The Opinion Shop

Passing Kennedy’s torch to the next generation

Here’s a piece from William H. Pruden III, director of Civic Engagement at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death. We got quite a few submissions on this topic.


By William H. Pruden III

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination has produced a spate of new books, television specials and commemorative periodicals. The country’s never-ending fascination with our 35th president, an interest fueled by the anniversary, reflects the continuing efforts to separate the man from the myth.

For all of us, perspective is a key to viewing Kennedy. For some, he is a distant historical figure; for others, he is forever young, his spirit and style frozen in time, although we can never escape the unanswered questions, haunted by thoughts of what might have been. I am a longtime educator and teacher of history and government whose youthful dreams focused on politics and who did not turn to the classroom until after two unsuccessful runs for public office and stints as a legislative assistant to both a state senator and a U.S. congressman. So I view Kennedy through many lenses. And yet the thing about John F. Kennedy that most resonates with me is the way he inspired people to serve, the way he highlighted the positive nature of politics and illuminated the nobility that could come from being a part of that system.

From Kennedy’s inaugural declaration that the nation’s citizens should “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” to his establishment of the Peace Corps, to the generation of office holders who trace their initial interest in politics to Kennedy’s inspired call to serve, there can be no denying that a central element of Kennedy’s legacy was the way he affected a whole generation, making them believe that public service, and especially involvement in the political process, was a good, almost heroic, undertaking.

American citizens tend to take our government for granted and yet in the sweep of history we remain young and our democratic experiment remains just that: a comparatively young, evolving and still fragile experiment, one powered by people who must be able to look beyond their own interest to the greater needs of the nation as a whole. While the enemy – apathy, disillusionment, fear – may not be as well-defined as it was in World War II or even the Cold War, for our democratic system to work we need a comparable commitment to fight it.

We cannot ignore the abysmal turnouts that have marked recent elections nor can we discount the continuing decline in the public’s confidence in its elected officials. Neither bodes well for our future, but as Kennedy was fond of saying, “we can do better.” My own reading of history makes me think that Kennedy would be appalled, and while we cannot get him back, we can recapture that sense of hope and purpose that was so central to his efforts.

So, too, can we recapture the sense of urgency and commitment that has so often characterized the efforts of the United States, a nation that throughout its history has served as a beacon to countries around the world. Indeed, when JFK challenged his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he was reminding them of their role, their responsibility, holding them accountable as the leader of a nation founded by “we the people” should.

On that same cold day in January 1961, full of enthusiasm and hope, John F. Kennedy also declared that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.” Little did any of us know how soon afterward Kennedy’s life would be extinguished, and yet the eternal flame that burns at his grave at Arlington National Cemetery is testimony to the enduring power of his message.

Particularly as a teacher, I would hope that the ongoing look at his life could serve to inspire this current generation to commit to renewing and making whole the democratic process to which he dedicated his life. There could be no greater monument to the life or memory of President Kennedy.

William H. Pruden III is director of Civic Engagement at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh.