School Subjects That U.S. Presidents Studied
Not every U.S. president takes the same path to the White House. But they all have some type of formal education.
Whether that comes later in life, like Abraham Lincoln, or early in life with specialized tutors like James Madison, schooling plays an important part in many of their lives. Those educations — and the lessons they learn — often propel them on the road to the presidency.
If you want your child to become president of the United States, here’s how they might get to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. These are the subjects presidents studied in school.
Business: George W. Bush
Years in office: 2001-09
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 33
Why business: George W. Bush has admitted several times he was a pretty average student throughout his life, and after he graduated from Yale with a history degree, his application to the University of Texas law school was rejected.
Bush turned to business, securing an MBA from Harvard (the only president with such a degree). He put that degree to good use when he put together an investment group to buy the Texas Rangers in 1989.
He turned an $800,000 investment of his own money into $15 million when he sold his stake in the team in 1998.
Debate: Richard Nixon
Years in office: 1969-74
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 29
Why debate: Richard Nixon was a determined student and football player in high school, even though he didn't get to play very much. But where he really excelled was on the debate team.
Nixon, under the tutelage of Fullerton Union High School English teacher H. Lynn Shelter, learned the art of making arguments through conversation and became known for his wins on the high school debate circuit in California.
Nixon cited Shelter's instruction for much of his career, always focusing on using a conversational tone and making sure not to shout.
Foreign Language: James A. Garfield
Years in office: 1881
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 28
Why foreign language: James Garfield was born into abject poverty and tried to become a deckhand on several boats but was denied because of his age — he was just 16. He only went to school when he returned home after catching an illness managing mules on the canals in Cleveland.
Once in school, Garfield's mastered the study of Greek and Latin. Those languages drove him into law and also got the attention of his future wife, fellow student Lucretia Rudolph, who needed help learning Greek.
They went on to have seven children together.
Physical Education: Gerald Ford
Years in office: 1974-77
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 27
Why physical education: Gerald Ford's participation in team sports pushed his education along at several different, crucial times in his life.
First, it got him a football scholarship at the University of Michigan, where he was a two-way star and helped lead the Wolverines to back-to-back national championships in 1932 and 1933.
Physical education also helped his case when he applied to Yale Law School, where he was already the school's assistant football coach and head coach for the boxing team. Ford had his foot in the door and was admitted to Yale Law in 1938.
Science: Jimmy Carter
Years in office: 1977-81
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 26
Why science: It's fitting that much of Jimmy Carter's life was defined by science. He was the first U.S. president who was born in an actual, brick-and-mortar hospital.
Carter first learned science through agriculture as a young boy, growing and harvesting peanuts on a section of his family's farm in Georgia and turning a nice profit.
Science played a further role in his life when he received his bachelor's degree in the subject from the Naval Academy. He then went to work on several different commissions as an officer assigned to nuclear submarines and worked with nuclear energy and nuclear bombs before he left the military.
English/Language Arts: Martin Van Buren
Years in office: 1837-41
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 25
Why english/language arts: Martin Van Buren needed to master the English language perhaps more than any U.S. president in history — mainly because he's the only president who didn't speak English as his first language.
Van Buren grew up speaking Dutch in the village of Kinderhook, New York, and only had a formal education until he was 14 years old. But he was intelligent enough to pick up a new language in what little time he had in school.
Van Buren used this experience to start careers in law and politics and get to the Oval Office.
Art: Ulysses S. Grant
Years in office: 1869-77
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 24
Why art: If there's a debate about the greatest military man in American history, Ulysses S. Grant is in the mix as the man who led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War, then became president.
What Grant lacked early in his education was diversity. All he cared about was becoming the greatest horsemen in the history of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. And he probably was.'
But at one point, he studied under famed Romantic Era artist Robert Walter Weir. Grant took to drawing and painting like a natural, and nine of the piece of art he created during this time survived to this day.
Ethics: Grover Cleveland
Years in office: 1885-89, 1893-97
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 23
Why ethics: The only president to serve two terms non-consecutively, history now sees Grover Cleveland as one of the U.S. presidents who served with the most integrity in history because of his ethics.
Cleveland was a lawyer, then a sheriff who had a pretty incredible sense of justice, including carrying out the execution of a convicted murderer with his own hand.
Objectivity was the key to Cleveland's success. At one point as governor of New York, he vetoed a bill that prevented an unpopular railway owner from upping fare prices. Cleveland pointed out that while the man was not well-liked because of his demeanor, he'd taken over the railways when they were in economic ruin, turned them around and had every right to up prices.
Journalism: William H. Taft
Years in office: 1909-13
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 22
Why journalism: William H. Taft had a unique path to politics. While in law school at the University of Cincinnati, he also worked as a full-time reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper.
Taft covered courts in Cincinnati for the Commercial and often credited this experience as shaping his views of law and the legal profession much differently from his classmates.
Taft was a good enough reporter that the Commercial wanted to put him in a salaried position and increase his pay if he gave up practicing law, but Taft declined, and the rest is history.
Global Economics: George H.W. Bush
Years in office: 1989-93
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 21
Why global economics: George H.W. Bush was the scion of a wealthy family of investment bankers from the East Coast, but created his own lane by first becoming a war hero as an ace pilot during World War II, then as the captain of Yale's baseball team.
It was at Yale where Bush earned an undergraduate degree in economics and started a career in the oil industry in Texas. Or did he? Many reports state that Bush worked as a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency, which he would later oversee, throughout the 1960s.
We know the CIA recruits many of its agents from elite Ivy League schools and has a fondness for those with degrees in finance and economics.
Sociology: William McKinley
Years in office: 1897-1901
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 20
Why sociology: William McKinley dropped out of Allegheny College, sick and depressed, before returning to school and entering into a successful law career.
After being admitted to the bar in Ohio, he had a private practice and served as a prosecutor for a short time. His most famous case was the coal miners' strike of 1873.
As the son of ironworkers, McKinley understood the plight of the working man and gained his first measure of fame successfully defending a group of coal miners who went on strike and were charged with rioting.
American History: Andrew Jackson
Years in office: 1829-37
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 19
Why American history: Andrew Jackson had little formal education but an innate understanding of history. He was a prisoner of war by the time he was 14 years old after he refused to shine the boots of a British soldier.
He and his brother, Robert, were held captive until his mother secured their release, although both his mother and brother died from illness after the 40-mile walk home.
As a president, Jackson's ability to understand history was also notable as he recognized the ways in which foreign nations had exploited the U.S. in the past — most notably when he held other nations accountable for reparations for stealing U.S. ships and capturing U.S. soldiers and forcing them into slavery.
Literature: John Quincy Adams
Party: Democratic-Republican/National Republican
Years in office: 1825-29
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 18
Why literature: The son of U.S. president John Adams, John Quincy Adams had the benefit of being schooled by private tutors from a young age and early on developed a talent for literature.
John Quincy Adams not only kept a daily journal from the time he was a young man until his death in 1848, but he also corresponded with his father on a regular basis throughout his teens.
How adept was John Quincy Adams at writing and reading the classical works? He authored translations of the great works of classical authors like Virgil, Plutarch and Aristotle.
Public Speaking: Barack Obama
Years in office: 2009-17
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 17
Why public speaking: Want to become a great orator like President Barack Obama? You better get started at an early age.
Obama was only a sophomore at Occidental College when he made his first public speech in 1981, imploring the school to participate in the divestment of South Africa in response to the nation's refusal to end its policy of apartheid.
Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was lauded and launched him to the front of the line for the party's presidential nomination in 2008.
Political Science: Lyndon B. Johnson
Years in office: 1963-69
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 16
Why political science?: Lyndon Johnson's academic career was mostly characterized by his disinterest in being a student until he got to Texas State University.
That's where Johnson earned a degree in history but credits his time there as having cemented his desire to be in politics because he learned so much outside of his classes about political organization and bringing people together for different causes.
In his political career, first as a U.S. senator and then as vice president and president, Johnson was always praised for his keen skills of negotiation.
Music: Bill Clinton
Years in office: 1993-2001
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 15
Why music: What's that thing they always tell us about learning an instrument? That it uses parts of your brain that would not normally be used? We think this is true and that learning instruments and how to read music can only make you smarter.
Bill Clinton was a good enough musician that he was the first chair in the state band's saxophone section. Clinton seriously considered entering a career as a full-time musician until he felt the pull of politics thanks to meeting John F. Kennedy in 1963 as part of an American Legion program and watching Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech on television.
Clinton famously played his saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show" when he was running for president in 1992.
Philosophy: John Adams
Years in office: 1797-1801
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 14
Why philosophy: John Adams was one of the great scholars in American history, and his formal education helped him get there.
As a teenager, Adams became adept in Greek and Latin and studied the original versions of works by Thucydides, Plato, Cicero and Tacitus. He began to get more of a sense of his place in the world.
His family expected him to be a minister, but Adams understood he was meant for something bigger in the world, in part thanks to his voracious appetite for reading.
Acting: Ronald Reagan
Years in office: 1981-89
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 13
Why acting: Quite frankly, we don't have the two terms of Ronald Reagan's presidency without acting.
Reagan caught the acting bug at Dixon High School in Illinois and continued his love for theatre at Eureka College in the Land of Lincoln, where he was also the captain of the football and swimming teams.
Reagan became a Hollywood star in the films "Knute Rockne, All-American" and "Kings Row" in the early 1940s and parlayed that fame into a political career, first as the governor of California and then as the U.S. president.
Speech: James K. Polk
Years in office: 1845-49
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 12
Why speech: James K. Polk grew up in a time where there wasn't a high value put on a formal education, but he insisted on pursuing it despite his father wanting him to join one of his many businesses.
It was in college at the University of North Carolina — there were only 80 students at the time — that Polk learned to sharpen his oratory skills and was one of the first members of UNC's Dialectic Society.
Polk, a staunch supporter of Thomas Jefferson, gained a high amount of academic fame for one speech in particular where he criticized Alexander Hamilton for leaning toward monarchical sympathies.
Writing: Woodrow Wilson
Years in office: 1913-21
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 11
Why statistics: Woodrow Wilson owed his presidency more to his ability as a critical thinker and a writer and the reputation he gained in academia than anything else.
Wilson was one of the best academic writers of his time, with much of that writing devoted to the critical analysis of how the American government work.
Wilson earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University before reaching his stated goal of becoming a sought-after professor, and his book, "Congressional Government," was lauded with critical praise upon its release.
Political Philosophy: John F. Kennedy
Years in office: 1961-63
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 10
Why political philosophy: John F. Kennedy was a so-so student until his last few years at Harvard, where he turned a laser focus onto his studies, with a particular obsession in political philosophy.
Kennedy, thanks to his determination and substantial means, turned his passion into a book based on his senior thesis — "Why England Slept" — that examined Germany's rise to power ahead of World War II and became a bestseller.
It wouldn't be Kennedy's last time on the bestseller list. His book "Profiles in Courage" chronicling acts of bravery by eight U.S. senators was an even bigger hit and also garnered Kennedy a Pulitzer Prize.
Accounting: Harry S. Truman
Years in office: 1945-53
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 9
Why accounting: Harry Truman is one of two presidents who never received a college degree. He studied bookkeeping, shorthand and typing but dropped out after one year at a small business college in Kansas City.
Truman was good enough at those three things to parlay his one year of college into bookkeeping and clerk jobs that kept a roof over his head until World War I. After the war, he returned home and tried to open several businesses that failed — sometimes not because of Truman but shady banks.
As a senator, he cracked down on wasteful government spending through his Truman Committee that saved an estimated $15 billion in 1940 ($220 billion in today's money).
World History: James Monroe
Years in office: 1817-25
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 8
Why world history: James Monroe was a skilled tactician and soldier in George Washington's army during the Revolutionary War, earning praise from the man himself for his efforts in battle.
He returned home after the war to finish his legal studies with a new view of the world and became a lawyer before launching into his career as a politician. His studies and his experience of war shaped his life in a very profound way.
Monroe's greatest contribution as a president was no doubt the Monroe Doctrine — the very basis on which large parts of the United States' relationship with the rest of the world is dictated. Essentially, it's how we told other countries not to interfere in our affairs.
Civil Lberties: James Madison
Years in office: 1809-17
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 7
Why civil liberties?: James Madison was raised in one of the richest families in Virginia, where they'd been since the 1600s, and had every avenue of education available to him.
Madison, possessing a brilliant mind, at first focused on theology, then on political philosophy, and it was this mix that led him down a road that he would one day be called "The Father of the Constitution."
Madison's focus for the last half of his life was squarely on civil and political liberties for the citizens of the newly formed United States of America.
Photography and Videography: Dwight D. Eisenhower
Years in office: 1953-61
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 6
Why photography and videography: As a military general, Dwight D. Eisenhower orchestrated the major war plans that led to allied victories in both Europe and Japan, but his knowledge of photography and film early on is one of his more unheralded accomplishments.
At the end of World War II, Eisenhower suspected the Germans would try to recharacterize their war crimes and atrocities in their concentration camps via propaganda — what we now call Holocaust denial.
Eisenhower wasn't having it. He ordered massive amounts of photos and film to be taken of the camps to document the horrors that occurred there in what turned out to be a prescient move.
Library Science: Thomas Jefferson
Years in office: 1801-09
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 5
Why library science: Most of the presidents on this list have one thing in common — they were almost all voracious readers. Maybe none more than Thomas Jefferson. In his lifetime, Jefferson collected enough books for three libraries. Literally.
The first, containing some 200 books, was lost when his home burned in a fire in 1770. The second library amassed over 6,000 books, which he sold to the U.S. government in 1814 to jump-start the Library of Congress after the British burned it down in 1812.
He continued to collect books and over the next decade amassed a collection of over 2,000 books by his death in 1826, at 83 years old.
Geography: Theodore Roosevelt
Years in office: 1901-09
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 4
Why geography?: Theodore Roosevelt was a man of many interests and one of the more dynamic, defining characters in U.S. history. And not just as a president.
Roosevelt was homeschooled until he went to Harvard and excelled in geography, among other subjects, which would portend great things.
There probably wasn't a square inch of the United States that wasn't touched by Roosevelt. He gained worldwide fame as a war hero in the Spanish-American War, oversaw the start of construction on the Panama Canal and even went on a two-year expedition of the Amazon after his presidency.
Weightlifting: Abraham Lincoln
Party: Republican/National Union
Years in office: 1861-65
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 3
Why weightlifting?: Abraham Lincoln was a lot of things throughout his life, but first and foremost, he was a self-educated, voracious reader who became arguably the greatest president in American history.
Before that, Lincoln mostly led a hardscrabble life growing up in Kentucky and Illinois and had to go to work at an early age. This manual labor turned him into a man with a reputation for being one of the strongest in whatever region he was in.
The reputation was well-deserved. Lincoln's strength and size — 6-foot-4 and around 200 pounds — made him one of the most feared wrestlers in the region as well.
Economics: Franklin D. Roosevelt
Years in office: 1933-45
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 2
Why economics: This is an interesting subject to link with a president, because Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only four-term president, took economics classes all four years he was at Harvard. And he hated all of them.
Roosevelt would openly say later in life that they'd taught him all the wrong things about economics — which speaks more to his intelligence than anything else.
Roosevelt needed his background in economics (even if it wasn't what we typically think) when he helped guide America out of the Great Depression.
Trigonometry: George Washington
Years in office: 1789-97
C-SPAN presidential ranking: 1
Why trigonometry?: George Washington excelled in mathematics — specifically trigonometry — during his formal years. He took this knowledge and turned it into a job as a land surveyor, which requires a massive amount of math skills.
Washington earned a reputation as an elite draftsman and accurate mapmaker in a time when, well, we really needed reliable maps because we weren't quite sure where everything was.
Washington's analytical approach to land surveying and proficiency as a writer laid the foundation for his military career and later presidency. He liked results and didn't have a lot of time for flowery speech or gestures. He just wanted to get the job done.
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