As we prepare to honor and celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2012 – we share with you a recent (and moving) Chapel talk offered to students by Director of Academic Affairs, Dr. Theresa Smith.
“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
-- George Santayana (1905)
I’ve asked my advisees to read today this well-known quote from philosopher George Santayana. I’m sure most of you have heard it at some point in your life. You might have used it as an opener to a middle-school history paper, before you learned how to write a really effective introduction. Or perhaps you heard some politician reference it in an election-year speech. As a teacher of history, I hear it over and over and over again each year. And it is probably my least favorite quotation of all time.
Why do I dislike it so much? On the face of it, Santayana’s quote imparts a good lesson: we should all learn from our mistakes. My own parents taught me this, and undoubtedly a parent or teacher has shared this pearl of wisdom with you as well. And indeed, in history, we can examine the cause of a devastating war, the rise of a tyrannical leader, and the fall of a great empire as cautionary tales. However, that is not, to me, what is interesting about history. History should not be read simply for us to figure out what paths to avoid. Instead, we should look to history in order to figure out how to act. For me history is not a place to find warnings, but rather a source of great inspiration.
Over spring break, my family and I traveled to Washington, D.C., a place filled with history. Every day was a trip to the past; we visited monuments to presidents and activists and walked through museums filled with artifacts and memorabilia. As part of our exploration of the capital, we visited Arlington National Cemetery, a burial ground reserved for American veterans. Our first stop there was the burial site and memorial of President John F. Kennedy.
Elected in 1960, John F. Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States. As juniors in U.S. History know, his assassination in 1963 was a blow to a nation grappling with the implications of an ongoing Cold War, the possibilities of space exploration, and the potential for dramatic social change. In my home growing up, Kennedy was highly revered, and I remember my mom weeping whenever a documentary about him or his family came on television. The 1960 presidential election was the first my mother voted in, and Kennedy was her clear choice. Her reason: she felt he was someone who truly wanted to help working-class families. Kennedy came from an extremely privileged background – he was born into a well-connected east coast political family, he graduated from The Choate School, and then Harvard. Regardless, my mom – the daughter of Italian immigrants with little formal education – considered him a true ally, someone in it to serve the public, not for his own personal gain. This was the Kennedy I knew growing up.
As I walked around Kennedy’s gravesite, I began to think more about the meaning of his life and his death. I was especially drawn in by the famous quotations engraved on the stone walls of the memorial, snippets from his first inaugural address, delivered in Washington, D.C. in January 1961.
Kennedy’s speech embodies the hopes and fears of youth, the promise and peril of an advanced scientific age where nuclear power and the polio vaccine co-exist, and it underscores the power of human rights and freedom, ideas set loose during the Enlightenment and given new meaning during Kennedy’s lifetime through the 1950s Civil Rights movement.
Kennedy understood the intersection of this modern world and the American past. When he took his oath of office, he explained:
“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
That young Americans would play a critical role in maintaining and even expanding those natural rights was clear to Kennedy, when he declared:
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
Kennedy’s words especially resonated with the baby boomers, those children born in the years after WWII. As the youngest American president, Kennedy inspired a generation whose activism would shift the cultural and political landscape in the second half of the 1960s. I am not a member of the generation to which Kennedy was appealing; yet I remember how inspiring his words were for me in high school and through college. My friends and I were raised in the post-Watergate 1970s and 1980s, decades marked by cynicism. One of my formative political memories is rushing home with friends after school to flop in front of the television, where we did our homework while watching various political scandals unfold. In 1987, we watched congressional hearings into the Iran-Contra affair, an incident involving hostages, illegal arms sales, and Nicaraguan revolutionaries. My friends and I were stunned as Colonel Oliver North, a main figure in the scheme, responded to question after question with the implausible and simply outrageous answer, “I do not recall.” In 1991, we watched Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ Senate confirmation hearings and the allegations of sexual harassment voiced by his former legal clerk Anita Hill. The stories she told seemed impossible to believe and yet impossible to fabricate. What was the truth?
In the face of this kind of disillusionment, Kennedy’s words were a beacon, inspiring in me both a profound optimism and a deep sense of social responsibility. In particular, I was – and still am today -- moved by the aspirational nature of Kennedy’s famous appeal:
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
Reading these stirring words at Arlington brought Kennedy back into my consciousness in a way he had not been for some time. I chose to study history in college and then in graduate school to learn more about inspirational figures like Kennedy: what motivated and challenged them? How did they confront the injustices of their eras? In college, I was fascinated by the quasi-anarchist labor movement the International Workers of the World. I read the autobiographies of their leaders, searching to find out what made a Wobblie, as they were called. What leads someone to join a radical political movement in support of worker’s rights? As a senior, I read the story of the Lincoln Brigade, a group of Americans who traveled to defend democracy against fascist leader General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. That these men and women would voluntarily leave their families and the safety of home to fight in a civil war half way around the world was a remarkable display of idealism. In graduate school, I discovered a group of women in late eighteenth century Spain – writers, artists, and activists who found ways to argue for women’s greater economic, political, and intellectual freedoms. I eventually wrote a book that gave voice to these women by uncovering their stories.
As we left D.C., I picked up a copy of Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage for the plane ride home. Kennedy wrote the book in 1955 as a young senator searching for his own role models. In the book, he examines the political lives and careers of eight senators he admires, not necessarily for their beliefs but for the courage they demonstrated in standing up for those beliefs, even when their views may have gone against the grain. He is not searching for ideals, but for examples of how people find the conviction to stand up and do what they believe is right. Kennedy realized that we are all, at some moment in our lives, faced with the dilemma of leadership and the question of whether or not we will act courageously. His answer to this challenge was to search history for inspirational examples of moral courage, and, one could speculate, to find guidance for his own decision making.
I did not intend my remarks today to be a talk about John F. Kennedy. Rather, they are an attempt to explain what Kennedy has meant to me at various moments in my life. What kind of President Kennedy was during his short term, whether his personal and political selves clashed, whether you should be inspired by or to be Democrats or Republicans – none of those topics are my concern here today. What I hope to offer to you is a small moment of inspiration – the kind I find in history every day. I might have talked about Josefa Amar y Borbón, a courageous eighteenth-century Spanish feminist author, or Thurgood Marshall, a talented NAACP lawyer and the first African-American Supreme Court justice, or the Incan engineers who constructed Machu Picchu over five hundred years ago and whose building skills remain a source of wonder today. There are many historical figures who inspire me. But the lesson I was reminded of that sunny afternoon in Arlington is as inspirational as any: to live a life worth living, to serve others as part of that life, and to act with courage and conviction in the face of adversity. These are enduring goals that Kennedy represents for me, and I share them with you in the hopes that they will have some meaning to you as you move through your lives here at Webb and beyond.
Dr. Theresa Smith is the Director of Academic Affairs at The Webb Schools.