Before ascending to the presidency, John F. Kennedy penned the book “Profiles in Courage,” commending a handful of US Senators from throughout history who stood by their convictions even in the face of heavy criticism. Kennedy challenged Americans to set lofty goals, telling us to ask what we could do for our country and to aim to go to the Moon within a decade. But 50 years ago today, on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was tragically assassinated on a trip to Dallas. That day, America lost not only a president, but also a mindset.
At that time, people were willing to heed Kennedy’s call to achieve their fullest potential, and in part because of that encouragement, we now have both NASA and the Peace Corps. A half-century later, America now appears substantially less willing to reach for the kinds of goals Kennedy encouraged. It appears that in Congress, courage and doing the right thing are subordinated to maintaining party support and member’s seats in upcoming elections.
Even the initiatives born out of Kennedy’s push for service are weaker than they used to be. The Peace Corps’ enrollment has been falling in the last few years and the United States barely even has a space program anymore. Federal focus on service and education has withered in recent decades. Our country’s leaders have shifted their focus now to what is convenient – both for policy and for re-election.
Of course, there are exceptions outside of the government. I believe that Georgetown does quite a good job promoting service, sticking to its oft-repeated goal of molding students into men and women for others. Thankfully, on the Hilltop, Kennedy’s calls for service still ring mostly true. A high proportion of Georgetown students dedicate their careers to service: whether through joining nonprofits, the Foreign Service, the Peace Corps or public office. In fact, Georgetown was ranked by the Peace Corps as one of the top 10 medium-sized colleges for recruitment, with 31 students volunteering in 2013.
But it is in this realm of public office where we are most lacking the type of unifiers and risk-takers that Kennedy praised. We need our leaders and our government to focus more on education, public service and social justice. Instead of promoting education, we’ve begun commending leaders who cut its funding to unconstitutionally low levels. In New Jersey, for example, where Governor Chris Christie has gained the support of voters and is likely prepping for a 2016 presidential run, a judge had to step in and rule that state education cuts left funding for the poorest districts unconscionably low.
Politicians today are too afraid to aim for the big, risky reforms that Kennedy lauded, who sought to create racial equality in America and dreamed of world peace even in the midst of race riots and the Cold War. Of course, it helped that Kennedy could preserve his Camelot-like idealized image while keeping the more unseemly aspects of his personal life under wraps. Kennedy’s image remained unmarred during his lifetime, even though it was no more faultless than President Bill Clinton’s.
The philosophy Kennedy stood for focused on education, service, technological investment, social justice and collaboration. America’s leaders need to focus on these issues to move this country forward on the right path. We need a high-quality, affordable education system that provides a diverse knowledge base. We need to develop new technology and infrastructure to get people working again. We need to be able to compromise and put party affiliations aside. Simply put, what we need now are a few more “Profiles in Courage.”
Roey Hadar is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service.