On the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death, attention returns to Dealey Plaza and the unending speculation about his assassination and how the world might be different had he lived.
But on this anniversary, it’s worth revisiting a North Carolina event two years before Kennedy’s death. What was said then about North Carolina and the United States holds a message for us now.
On Oct. 12, 1961, Kennedy was awarded an honorary degree during a University Day ceremony marking the 168th anniversary of the founding of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In his speech, he praised the state for its progressive politics, encouraged the value of the liberal arts and urged UNC students to use their education to serve their country, whether it be in private or public life.
“North Carolina has long been identified with enlightened and progressive leaders and people, and I can think of no more important reason for that reputation than this university, which year after year has sent educated men and women who have had recognition of their public responsibility as well as their private interests,” he said.
The words Kennedy spoke in Kenan Stadium carried sentiments that should speak to us today. They are significant not only as a reminder of his call to national service and his respect for learning – and particularly his admiration for the University of North Carolina. But also as a measure of how far the prevailing politics of North Carolina today has moved away from those ideas and ideals.
In recent years, North Carolina has drawn negative attention for its gerrymandering, its long holdout on Medicaid expansion and its neglect of public schools. It is such a shrunken version of the North Carolina that Kennedy saw rising on the intellectual power generated by the nation’s oldest public university.
Today, North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers, and those in many states with legislatures dominated by Republicans, ridicule universities as places of liberal indoctrination and useless instruction in “woke” areas of study. They want higher education refocused only on fields that create practical skills and lucrative careers. This year’s state budget, for instance, ended state funding for endowed professorships in the humanities.
Even in a post-Sputnik United States looking for a technological edge over the then-Soviet Union, Kennedy saw the value of graduates trained to see the world through the lens of history, philosophy, arts and literature.
“I want to emphasize, in the great concentration in which we now place upon scientists and engineers, how much we still need the men and women educated in the liberal tradition, willing to take the long look, undisturbed by prejudices and slogans of the moment, who attempt to make an honest judgment on difficult events,” he said.
Kennedy said that all college graduates have a responsibility to contribute to the betterment of their community, state and nation.
“In a free society such as this, where the people must make an educated judgment, they depend upon those of you who have had the advantage of the scholar’s education,” he said.
He added, “I ask you to give to the service of our country the critical faculties which society has helped develop in you here.”
Finally, Kennedy asserted that higher education’s aim should be to improve society rather than enrich individuals.
He said, “This is a great institution, with a great tradition, and with devoted alumni and with the support of the people of this state. Its establishment and continued functioning, like that of all great universities, has required great sacrifice by the people of North Carolina. I cannot believe that all of this is undertaken merely to give this school’s graduates an economic advantage in life’s struggles.”
Many Americans today were not alive when Kennedy died. Most do not know how much ended with him. But we can remember what he called Americans to honor and achieve: That there should be a common effort to educate and that those who benefit from that effort have a responsibility to serve more than themselves.
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com