Twenty-somethings rate JFK

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“Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is a question we Boomers have heard and answered repeatedly, endlessly.  This was, after all, the 9/11 of our childhood.

But what does JFK mean to young people now, 50 years after his assassination?  Out of curiosity, on November 22nd I asked students in my Professional Writing class, all between 17 and 23 years old, to answer that question in a paragraph or two.

What I expected was more of this:  “Unfortunately, because I haven’t retained much of the content I learned in high school AP US history, I’m a little rusty on the details of Kennedy’s term in office.”

“Ironically,” continues that same writer, “I’m more familiar with some of the conspiracy theories in regards to his assassination…. I’ve heard theories saying he was shot because he was Catholic…because of his support for the Civil Rights Movement.  I’ve even heard ridiculous theories about his involvement in the top secret Area 51.”

But these students all had pretty interesting things to say about the late president.

One reflects on the familiar argument that an early death can transform a public figure into an icon perhaps unworthy of adulation and draws a comparison with a more recent cultural touchstone.

“Since he was killed while in office, we cannot know what he might have ended up turning into. Because of this, his seemingly great personality, youth, and good looks, we have turned him into something much bigger than he may or may not deserve.  Reminds me of Princess Diana…”

Whereas for decades and perhaps even now the term “Kenndyesque” conveyed a sense of style, noblesse oblige, and grace under pressure, today the taint of bad behavior has darkened the Camelot image.  However, for one student, JFK still rises above the muck, perhaps owing something to the recent notoriety of that rascal Teddy.

“Kennedy is known for his brothers and their scandals,” the author comments, “being the ‘good guy’ out of all of them.”

Another sees JFK as the beneficiary of media less—much less—eager than today’s 24-hour news apparatus to destroy careers. “To me, John Kennedy symbolizes the last of a long line of presidents that were respected.  Despite his well-known flaws, or rather, well known these days, the press actually protected him.”

That protection has paid off, as for these students Kennedy was a singularly successful executive.  One writes, “The peace core, NASA, the civil rights act—these are the things we owe him.  He helped transform the country into what it is today.”

Finally, a student perceptively sums up the complicating factors of image and celebrity:  “I almost like to think Kennedy is or was the 20th century’s first Obama…. Other times, I like to think he was a star, often getting votes based on his looks; a sign of youth and vigor.”

Actually, this group knew considerably more about the Kennedy presidency than I thought they would, some overstatement and factual errors notwithstanding. 

Besides, if you are, like me, a person of a certain age, ask yourself how the 20-year-old you would have responded if asked, “What are your impressions of Woodrow Wilson?”

 

Reasoned discourse is dead where?

We hear a lot lately about the coarsening of American culture, the end of civility.  On this theory, reasoned discourse is pretty much dead, replaced by name calling and lacerating criticism of the sort that dominates online comments.  Like guests on Jerry Springer, we go straight for the screaming and swinging.

But, wait.  Turns out some of the worst offenders are not just nasty respondents to op-ed articles but—ouch!—college professors.  At least according to Robert Zemsky, professor of higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania, in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (October 4, 2013).

In “How to Build a Faculty Culture of Change,” Zemsky identifies four “traps” that keep universities from innovating: fierce competition for students, a “moribund accreditation” system that punishes change, faculty that aren’t convinced change is needed yet, and “a troublesome fractiousness [that] holds sway on many campuses, with a take-no-prisoners rhetoric.”

That is, according to Zemsky, one of the major hurdles to innovation in higher education is professors acting like jerks.

Among his five recommendations for building a faculty culture of change is putting an end to “rhetorical excess,” which too often is used “to diminish and embarrass perceived opponents.”

“In this environment,” Zemsky writes, “sustained and  idea-centered discussions become a rarity—we see too much shouting, too many arguments that become personal, and, as a consequence, too little listening as opposed to broadcasting.”

I can practically hear my colleagues nodding their heads in agreement.

And that’s a shame.  We can have strongly held opinions without insulting those who don’t share them.  That’s something we try to teach our kids.

Veterans Day

“We owe our veterans everything and most of all we owe them a nation which uses its wealth and human expertise not for weapons but to improve the quality of life for everyone.”

My mother, Joyce Larson Scanlon, wrote those words as part of an angry op-ed article in 1982.  Her kid brother Craig had just died after a sad, alcoholic life spent in and out of Veterans Administration hospitals and SRO hotels. He fought in Italy during WWII and came home a broken man who never recovered from his combat experiences.

Mom—a member of that Greatest Generation we hear so much about—wasn’t mad because of what the war had done to Uncle Craig. She was reacting to a recent Reagan administration decision to cut death benefits for veterans.  Those were the post-Vietnam years when being a vet held little of the luster it does today, in 2013.  (Disclosure:  I was drafted in 1972 and served in Germany for two years.)  Sometimes we treat our veterans honorably, other times not so much.

Today I honor veterans in the spirit of my mother, who will turn 92 in a couple weeks.