I was three when President Kennedy was shot, just a few months older than John-John. I don’t remember the incident at all, nor am I aware of a difference in temperament before and after that fateful day in November of ’63. But I’m told it was distinct, black and white, an absolute clarity in “before and after” references.
I’m told Kennedy came with hope, with promise, with lofty goals like landing a man on the moon and cleaning the earth, the Peace Corps, the hope of peace in general. He was young and so was most of the population as the first wave of baby-boomers came of age. Things were good.
I saw footage only in great retrospect years later. People talked about conspiracy theories, they talked about Vietnam and Civil Rights; and they talked about the subtle differences of expectation and hope before and after November 22nd, 1963. But all I was ever exposed to was a post-Dallas world. There are newsreels, of course, and stories from older relatives. But there will always be something lacking in the narrative for those of us who didn’t experience life back then. There will always be some subtle element we will never be able to grasp.
This Sunday will be the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, and like I do every single year, I asked my students this week to write a few hundred words about that day: What do you remember? How were your parents that day? When I first did this fourteen years ago, the responses were heartbreaking. As the years went by the paragraphs covered the spectrum from indifference to passionate recollections from military members who had returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. And, predictably, as the years went by the details became less clear, less “involved,” and more repetitive to what they heard from others, from history class.
I gave the assignment yesterday and one of my more ambitious students raised his hand. “Professor. I’m sorry, but I was three when that happened.” The rest of the class nodded in agreement. An image of JFK Jr saluting his father’s passing casket ran through my mind.
I let this reality sink in.
“Then you couldn’t know,” I said.
You couldn’t know that before 911 our thought process was different, more hopeful, absent of impending doom. We still had that absolute conviction that whatever happened to us as individuals and as a nation was still pretty much in our hands. You have no idea that before that day we looked forward to what was next, not fearful of what might happen. Our daily vocabulary was absent of phrases involving extremism, terrorism, anthrax and Fallujah. These concepts were real and among us, but they affected others, were problems for others, were handled by others. Our attitudes of issues concerning Afghanistan and Iraq and terrorism back then were similar to students at this campus today worrying about what was happening to students at another college thousands of miles away. We were peripherally aware of it, that’s all.
But it is all you know. Your daily news intake since then—which involves a plethora of social media outlets not yet invented fifteen years ago, as well as traditional media—is riddled with world events as if the next horrible event will be fifty yards away in the dining hall and you’d better be ready.
It is hard to be positive, isn’t it? It is difficult to find some pathway to hope and prosperity when it seems as if we’re swimming upstream against an inevitable tsunami of a collapsing world.
In an age when higher education has once again become more of a world of industrial education, where students expect that the sole purpose of their classes should be to prepare them for employment, where enrollment is plummeting not just because of cost but because of the greater population of teenagers not seeing a point to it, there is a desperate need for the study of philosophy and art.
I can’t think of a better time for educators to emphasize the potential of humanity. But technology is our new curriculum, and students today are convinced it is the sole foundation of whatever they do. But “it has become appallingly obvious,” Einstein said, “that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
“Intelligence plus character is the goal of a true education,” Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted.
And according to Plato: “The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life.”
I cannot teach these people what life was like before terrorism terrified our cities. I can perhaps only describe what it was like to sit at a table at Windows on the World for lunch and enjoy a view absent of fear. I can talk about crossing borders without interrogation, walking family members all the way to the plane for their departure, carrying pretty much anything I wanted on board a flight. I can talk about what wasn’t talked about, places we never heard of.
I changed their assignment. I asked them to write what they thought was humanity’s greatest strength, most encouraging potential. Again my student raised his hand. “Professor,” he said. “I’m sorry, but can I write about what I remember from fifteen years ago instead?”