October 9, 1957 – Senator John F. Kennedy Addresses a Teachers’ Association Convention

Senator John F. Kennedy at Duke University, 1959. Photo: Duke University Archives Photo Collection.

Senator John F. Kennedy at Duke University, 1959. Photo: Duke University Archives Photo Collection.

On October 9, 1957, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy brought his considerable charm and wit to the Teachers’ Association Convention in Swampscott, Mass.  While the topic of his speech was the pressing need for high-quality education for American schoolchildren, he started by presenting the educators a shiny red apple of humor:

“I am deeply honored to be with you today on this occasion of such importance to the future of your profession, your state, and your nation.  I come to you today as a refugee from a public school known as the United States Senate.  There the course of instruction is often difficult, the recesses all too rare, and the recitation so lengthy that the entire class is frequently kept after school.  There are, moreover, two major difficulties to this school on Capitol Hill: first, it is not always possible to tell the teachers from the students; and, secondly, while many mothers are clamoring to have their children admitted to the school, no student ever wants to graduate.”

Senator Kennedy’s next remarks took a more serious tone:

“But however important a role the Senate may play in our national life, I think I can say without resorting to exaggeration that I feel privileged to be here today before one of the most influential gatherings in the country.  Your influence is not in bombs or national fame; nor is it dependent on political parties, pressure groups, or sheer force of numbers.  But the fact remains that you and your associates in the teaching profession will in the long run have more to say about the future of this country and the world than any of these – not on the battlefield, not in the council room, but in the classroom.  The people of American have entrusted into your hands the future leaders of this nation, the most powerful nation on earth – and the way in which you fulfill this trust, in the guidance and direction which you give to America’s youth, will have a more profound effect on our national future than perhaps any decision we may make in the Senate.”

The Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 satellite, in Day 5 of earth orbit and sending out radio beeps as it passed overhead, was on everyone’s minds and a source of near-hysteria.  Kennedy referred to it obliquely as an urgent source of motivation and inspiration for both teachers and students.  He started with the quotation, “Knowledge is power”, and continued:

“But now this truism is truer than ever before, a statement that sums up volumes of prose about the Cold War.  Which nation has the scientific personnel and know-how to develop the first so-called “clean” atomic bomb for tactical use – the first earth satellite – the first intercontinental ballistic missile?  How long will the West retain its lead in productivity and living standards – to what extent can it export to its less wealthy friends the capital, the technical assistance, the skills and other knowledge they need?  The answers to these questions over the long run are in your hands.  We no longer complacently believe that the educational and scientific capabilities of this country cannot be duplicated elsewhere.  We recognize that the race for advantage in the Cold War is not only a competition of armaments, production, ideology, propaganda and diplomacy, but a race of education and research as well.”

Senator Kennedy went on to assert that America needed not only well-educated scientists, but nobly-educated politicians as well – to help them develop a broad range of talents, to receive scholarship which fitted them for practical action, to be educated with the aim of preventing them from confusing political idealism with political fantasy or rigidity –  in order to create leaders capable of making the “hard and unpopular decisions necessary to preserve world peace and national security”.

Schools for the public were in great need of federal, state, and local assistance and support, he maintained.  The post-World War II generation’s Baby Boom was starting to flood the nation’s unprepared school systems.  Kennedy cited the following pressing needs: construction of more schools and classrooms; improved teacher training, standards, and certification; improved recruiting and hiring practices to secure quality teachers; better opportunities for good teachers to receive recognition and advancement; and better teacher salaries commensurate with the responsibility and dignity of the profession.

One imagines not a few female hearts – young and old – beating just a little faster as they listened to this bright, charismatic man acknowledge their important role in American society.  Is it possible that a few male eyes were scanning the crowd for a glimpse of cool, stylish Jackie?

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