fight against slavery and for the emancipation of black people in America. Douglass was a remarkable man, but he was only one of many African-Americans during both the Revolutionary and Civil War periods who exhibited tremendous leadership and courage under very difficult circumstances.

We were taught almost nothing about them, and it has only been since I left high school that historians have done the research that has made it possible for us to understand the extraordinary role that early black leaders played in American history.


Tom Hanks


Not only did Jacques Cousteau invent, or help invent, scuba-diving apparatus, but he used that marvelous mechanism to explore our world’s seas and labored to educate us all about the dangers of pollution and how we must understand the need for clean oceans. He was a great man.


Morgan Freeman


Matthew Henson. Once you’ve done the research, why should be self-evident.

Newt Gingrich

Former Speaker of the House

As a professor of history I have studied many extraordinary individuals who have shaped our world. But the one who comes to mind is George Washington.

Most people know that Washington was the first President of the United States; however, many do not know about his other accomplishments. He was one of only twelve delegates to attend the First Continental Congress. He was also elected to be Commander in Chief of the Continental Army to fight the British. Along with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Washington was also instrumental in leading the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Without his leadership and guidance, our country would not be where it is today. The people’s love for this great patriot was captured in the famous words of Henry Lee, “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

John Glenn

Astronaut/former U.S. Senator from Ohio

It is indeed a difficult task to choose one person from the annals of history to learn more about. We have had some incredible individuals who have made significant contributions to the world we live in today. However, if I had to choose one person, it would be George Washington.

He had the courage to lead our new nation. He had a commitment and dedication to the ideals of democracy and making our Constitution work. Today we realize what a revolutionary document the Constitution was, and we appreciate all the more what President Washington did for our young nation in those earliest years.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.


I wish that I had been taught more about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi when I was in school. Gandhi, whose followers called him “Mahatma,” which means “great-souled,” led the Indian people to freedom and statehood a half-century ago. In addition, he led his freedom movement by developing and using his own version of “passive resistance,” a form of nonviolent struggle that greatly influenced my own mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the civil rights movement in our own nation.

Gandhi was a great philosopher of nonviolence and one of the foremost freedom fighters who ever lived. He fought for justice for the common people, inspiring hope around the world. I wish that my own schools had taught me more about his struggle and his beliefs, and I hope that your school will study and learn from both his life and his ideals.

Billy Joel


I choose Thomas Jefferson because he was not only one of the most important and eloquent creators of our country but also America’s true Renaissance man, a man of many outstanding talents—in literature, science, architecture, agriculture, and education, to name just a few. Jefferson’s beliefs were the result of a classical education and his experiences in a new world, a world full of possibilities, open to the great power of new ideas. He was the ideal product of the Age of Reason. Jefferson’s intellect, humanity, and vision of our nation’s future were so profound that his declaration of the right of every man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is still inspiring the world more than 220 years later. And people will continue to struggle for those rights far into the next millennium.

Sebastian Junger


William Bartram had no effect on U.S. history, but he was very interesting. In the 1770s and 1780s he traveled from Philadelphia to, I think, Georgia, the Carolinas, and as far south as Florida, and he wrote a book about it called Bartram’s Travels. His father, John Bartram, assembled the first botanical garden in the New World, in Philadelphia. Bartram’s Travels gives you an incredible look at American, and Native American, society immediately after the Revolution.

Edward M. Kennedy

U.S. Senator from Massachusetts

A person I wish I had learned more about as a high school student is James Madison, our fourth President. Madison is the father of the U.S. Constitution, and our whole country owes him an enormous debt.

My long-standing interest in Madison was the driving force behind the creation of the James Madison Foundation, which I cofounded with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah several years ago. The foundation provides fellowships to middle school and high school history and social studies teachers who specialize in the study of the Constitution. Teachers who complete the program return to their classrooms to teach young people about Madison and the Constitution.

If you are interested in learning more about James Madison, some of the best sources are his own writings. Approximately a third of the Federalist papers, including two of the best known, Nos. 10 and 51, were his.

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.


Jack Lemmon


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 William Shakespeare to a greater extent.


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.”

Jon Krakauer


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.

Angela Lansbury


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.

Christopher Lloyd


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!

Tim O’Brien


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?)

Sandra Day O’Connor

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.


Liam Neeson


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.


Rosa Parks


When I went to high school in Alabama, there was little to no interest in teaching about African-American historical figures. The person who was discussed more than anyone else was Booker T. Washington, because he founded Tuskegee Institute. The people I wish I had been taught more about in high school were Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. I used them both as models for my Pathways to Freedom program. They both exemplified a Godly spirit, self-determination, and a willingness to make any sacrifice necessary to free African-Americans from slavery.

Dan Rather


I’m gratified—and a little intimidated—that you’d address your history-project question to me. It’s a big responsibility.

In truth, I’ve been studying history all my life, and as a journalist I’ve been privileged to watch a good deal of history in the making. The need to reflect on the past, to learn from it and try to understand it, never stops (and I quite honestly couldn’t do my job if I weren’t able to bring some historical perspective to bear in my reporting). It’s impossible to single out only one important figure from the past. I have a collection of favorites to whom I return again and again; but the roster is always changing, and I’m always finding new historical figures from whom I can learn, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Louis Armstrong to Neil Armstrong, from Mary Cassatt to Corazon Aquino. As a native Texan, however, I do find myself drawn quite often to Sam Houston.

Here’s wishing you and your class all the best in your studies, and here’s looking forward to the day when you make a little history yourselves.

Janet Reno

Attorney General of the United States

The person I would like to have learned more about in history class is John Marshall. He had a profound effect on the history of this nation, and I do not think this is sufficiently emphasized.

John Sayles


Emilio Aguinaldo was the leader of the Philippine Insurrection after the Spanish-American War, a fight that led to America’s first imperialist atrocities not on native soil. He was a flawed and complicated leader, and I think history is the chronicle of flawed human beings.

Pete Seeger


Sojourner Truth saw there was a job to do, reaching all folks, and with little training and no money she set out to do it, never expecting any fame or fortune but determined to speak out. Her speech “Aren’t I a woman?” at the Women’s Rights Convention will go down in history.

Gloria Steinem


Emma Goldman had the courage to live a life far outside the boundaries of “femininity,” class lines, sexual mores, or national identities. She was a whole person who insisted on her right to it all—from political action to humor, dancing to the life of the mind, equity to sexuality. If I had known such a woman existed, it would have saved me many, many years.

Garry Trudeau


The more I learn about the Founding Fathers, the more convinced I am that it is critical to understand their thinking in order to fully appreciate the country we have become.

Tom Wolfe


My choice: Theodore Roosevelt, who was President of the United States from 1901 to 1909. It is Roosevelt’s strength of character—and what a person can accomplish through sheer strength of character—that fascinates me about Roosevelt today.

Granted, he was born rich, but he was also born weak, thin, puny, sickly, and nearsighted and grew up with a squeaky little voice—which is to say, he was a prime candidate for what currently, my children tell me, is known as advanced dorkiness. Through sheer determination he turned himself into a powerful physical specimen, a rugged outdoorsman, and a swashbuckling cavalry officer, the hero of the famous charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.

Opinions will differ as to whether Roosevelt’s policies as President were good or bad. But no one will dispute the fact that he showed how to lift the spirits and confidence of an entire people through the force of his character and the excitement he brought to the pursuit of high ideals.


Oprah Winfrey

Talk-show host

Sojourner Truth. No question about it. I think our lives paralleled, only in different centuries. She’s a mentor for me. Her life was a bridge to my own. I can’t read enough about her.


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