Empowering Students to Meet the Challenges of Our Time

Featuring excerpts from two inspiring speeches by the two youngest U.S. presidents:

1)  John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address and

2) Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena Speech” at the Sorbonne, 1910.

SUBJECTS — U.S. History and Culture, 1945 – 1991 to Current



AGE; 14+; A film clip with the excerpts of President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address is available here.  Portions of President Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena Speech” are set out in the Learning Guide.

At the end of the lesson, students will: 1) understand that persons ages 30 and below, can make a difference in our world; and 2) have made a list of the major challenges facing their country and the world together with a description of what they can do to help meet some of those challenges.

Depending on which assignments are given and class size (one suggested assignment involves 5 minute presentations by the students), it is estimated that this lesson plan will take two 50-minute class periods.

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The materials presented include excerpts from President Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address and readings from President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena Speech” of 1910.  There is also an optional clip of a response by Kennedy biographer, Harvard Professor Fredrik Longvall, to a student question about what we can learn from JFK’s life and legacy.


This film clip and the excerpts from President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena Speech” will encourage students to think about how they can contribute to the effort to solve the problems facing their country and the world, particularly through careers in politics and public service, but also in other ways. This is an excellent way to set up a section or a course in modern American history or civics.




See Step #1 of the Learning Guide for background and TWM’s list of challenges. Then play the film clip for your children and read the two excerpts from TR’s “Man in the Arena Speech:”  Click here for the first excerpt and click here for the second.

If appropriate, stress to your children the following concepts about choosing a profession:  1) the activities involved in doing the work on a daily basis should be something that they enjoy;  2) they should have some talent for the work; and 3) the result of their work should be beneficial to society.  Click here for examples of amazing accomplishments by people under 30.


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Tell the class words to the effect that:

There are many types of challenges in life.  Personal challenges constitute one type.  Challenges to our nation or to humankind as a whole — we’ll call them societal challenges — are another type.  Here’s the thing about all challenges: meeting them is the only way to a good and fulfilling life; it is the only way to triumph.

Each generation confronts some societal challenges that are unique. In the 1930s, a major unique challenge for most nations of the world was overcoming the effects of the Great Depression. The United States succeeded. Germany did not and this, among other factors, led to the rise of Adolf Hitler.  In the 1940s a major societal challenge for the U.S. and its allies was defeating the armed aggression of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  For several generations, from the 1950s to the 1980s, a major challenge was  was winning the Cold War against Russian and Chinese Communism.  Winning WW II and the Cold War were triumphs for the U.S. and its allies.

All mankind is now facing the crisis of climate change and global warming. This is an existential challenge. If we don’t meet it, our civilization will probably perish.

As we have seen, some societal challenges take several decades to solve. Some take longer.  A national challenge, that the U.S. and most other nations have faced for over a hundred years is eliminating prejudice and defeating racism.  Another is the need to eradicate sexism.  Hopefully, one day we will fully meet those challenges.

Other challenges by virtue of the nature of society repeat for each generation. These include feeding and housing our people, maintaining the physical and institutional infrastructure of the nation, maintaining social cohesion, creating the art that expresses the soul of that generation, educating children, and advancing technology. These are among the challenges that all generations face.   Humankind has developed an amazing civilization, it takes a lot of work just to maintain it.

Life is full of challenges.  The challenge for this unit is for each of us to think about the role we can play in helping to meet the challenges of the current time.


At this point ask students to list some of the societal challenges facing the nation and the world today.  Each class, with the guidance from the teacher, should develop its own list.  Teachers should accept any challenge that is respectful and reasonable.  Write the challenges on a blackboard, a whiteboard, or another visual aid.  Teachers can suggest important challenges if any are missed by the students. Try to avoid having the list be over ten items. This list will be used in the concluding assignment. Here are TWM’s suggestions for the list of national and international goals: 1) maintaining our democracy, including dealing with the divisions in our society; 2) protecting the environment, which includes fighting global warming, taking care of our fellow creatures on this earth, and preventing the Sixth Mass Extinction; 3) fighting prejudice, including racism and sexism; 4) helping less developed nations, including feeding hungry people and educating girls and women; 5) continuing to create technological innovation; 6) educating our youth; and 7) promoting public health, including preparing for the next pandemic.

Once the list is completed continue with direct instruction to the effect of the following:

In 1900 Theodore Roosevelt was elected Vice-President.  He was elevated to the Presidency the next year when President William McKinley was assassinated.  Roosevelt was then 42 years of age; the youngest of any person who served as president.  Theodore Roosevelt, or “TR” as he was called, excelled at the job.  He was the first president since Abraham Lincoln, some 50 years earlier, to successfully use the presidency to rally and inspire the nation.  He called the presidency a “bully pulpit.”   In 1904 TR was elected President in his own right.

As a child, Theodore Roosevelt was weak and sickly. However, as a teenager he took control of his life and became an avid outdoorsman, setting and meeting challenges for himself. As an adult, he was a larger-than-life character who loved the rough and tumble of public life.

In 1908 Theodore Roosevelt supported the election of his political ally and friend, Robert A. Taft, to succeed him as President.  In 1909, when he left office, Roosevelt went on a long trip overseas that included a safari in Africa and stays in several European countries. In 1910 he gave a speech at the Sorbonne, the most prestigious University in France.  In 1910 France enjoyed a republican form of government in which, as in the U.S., the people elected their government.


Then show or read to the class the following statement by President Theodore Roosevelt:

With you [in the Republic of France], and with us in my own home, in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional crises which call for heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed….



Set the stage for JFK’s inaugural address by imparting the following information:

John F. Kennedy was elected President at age 43.  He was the youngest man ever elected to be President.

President Kennedy took office and gave his Inaugural  Address in January 1961.  At that time, the U.S. was undergoing a crisis of confidence.

Just 15 years before, in 1945, with the Allies’ victory in he Second World War, the United States had been the world’s only superpower. No country could rival its military strength or its technology. However, the hot war of WW II was followed by the Cold War of 1946 – 1991.  During the Cold War the Soviet Union became a rival superpower.  By 1960 the Soviets had developed nuclear bombs and the intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them.  There was, and still is, no effective defense against an attack using ICBMs. In addition, the Soviet Union was winning the space race, humiliating the U.S. and demonstrating that U.S. technology was no longer first in the world.  With its expansionist communist ideology, the Soviet Union was acquiring satellite nations and allies hostile to the U.S. In 1959, the island nation of Cuba, just 90 miles from Miami, had been captured by a communist revolution. At home, the U.S. was challenged to live up to its ideal that all men and women are created equal by the Civil Rights movement, but there was strong resistance, especially but not exclusively, in the South.

John F. Kennedy, often called by his initials, JFK, had served in the Navy during WW II.  He was assigned to a small patrol boat that was sunk by a Japanese destroyer.  Kennedy demonstrated immense courage in saving the lives of crew members.  He was injured in the process and was later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his valor. When he became president, JFK replaced an aging Dwight Eisenhower, the popular general who had led the Allies to victory in Europe during the war.

It is in this context that JFK gives his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961.  In it he refers to “a new generation of Americans–born in  this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace . . . ”

[At this point teachers may want to ask the class to identify the “hard and bitter peace”.]


Play the clip of the JFK’s Inaugural Address. Click here for the film clip.

The text of the excerpted portions of the Address are set out below.  Teachers may want to print it out for the class.

Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, Reverend Clergy, fellow citizens:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end as well as a beginning–signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge–and more.

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do–for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

. . .

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

Put on the board or on a screen the words, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.  My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”  Leave it there for a class or two so that students will have an opportunity to read it several times.


Then tell the class words to the effect that:

Young men and women from all over the country have answered President Kennedy’s call.  For example, President Kennedy established the Peace Corps. Since 1961, some 240,000 Americans, mostly young Americans, have volunteered to serve a few years in an undeveloped nation to teach and provide technical assistance.  Currently, about 7,000 people are serving in the Peace Corps.  Hundreds of thousands, probably more, inspired by JFK’s Inaugural Address, have taken jobs in government and entered politics, or volunteered for nonprofit organizations. They are finding ways to contribute to the nation or to the well-being of people throughout he world. .


This step is optional. It is a short reading or film clip of Kennedy biographer and Harvard professor Theodore Longvall answering a question from a student about JFK’s life and legacy.  There are several ways to use the Q & A with Professor Longvall. They include: (1) read it to the class or have a student read it to the class; (2)  distribute a printed version of the Q & A to the class, and have students read it on their own or along with the reading of Q & A out loud in class (click here for a version in Microsoft Word); (3) play a clip of the Q & A (click here for the clip) or (4) send the printed version home with an assignment — or any combination of the above.    In the Q & A professor Longvall discusses the impact of the most famous line from Kennedy’s Inaugural, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

The statement by Professor Longvall can be introduced as follows:

Fredrik Longvall is a Harvard University professor who is researching and writing a biography of JFK. He recently answered a question from a student interviewer.

The text of the question and professor Longvall’s answer is set out below:

Katima (student interviewer):

So, I have a question about Kennedy’s legacy. What are some essential lessons . . . students should learn from Kennedy’s life and legacy?

Professor Longvall:

. . . I’m glad you posed the question because it’s of central importance. I think about this a lot with respect to my own students. I think it’s in part about understanding that anything in life that’s worthwhile requires hard work. I think [JFK] understood that. He had privilege, . . . [The Kennedy family] had great wealth. He had also, as an Irish Catholic, experienced discrimination — not as much as his parents or his grandparents — I write about this in the book, how the early generations of Irish Catholics suffered time and time again — but even JFK, at Harvard, for example, there were certain “final clubs,” as the elite clubs here at Harvard are called, that would never admit a Catholic. . . .  I think he determined early on that there’s no substitute for hard work and that’s, I think, a lesson for all of us, not just for [students] but for all of us . . . to remember. . . . [That JFK had a] commitment to democracy, to politics.  I think is something that we should all also take from the young JFK and also from the latter-day JFK. The belief, which he again got from his parents, in the importance of attaching yourself to something greater than yourself. . . . [That] is so powerful. I think in terms of whether our democracy thrives or doesn’t will depend on people following that lead.

You know it’s extraordinary.. . and this is something I’m going to write about in the book, but the number of Americans of a certain age who heard his inaugural address . . . “Ask not what your country can do . . . ask what you can do for your country” — which, by the way, was a line that — he went to Choate, a prep school. His Choate headmaster used a version of that line to describe what Choate was about. So, this was something that been instilled in him early, that they used in the Inaugural Address.

The number of people who were inspired by that Inaugural Address — what an address thirteen, fourteen hundred words is all it was — one of the great inaugural addresses in the nation’s history — who were inspired by that to dedicate themselves to public service is an amazing number. I encounter people all the time who basically said, “I had to drop what I was doing and come to Washington or at least dedicate myself in some way to [public service].” So that’s, I think, a really important message: this belief that he had that democracy requires being informed. It requires citizens being informed. It requires a commitment to reasoned discourse. Good faith bargaining between the parties — that’s essential to a democracy — but in good faith. Lots there, too, Katima, in terms of what I would want my undergraduates or all of us, high school students, but all of us wherever we are in life to take away from this President. . . .


The next step is to tell the class that:

Here are more excerpts from President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 “Man in the Arena” speech to the faculty and guests at the Sorbonne University in Paris,

“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. . . .

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Click here for a copy of this excerpt in Microsoft Word format.


Interim assignment

Tell students words to the effect that:

Helping to meet the challenges faced by a generation can be done in small ways as well as large. There are many examples of people, young and old, making changes in their local communities, or just going about their jobs in an honest and productive way.  A plumber, a grocery store worker, a bus driver, and even a teacher —  we need all these people to do their work well to meet the challenges of maintaining our complex civilization.

In addition, in every generation, there are people who excel and make extraordinary contributions to society.   Sometimes these contributions are national or international in scope.  At other times the contributions are  local.   Sometimes the contributions are lasting improvements to our lives or culture, like advancing our understanding of the Universe, writing a classic novel or composing music loved by millions.  Other contributions are smaller and don’t last nearly as long, like helping to clean a beach or collecting money for a charity. But if many people make the small contributions, the total effect will be huge.

Sometimes contributions by individuals are based on established pathways of change or helping, like volunteering to serve meals to the homeless.  At other times, people use an established path in a new way.  They can do this at any age.  An example of using an established path in a new way is Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist. She protested in front of the Swedish parliament building. Many people protest in front of government buildings, but a young teenager, alone who refuses to go to school until the adults start to do what they should have been doing all along is new and innovative.  Another person who pursued an established path, in this case, scientific research, and came up with something original is Albert Einstein. He was 26 years old when he described the general theory of relativity.  In doing so he changed the way we look at the natural world.  An example of a young person who came up with something entirely new is Mark Zuckerberg who, at the age of 19, invented Facebook.   Sometimes young people do things that are simply more courageous than the older people around them. A most recent example of that is Cassidy Hutchinson who testified in public before the nation about the events of January 6, 2021. You may agree or disagree with Ms. Hutchinson’s position on Trump, but you have to admit that what she did took courage that many older, more experienced people didn’t have.

Describe for the class some young activists who are making a difference by achieving modest results.  Teachers should explain that if  everyone did these or similar things  together, their efforts would combine into massive change.  The identity of these young people will change over time and lists of them can easily be found on the Internet.  Below are a list of websites that can provide examples.  One way to present these young activists to the class is to show some of these websites on a screen.  Some websites that we have found that feature young contributors to meeting today’s challenges are:

Tell the class words to the effect that:

Approximately 130 people, age 30 or under, have been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. There are several in the current 117th Congress. They include: Madison Cawthon (R-NC), who began serving at age 25; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who began serving at age 29 and Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who began serving at age 30.  [This list should be updated for each Congress.]

Seven men served as governors of their states by the age of 30.

The Interim Assignment:

Prepare a five-minute report to the class about a person who by the age of 30 has achieved something significant in helping meet the challenges of their time – it can be present or past.  You can find these people on the Internet or on the list of examples that I will give to you.

Teachers will need a mechanism to make sure that no one chooses the same subject of their report, such as a sign-up sheet.  There are alternatives; suggestions:  1) teachers can simply read the names and descriptions, or 2) show the list on a screen.  This avoids spending class time on the reports.  Also, students can be asked to research and write a short essay on several people on the list.

Continuing with the instructions to give to the class:

Do not include sports greats, of which there have been many, because due to aging, most records in sports are set by people under 30.  Do not include musicians or entertainers. There are many young musicians or entertainers who have contributed to their art, but they are not the focus of this class.

The following list is neither complete nor representative.  Note that most of these people followed up their early success with important contributions later in life.

The list set out below contains TWM’s suggestions.  Teachers should feel free to add or delete names and descriptions.  For the list in Microsoft Word, click here.

James Baldwin (1924 – 1987) Author and Civil Rights Activist

Mr. Baldwin published Go Tell it on the Mountain at age 29.

Carl Bernstein (1944 – ) Journalist, Author

In 1972, as a 28-year-old reporter for the Washington Post, Bernstein, along with Robert Woodward broke and relentlessly pursued the story of the break-in at the Watergate Complex and corruption in the administration of President Richard M. Nixon.

Nellie Bly (1864 – )  Journalist, Author, Novelist

In 1882, when she was 18, Elizabeth Jane Cochran, was forced to drop out of school due because she could not pay the tuition. Looking to break into journalism, she submitted a fiery response to a Pittsburgh Dispatch editorial that had claimed that a women’s place was in the home performing domestic chores. The editorial called the working woman “a monstrosity.” Elizabeth’s rebuttal captured the attention of the editor of the newspaper who offered her a position. She wrote articles for the paper under the pen-name Nellie Bly. A few years later “Nellie Bly” moved to New York but was unable to find work. Peniless, she volunteered to get herself admitted to New York’s Woman’s Lunatic Asylum. The result, “Ten Days in a Madhouse” exposed brutal conditions and the neglect of the patients. It caused a sensation and initiated the phenomenon of “stunt” journalism which was a precursor for investigative journalism. She was 23.

Lawrence Bragg (1890 – 1971) Scientist

At the age of 21, Mr. Bragg developed a theory, later called the Braggs law of X-ray diffraction, that allows for the determination of the structure of crystals. With his father, who built the apparatus to test the equation, Lawrence Bragg received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1915. He later had a distinguished career as a scientist and administrator of scientific laboratories.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821) General, Emperor of France

At the age of 27, Napoleon became a national hero in France after his first major military victory over the Austrians and Italians. By the time he was 30, he ruled France as First Consul. He crowned himself emperor five years later. He led the armies of France to conquer much of Europe.

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) Author

Charles Dickens published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, at age 24.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) Physicist

In 1905, when he was 26 years old, and a clerk in the Bern, Switzerland patent office, Albert Einstein published four ground-breaking papers that set out his special relativity theory, including the mass equivalence formula of E = mc2. Einstein, along with Sir Isaac Newton, are the two greatest modern theoretical physicists.

William Faulkner (1897 – 1962) Author

Mr. Faulkner’s first novel, Soldier’s Pay, was published when he was 29.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940) Author

Mr. Fitzgerald published his first novel, This Side of Paradise, at age 24.

Yuri Gargarin (1934 to 1968) Cosmonaut

In 1960 Yuri Gagarin, a colonel in the Russian Air Force became the first man to go to leave the earth’s atmosphere spending 1 hour and 48 minutes in space aboard Vostok 1. He was 26 years old. (The first American in space was astronaut Alan B. Shephard, Jr., who was 38.)

Jane Goodall (1934 – ) Primatologist; Environmental Activist

In 1960, at the age of 26, Jane Goodall began her groundbreaking work observing chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. She was the first to observe non-human animals using tools and that Chimpanzees were not strict vegetarians. In 1964 at the age of 30, she published her first scientific paper.

Alexander Hamilton (1757 – 1804) Soldier, Politician, and Founding Father of the U.S.

At age 20, Hamilton became aid de camp to George Washington, and, four years later, at the age of 24, he led an American column that captured a key British fortification in the Battle of Yorktown. In 1787, at the age of 30, he participated in drafting the Constitution and was one of the four authors of the Federalist papers.

Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) Author, Journalist

Hemingway published his first literary effort, a collection of short stories, entitled In our Time when he was 26.

S.E. Hinton (1948 – )  Author

Wrote The Outsiders at age 16.

Cassidy Hutchinson (1997 -) Trump Whitehouse Staff; Witness before the January 6 Committee

Whether you like the January 6 Committee or not, this young lady’s courageous testimony on June 28, 2022, at the age of 26, contributed substantially to the political debate in the U.S.

Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431; she died at 19 years of age) – French Patriot

At age 17 Joan of Arc led French armies to victories over the invading English in the Hundred Years War.

John Steinbeck (1902 -1968) Author

Mr. Steinbeck published his first novel, Cup of Gold, at age 27.

Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011) Entrepreneur

Steve Jobs was, at age 21, the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple, Inc. and a pioneer of the personal computer revolution of the late 20th century.

Helen Keller (1880 – 1968) Author, Disability Rights Advocate, Political Activist, Lecturer

Overcoming the handicaps of being blind and deaf, Helen Keller wrote The Story of My Life at age 22.

Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) Civil Rights Leader, Minister

Dr. King led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott when he was 26 years old.

Steven King (1947 – ) Author

Mr. King’s first novel, Carrie, was published when he was 26.

Charles Lindbergh (1902 – 1974) Aviator, Businessman

Mr. Lindbergh was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. He was 25 years old.

Marquis de Lafayette (1757 – 1834) Soldier, French Politician, and Patriot

In 1777, at the age of 20, Lafayette became a member of the staff of General George Washington.

John Lennon (1940 – 1980) Musician, Songwriter, Peace Activist

John Lennon, in his teens, started writing and performing songs. With Paul McCartney, he formed a song-writing partnership that changed the course of popular music in the 1960s and 1970s.

James Madison (1751 – 1836) Statesman, Founding Father of the U.S.

Madison became active in the American Revolution in 1775, at age 24.

Paul McCartney (1942 – ) Musician, Songwriter

With John Lennon, in his teens, formed a song-writing partnership that changed the course of popular music in the 1960s and 1970s.

Michaelangelo (1475 – 1564) Sculptor, Painter, Architect, and Poet

Michelangelo began to work on his own at age 17.

Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889) astronomer, librarian, Naturalist, Educator

Ms. Mitchel discovered “Miss Mitchel’s Comet” at the age of 29.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) Scientist

Newton developed calculus in 1666 at the age of 24.

George Orwell ( 1903 – 1950) Author, Futurist

Mr. Orwell’s first novel, Down and out in London and Paris, was published when he was 29.

Galusha Pennypacker (1841 – 1916) General

Galusha Pennypacker was appointed a General in the Union Army at the age of 20.

William Pitt the Younger (1759 – 1806) Politician

Mr. Pitt was appointed British Prime Minister at age 24.

Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963) Author

Ms. Plath published her novel The Bell Jar when she was 30.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) Playwright, Poet

By about 1592 when Shakespeare was 28, his plays were being staged in London.

Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851) Author

Ms. Shelley wrote Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus at the age of 19.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822) Poet

This poet died at age 29.

Frederick W. Smith (1944 – ) Entrepreneur

At the age of 26, Mr. Smith founded Federal Express.

Joseph Smith (1805 – 1844) Religious Leader

When he was 24, Mr. Smith published the Book of Mormon the basis for the Mormon religion.

Greta Thunberg (2003 – ) Environmental Activist

At age 15 Greta Thunberg began her protest in front of the Swedish Parliament.

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) Author, Christian Peace Activist, Vegetarian

Tolstoy published his first novel, Childhood, at age 23.

Ellie Wiesel (1928 – 2016) Author, Holocaust Investigator

Mr. Wiesel published Night at age 27.

George Washington (1732 – 1799) General, Statesman, and Founding Father of the U.S.

At the age of 21, Washington was appointed as an officer of the Virginia militia.

Orson Welles (1915 – 1985) Director, Actor, Screenwriter, and Producer

In his 20s Mr. Welles was a high-profile producer of stage plays.

Ida B. Wells (1862 – 1931) Journalist, Civil Rights Activist

Ms. Wells began teaching school at age 16. Later she became a journalist and activist protesting lynching and disparate treatment of Black Americans.

Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1754) Poet

Born into slavery, Ms. Wheatley’s master promoted her work. Her first book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston, in New England, was published in England when she was 20.

Eli Whitney (1765 – 1825) Inventor

At age 28, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which reduced the costs of processing cotton into cloth and made slavery in the Southern U.S. much more productive. The unintended result of this invention was to strengthen the institution of slavery.

Brian Wilson (1942 – ) Musician, Songwriter

Brian Wilson, at age 19, began writing and performing with the Beach Boys. His beautiful and innovative compositions changed the course of popular music in the U.S.

Robert Woodward (1943 – ) – Journalist, Author

In 1972, as a 29-year-old reporter for the Washington Post, Woodward, along with Carl Bernstein broke and relentlessly pursued the story of the break-in at the Watergate Complex and corruption in the administration of President Richard M. Nixon.

Steve Wozniak (1950 – ) Computer Engineer and Entrepreneur

At the age of 26, Mr. Wozniak Co-founded Apple, Inc. with Steve Jobs. He is considered a pioneer of the personal computer revolution.

Malala Yousafzai (1997 – ) Activist for female education

Since age 11, Malala Yousafzai has advocated for the rights of girls to be educated. In this, she followed in her father’s footsteps. She was shot in the head and seriously wounded by Islamist militants at age 15. She was taken to England for treatment, has substantially recovered, and has resumed her advocacy. Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel prize for peace in 2017. She is the youngest Nobel laureate.

Mark Zuckerberg (1984 – ) Internet Entrepreneur

Zuckerberg founded Facebook when he was 19 years old.


Concluding Remarks and Introduction to Final Assignment

Tell students words to the effect that:

So, what does this mean for each of us?  Certainly, many of the people we’ve discussed in this unit are very rare.   Our role in life may be something like an office worker, a salesperson, a plumber, a construction worker, a janitor, a computer programmer, a parent, or a teacher.  But Theodore Roosevelt told us, that the strength of democratic societies are people going about our daily lives with purpose and integrity, joining our fellow citizens to meet a crisis when it arises. And then perhaps someone in this class will have the opportunity, the talent, and the drive to make a major contribution like the people we’ve discussed.

When we first started this lesson, we listed out [state the number of challenges from the first class] societal challenges that we face.  In a democratic society like ours, each of us needs to contribute in some way to meeting some of these challenges.  It doesn’t have to be a lot.  For example to meet the challenge of making our democracy work, we all have to pay some attention to current events and vote. To contribute to helping reduce pollution we should all be aware of the effects of our actions on the environment and not be wasteful.  And some of you may already have an idea that you’d like to address some of these problems in your work, like going into public service or politics or becoming an advocate for the environment.

If you choose to make meeting one of these challenges your life work, I have this advice for you.  And this applies to any choice of a profession.  First, you need to like the process of the work.  If you are going to be a mechanic, you need to like to fix cars.  If you are going to be a computer programmer, you need to like to solve the puzzles of programming. If you are going to be a politician, you need to like analyzing questions of public policy and meeting people.  Second, you need to be good at your job, have a talent for it.  Third, you need to pursue your work in a way that is beneficial, not only to you, but to the general public.  For example, if you are a salesperson, don’t sell a product that you know is defective.


Concluding Assignment

Tell the class:

Take our list of challenges for our time that we developed in the first class.  For those challenges that you think you can help society meet, write a short paragraph describing the challenge and  how you intend contribute to meeting that challenge.  At your age, you know something about yourself, your interests, and your abilities.  Factor that into your decision. Be realistic. For example, under saving our democracy, your contribution could simply be keeping informed and voting.  The more active you can be, the better.  But voting is important and helpful.  For helping to fight hunger, it may be something as small as giving a little of your extra money to a charity or it could be devoting your life to traveling overseas to places struck by famine to help feed the hungry.


When I return the paper to you, keep it in a safe place.  In a few years take a look at it to see how the challenges might have changed and how your response might have changed.

Remind the students of the class standards for written work. Be sure to review each assignment providing personal comments of encouragement where appropriate.


This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and published on August 3, 2022.

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The first volume of professor Longvall’s biography of President Kennedy has already been published under the title JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956.

Source: List of Youngest Members of the United States Congress, Wikipedia, accessed 7/26/22

Source: The Youngest U.S. Governors Ever from Oldest.com, accessed 7/26/22.  They are: Stevens T. Mason beginning at age 24 served as governor of Michigan, from 1835 to 1849; Henry Warmouth beginning at age 26 served as governor of Louisiana from 1868 – 1872; Samuel J. Crawford beginning at age 29, served as governor of Kansas from 1865- 1868; William Sprague, IV, beginning at age 29 served as governor of Rhode Island from 1860-to 1863; J. Neely Johnson beginning at age 30 served as governor of California from 1856 – 1858; Enoch Low beginning at age 30 served as governor of Maryland from 1851 to 1854; Amos Barber beginning at age 30 served as governor of Wyoming, from 1890 – 1893.

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