20 January 2011

Fifty Years Ago

All I remember about Inauguration Day 1961 was how proud my parents and older siblings were. A Catholic1, a veteran of World War II, an Irishman, someone of my parent's generation, as he would say, a man "born in this [the 20th] century."

Sadly, I have a much stronger memory of a day three years later, of a day where I watch adults cry in ways I had not known was possible.

But I want to go back to that incredibly bright January day fifty years ago. The new President spoke just three days after his predecessor had spoken a remarkably powerful farewell address. And both spoke about leadership in ways we have often forgotten.

I want your students to read both speeches. This is a remarkable moment, and it needs to be understood, and perhaps, it needs to be seen in contrast to today.

For honestly, I have not been able to imagine a politician - especially an American successful politician - truly using these kinds of words today and meaning them. Not since President Jimmy Carter was laughed at when he had the audacity to ask Americans to turn their thermostats down, wear sweaters at home, and drive slower so the nation could get through a major crisis. (It is worth noting that if Ronald Reagan had not reversed US energy policy upon taking office, the US would be importing one-fourth the oil it is today.) Yes, all kinds of people (especially David Cameron and US Governors) will discuss "shared sacrifice" - certainly President Obama does, but few actually ask the rich to pay higher taxes - even in war - (give Illinois Governor Pat Quinn credit here), few actually ask citizens to do anything uncomfortable, few ever request that citizens live up to the responsibility of citizenship and act nobly. Not to get too partisan here, but it seems to me that the contemporary US Republican Party (and the contemporary Fianna Fail in Ireland and Conservative Coalition in Britain) have built their policies on the opposite concept - citizens - surely citizens with the most resources - deserve much for nothing.2

There is also a stunning level of reconciliation in these speeches. They are speeches for everyone, not just the politicians expected "winning slice" of the electorate. So it might be remarkable for your students to read, to hear, these words:

"...each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration; the need to maintain balance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped for advantages – balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between the actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration." said Dwight D. Eisenhower.

...and, of course...

"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
." said John Kennedy.

I'm not one to blame our children or go all wackily moral as David Brooks recently did in The New York Times ("But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness."), yet, we should be - we need to be, discussing what has changed (besides the fact that the US top marginal tax rate is no longer the 91% it was at this moment in time).

So turn your students loose on this moment in history today, and on the words which defined it. You can look at industry,

or movies,

or music, or books, or education...

Let students find their own path back in time, and let the conversation begin.

- Ira Socol

1- Please do not refer to John Kennedy as America's first Catholic President - unless you can name America's other Catholic Presidents. Bonus: Ask your students to list non-Protestants nominated for President by the Democrats, then the Republicans.
2 - Just last night, new Michigan Governor Rick Snyder promised to improve education funding, provide the whole state with preventative health care, help everyone lose weight and stop smoking, even provide "pre-natal education," all while cutting taxes on business by over $1.5 billion (in a state already facing a $1.8 billion deficit).


Unknown said...

Love this...will share with U.S. History teachers in my building...thanks!

Dave Neary said...

"Please do not refer to John Kennedy as America's first Catholic President - unless you can name America's other Catholic Presidents."

Well, that's easy...


"Bonus: Ask your students to list non-Protestants nominated for President by the Democrats, then the Republicans."

Al Smith, John Kerry... I guess that's it? But then, Ed Muskie was a pre-race favourite in '72, and Joe Biden is VP.

Is it important any more?