“Dear Senator Kennedy,” the letter started, “Mr. Leonard Reinsch of the Democratic National Committee has recently informed me of your acceptance of Duke University’s invitation to have you visit our campus during the forthcoming academic year.”
In light of the general opinion surrounding his Roman Catholic faith, this particular Kennedy—John F. Kennedy—had yet to announce his eventually successful campaign for the U.S. presidency. Even so, Byron Battle—Chairman of the Duke Student Union’s Educational Affairs Committee—decided to invite such viable candidates, some controversial, to lecture the student body on particular issues of concern. Indeed, the Committee’s efforts to secure other potential contenders for the presidency, namely Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. Hubert Humphrey, resulted in a fair amount of controversy—particularly because faculty had earlier objected to awarding Nixon an honorary degree, and Humphrey “might not have [had] anything worthwhile to say.” Kennedy, however, was well respected and had a definite message for college students across the country.
On Sept. 23, 1959, The Chronicle reported that Kennedy “will stop in Durham on his way to a series of scheduled appearances in Florida.” The week prior, the Senator had finished a four day tour through Ohio, during which he spoke to thousands of students at Ohio University, Miami University and Bowling Green University. Such lectures were complemented by others at Beloit College, Mills College, the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, Marquette University and other post-secondary institutions. Beloit’s campus newspaper, The Round Table, recounted that Kennedy “urged college seniors to offer to the political arena ‘the benefits of [their] judgment and good sense’” and explained to them the necessity to utilize their education and experiences in public service. At the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, Kennedy spoke on the crucial importance of science and engineering as well as the setbacks of the country’s higher education system.
The forthcoming president made a point of emphasizing education and appealing to the youth during his campaign, particularly because voters under 30 had reelected his Republican predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, over Adlai Stevenson, the former Governor of Illinois, by a substantial margin of 14 percentage points. Education, in general, was not a significant policy concern for the other presidential candidates, particularly due to the pervasiveness of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement.
In fact, quite unlike his competitors, Kennedy had been a substantial proponent of education in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. During his six years in the House, Kennedy served on the Education and Labor Committee as well as the Subcommittee on Education. Regardless of his fiscally conservative convictions, Kennedy introduced a House bill allocating an annual $300 million in federal grants to states that had exhausted their education funds. In the Senate, on the other hand, he supported a similar bill which authorized states annual federal grants for the construction of public schools.
Accordingly, Kennedy’s genuine effort to appeal to college students clearly aided him in the Gallup poll leading up to his address on campus, which indicated that he had tied Adlai Stevenson as the favored nominee for his party’s candidacy. On the day of Kennedy’s visit, The Chronicle reported that the topic of his lecture would be “The Challenge to American Colleges.” The lecture, according to various newspaper accounts, detailed the effects of important national and international developments—such as the space race, the country’s advancement toward integration and higher funding for education—on college students. Even though Kennedy’s opponent was a Duke alumnus, it was clear, by then, that students and faculty would predominately favor the former over the latter.
As would later become apparent, North Carolina was an important factor in Kennedy’s receipt of Southern support for his party’s nomination, especially since the state had previously favored Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, another candidate who later became Kennedy’s vice presidential running mate.
Additionally, since the state’s economy shifted from agricultural to industrial, many citizens were beginning to seek instruction beyond that offered by secondary schooling. With his extensive congressional record and immeasurably idealistic vision for the country’s education system, it seemed that Kennedy would better facilitate the state’s transition. In effect, this is also the reason why Terry Sanford—North Carolina’s strongest proponent of education—was overwhelmingly elected to the state’s governorship.
Such a result wasn’t a singularity, however, for many states that had previously voted for Eisenhower in 1956—such as Nevada, New Mexico and Texas—ultimately elected Kennedy over Nixon in the subsequent election. Nationwide, youth elected Kennedy by a margin of 9 percentage points. Hence, within a year of taking office, the president outlined his plans for education in one of the most memorable addresses to Congress. “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education,” he affirmed.
With that, Kennedy set into motion a plethora of “New Frontier” reforms, the majority of which impact us to this very day. Under his administration, vocational education, federal scholarships and student loans were developed, funding for school lunches, library constructions and programs for the handicapped was increased and dropout prevention measures were implemented. Additionally, the Educational Television Facilities Act allocated federal grants to public television networks—such as PBS—that provide educational programming. The Health Professions Educational Assistance Act provided grants to medical students and for the construction of health profession graduate schools, and the Fulbright-Hays Act of 1961 increased the scope of the Fulbright program while expanding it to include other countries.
When Kennedy stood in Page Auditorium years ago, he spoke of our education system’s “unfulfilled hopes and unfulfilled dreams,” and many students agreed with him. Nonetheless, very few leaders have attempted to replicate Kennedy’s iconic vision and, thus, have conformed to the current situation that very much resembles that of the 1960s.
Our country’s state governments lack the resources to ensure an adequate education for every student, classrooms are continuously overcrowded, teachers are still underpaid, and many talented students from different backgrounds are not able to afford the cost of today’s almost-necessary post-secondary degree.
Sure, we can wait for another Kennedy or another Sanford. What good does it make, however, if we refuse to foster such leaders within our own generation? Perhaps we ought to heed President Kennedy’s recommendation to the thousands of students who came before us:
Let us stop waiting. Let us engage in the political sphere like no generation ever has before, and, together, we can ensure that our beloved president did not die in vain.
Mousa Alshanteer is a Trinity sophomore and the editorial page managing editor. His biweekly column is part of the weekly Editor’s Note feature and will run on alternate Thursdays. Send Mousa a message on Twitter @MousaAlshanteer.