On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th U.S. President. His stirring challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” became a call to action for many young Americans. When Kennedy established the Peace Corps several weeks later, thousands of college students volunteered to serve in developing countries as teachers, health care workers and goodwill ambassadors.
Much of that youthful idealism was crushed on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas.
How can you help your middle and high school students understand such a momentous time in American history? How can you challenge them to learn not only about Kennedy’s assassination, but also about his life and presidency?
Unfortunately, quantity trumps quality.
Fifty years—and some 40,000 books—after his death, Kennedy remains an “elusive president,” observes Jill Abramson, Executive Editor of The New York Times.
“To explore the enormous literature is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing,” Abramson writes in the Sunday Book Review. “Readers can choose from many books but surprisingly few good ones, and not one really outstanding one.”
Abramson's startling conclusion reminds us that not all pages bound in covers are equal.
Depending upon interests and abilities, you may want to select a few titles for your students and have them assess each author’s intent, background and bias. The climate in which the books were written should also be considered. In the wake of the president's death, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Kennedy adviser Theodore Sorenson became "a kind of history police," Abramson says, withholding primary materials from biographers at the request of the family.
Some biographers wander into unknowable territory, imagining a world in which Kennedy had not been assassinated. As for who murdered the president and why, the 3,250,000 results that appear with a Google search for “Kennedy + assassination + conspiracy” should tell you something.
Such insatiable curiosity, Jim Higgins writes in Milwaukee's JSOnline, continues to inspire a torrent of books “about who might or might not have been behind the shooting, how the assassination may or may not have shattered the American psyche, and what Kennedy’s legacy as president may or may not be.”
In a shortlist compiled for the Times by Jacob Heilbrunn, not one title is by a woman. Why? That's another question you might ask your students.
Yet many books about Kennedy’s affairs were written by women. I'm partial to Once Upon a Secret by Mimi Alford. I read the 2012 memoir because Alford grew up not far from where I did, and I knew of her family. (Does that count as bias?)
Contemporary "history police" chastized Alford for writing the book, which recounts her strange affair with Kennedy when she was a White House intern. I'm grateful that she told her story. When a president pursues a 19-year-old, the power imbalance and its implications, not least for the young woman, merit scrutiny. And I think the fact that Kennedy summoned a college student from her dormitory to his bedroom during the Cuban Missile Crisis—while he negotiated the world’s fate—is borderline fascinating. Don't you?