Doris Kearns Goodwin Teaches US Presidential History and Leadership

Meet your instructor: Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and bestselling author Doris Kearns Goodwin. She talks about why she’s excited to teach this class, how she came to love history, and her path to becoming a presidential historian.


DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: There is something about history that I think everyone should love. It’s about conflict. It’s about people who lived before us. Just as we learned from our parents and our grandparents, we can learn from these figures in history. It means that you’re able to provide layers onto your life that make you a much deeper person.


You know, I suppose if somebody asked you from the outside what are you most proud of, you might say, you know, winning the Pulitzer Prize or winning x or y award. But I think the thing I’m most proud of is if a reader comes up to me and says, I didn’t want the book to end because I didn’t want Lincoln to die, or I didn’t want Franklin or Eleanor to die. Then you know that that’s what you’ve done, hopefully. You’ve created a presence in the mind of the reader.

Lincoln once said, when he was asked why do you tell so many stories– because all of his speeches, we remember the beautiful language. But they always told a story. This is where the country’s been on this issue, maybe, of anti-slavery. This is where we are now. This is where we have to go.

He said, because people remember stories better than facts and figures. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So in some ways, I just think, you know, that’s why I love telling stories so much. And that’s why I hope you listen to them. Because you can remember them, and then you can tell them to your friends.

I was really glad to be asked to do this because it just means teaching. I loved teaching when I was younger. I was a professor for 10 years at Harvard and then left in order to bring up my children and become a writer. So I feel like I’m returning to that first love of teaching by doing this. And to be able to do it directly one-on-one is a pretty exciting thing.

What I’m going to do in this class is to think about what makes a good leader, what kinds of lessons we can learn from the leaders in terms of the teams they built, the emotional intelligence that they displayed, what we can learn from their failures and their ability to acknowledge those failures and learn from their mistakes. I’ll use examples from the four presidents I know the best, the ones that I spent the most time with. And that will be Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.

Because I’ve lived with them for so long, I feel like I came to know them. And I would like to be able to share that intimate knowledge with you so that we can talk about them as people, not simply as distant figures somewhere in the historical iconography.

That’s my goal, to bring them back to life for you, and that we can then learn together from them the kind of lessons of human nature that will affect us in our daily lives, not just as leaders, not just as potential political figures, not just as public servants, but rather just as human beings.

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