Generation Y Studies JFK’s Life and Times

Forty SMU undergraduates have a unique opportunity to capture the zeitgeist of a turbulent time as the nation prepares to observe the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22. SMU political science Professor Dennis Simon and senior English lecturer Tom Stone in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences are teaching a special course during fall 2013 that examines the life, times and legend of JFK.

The students and professors are blogging about their experiences here. Learn more about SMU’s experts and archival collections related to the presidency and assassination at smu.edu/JFK.

JFK’s lasting legacy

An update from Emily, a sophomore Hunt Leadership Scholar and Dedman College Scholar:

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last year and a half, let me fill you in —today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of America’s 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Dallas will commemorate the event by hosting a ceremony in Dealey Plaza, broadcast simultaneously on video screens through the downtown area.

I am a student currently enrolled in a class examining President Kennedy’s life and legacy. When I enrolled last semester, I was overwhelmed with excitement. What better time and place to study JFK and his impact on a generation! However, enrollment in this class has caused great confusion in regards to the president and his lasting effect.

As in any great college course, we have been asked to question what we already know. We have critically examined the president’s life, policy, and decision-making, integrating sources from many opposing viewpoints, questioning the way Americans have made Kennedy a fallen hero. Do we love Kennedy because he was a great president, or do we idolize him because he was a glamorous celebrity? Is his lasting legacy a result of his strong leadership, or has his untimely death made us view his time in office with rose-colored glasses?

It’s weird for me to question any of these things. I would much prefer to live in Camelot, where Jack and Jackie are a beautiful family and dine with world dignitaries, imploring that we ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. Looking critically at a figure so admired can be a bit disillusioning.

However, what I’ve ultimately seen in studying President Kennedy this semester is that his legacy isn’t dependent upon his time in office. It isn’t necessary to place his policies and decisions under a microscope to justify our obsession with him. Rather, he can enamor us because of his ability to inspire a generation.

When I told my grandfather about the class I was taking, he lit up immediately. He recalled the moment he heard about the president’s death: he was driving home, heard the news on the radio, and he had to pull over to pull himself together. My grandpa’s emotional response was startling to me, but it made me realize that what makes President Kennedy’s legacy is his ability to inspire hope in others. We should celebrate him for the way he brought us hope in the future and faith in our nation.

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Paying respect to JFK

An update from Sorsha, a sophomore majoring in international studies and anthropology, and minoring in Spanish:

I have always been in love with studying the Civil Rights Movement, an interest that I was able to develop in several other classes with Dr. Simon, namely the Politics of Change and most recently the life-changing Civil Rights Pilgrimage. Both of these classes and my own studies projected an image of President John F. Kennedy that I think many people share: the American hero, champion of civil rights, unflagging martyr for the dazzling, volatile 1960s. When I read about this class, it seemed like the natural next step to enroll so as to learn more about this icon and the time that fascinates me the most. And I’m so thankful I did, because it has transformed my perspective and helped me become a more critical thinker.

While I still have a great respect for and admiration of JFK and all that he represents, it has been an interesting process to learn how he came to stand for all the noble things with which I associate him in my mind. All heroes have their flaws and hidden faces, and no one is a one-dimensional caricature. JFK made mistakes. The lines between his contrived motivations and true passions are sometimes blurry. Our class readings force us to question the image that we’ve learned to love of this mythic president.

And, all in all, I am so grateful to be in a class that pushes me a step further and allows me to confront and reconsider my own views. Considering its alignment with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, I think that this course is especially appropriate, and I hope that my involvement is a way of paying my respect to a man who, despite his faults, will be lovingly ingrained in the common memory of our nation forever.

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How TV changed history

An update from Tatum, a sophomore management science major and business minor:

“JFK: His Life, His Times, and His Legend” is easily the most specific academic course I have taken at SMU. This focused approach to one time period, one man and his presidency has allowed us to gain an understanding and exploration far deeper than I have ever had with one historical figure. It quite honestly has made me infatuated with the legacy and image of Kennedy and increasingly aware of how relevant it is in Dallas and across the country as we approach the anniversary. The sources we have been reading and movies we have watched have also made me think critically about the nostalgic images of Kennedy that are viewed today and compare how the country perceives him fifty years ago to now.

In class last week we watched the movie The Making of the President, 1960, which was based on the nonfiction book by Theodore White in 1961. I found it really interesting that the movie was finished shortly prior to Kennedy’s assassination but released without revision. The film seemed to favor Kennedy’s strategies and personality throughout the election, which, from one perspective, showed me how much Americans idealized and loved JFK even before he was martyred.

Another factor the documentary brought up was the new importance of television during the election. Because of the timing, most Americans finally had TVs in their homes, allowing 70 million to watch the debate between Nixon and Kennedy. It is interesting to think how much television changed the presidential image and the way candidates campaigned since that election. Kennedy had the looks, the charisma, and the confidence of public speaking on camera, while Nixon’s poor choice of suit color and weaker disposition made him appear to be the lesser candidate, regardless of the actual arguments the candidates made. Some say that Americans who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, while those who watched it on TV believed JFK to be the winner. When Kennedy’s public response soared, it proved how impactful TV appearance is to the public perception, as the documentary called it the most crucial episode of the 1960 campaign.

As a true member of generation Y, it is difficult to imagine how a country judged its political figures before there were a million media sources documenting and publishing every move in video. Kennedy’s television appearances added to the unique glamor of his image and his presidency, which make him such a fascinating figure to learn about and base our course around.

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The human stories behind our history

An update from Trey, a sophomore majoring in economics:

This class has been especially interesting for me because of how little I had known about JFK. This lack of knowledge is odd considering my affinity for history; still, before this class I knew little more about Kennedy than his death. And what I have been exposed to is fascinating. I have especially enjoyed the wide range of sources that we have been assigned. The volume of reading that we do in the course can seem overwhelming, but I find it very manageable because of the variety. I especially enjoy the opportunity to observe the differences in opinion that we come across in our reading. Professors Stone and Simon do a wonderful job of expanding on these differing opinions, showing us why they occur and who holds which position.

But this class has done more than shape my views on the Kennedys. Studying our history in such detail has led me to rethink how I looked at this portion of American history. My previous studies of this time period had been part of a class focused on the extent of American history, and thus it was difficult to dig deep into different events or read direct accounts of what happened. In this class I have been doing just that, and it has proven a chilling reminder of the humanity embedded in history. It is easy to reduce history to a list of events. But as I have looked closer at these monumental events, I have found the human stories that make up these events, and sometimes they’re hard to read. Sometimes I am shocked at what we have done and what we allowed to happen. But sometimes these stories remind me of the good in the world, and of what there is to love in this country.

In the same way, Kennedy baffles me. Just when I think I have him pegged I read or watch something that makes me return to the drawing board. At times it is frustrating, but I would have it no other way. The idea that a man as great as Jack Kennedy would be shallow enough to easily grasp is a depressing one. So I’ll keep grappling with him and with the past, hoping that I can learn a little something and do them one better.

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New perspectives of JFK

An update from Bridget, a sophomore majoring in psychology and journalism:

Learning about John Fitzgerald Kennedy from so many different perspectives, including those of Professors Simon and Stone, has shed a new light on what I thought I knew about the Kennedy administration and Kennedy himself. Previously, I identified JFK with the image: the perfect Catholic family, the summers in Hyannis Port, Jackie Kennedy. This class, however, has exposed me to Kennedy the person, rather than Kennedy as a character. Having a history professor teaching us about Kennedy in the context of foreign and national affairs creates a portrait of Kennedy I never knew before.

The most intriguing aspect of this class is that Professors Simon and Stone provide students with so many portrayals of Kennedy, it is up to us to form our own opinions. We read multiple sources in preparation for class: some highly praise Kennedy and revere him as a classic American hero, while others criticize him for being an overly confident womanizer whose family influence bought his way into the White House, and, in a way, both sides have some truth. But the trick for the students is to be able to absorb all the information we’re given yet simultaneously filter it and reform it through our own perceptions and experiences as Generation Y.

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Examining JFK for myself

An update from Garrett, a sophomore economics and political science major:

As a third-generation Dallas native, I have grown up with my grandparents’ vivid memories of the Kennedy assassination and the impact that it had upon them and this city. Furthermore, as an African American, I also grew up very aware that JFK was well respected in the black community. As I got older, we began to study JFK in school and I encountered more information about his policies and his presidency. Additionally, I became more aware about the often-hyped scandals surrounding Kennedy’s personal life, such as his father’s mob connections as well as JFK’s philandering lifestyle, particularly his relationship with Marilyn Monroe.

However, aside from what was required in school, I never really had much of a personal interest in Kennedy until recently. I took all of these depictions of Kennedy with a grain of salt. Much like his death, Kennedy’s life is often depicted with an element of uncertainty. With all of the attention in Dallas surrounding the anniversary of his assassination, I was curious to discover why Kennedy was such a big deal. Because of the way he died, because he’s a Kennedy, I don’t know if we will ever really get to know the real Kennedy.

Nevertheless, I think studying Kennedy can get us very close. Every depiction of Kennedy is simply who Kennedy was to that person, or what kind of person they want to portray Kennedy as. Examining the variety of images of Kennedy that we study in class is causing me to form my own image of Kennedy for the first time in my life.

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Scene from a JFK class

Professors Dennis Simon (left) and Tom Stone with students in the class "John F. Kennedy: His Life, His Times and His Legend."

Dennis Simon (left) and Tom Stone with students in the class “John F. Kennedy: His Life, His Times and His Legend.”

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Growing up with JFK stories

An update from Jackie, sophomore majoring in advertising in Meadows School of the Arts and minoring in business in Cox School of Business:

The Kennedy name has been familiar to me since I was old enough to understand the importance of people in history. It was not deliberate, however, my first name, Jacqueline, was already chosen when Jackie O passed away a week before I was born. My maternal grandmother’s family had a strong interest in history and politics; and because the Kennedys had been part of my grandmother’s era, I grew up hearing a great deal about them.

My grandmother has countless books in her possession that profile all aspects of JFK in regards to politics, his presidency, his personal life, etc. So I am very aware of the opinions of my family regarding party politics in relation to the controversial Kennedy family – one side discussing the Republican platform, the other staunch Democrats. However, I now have an opportunity to hear opinions of other scholars, filmmakers, authors, and especially the input of my professors in order to form opinions of my own.

I did not sign up for this Ways of Knowing class profiling JFK to expand my knowledge of him. It is mostly for the discussion and to hear differing sides and opinions of the JFK legend offered by two brilliant professors. I also am enjoying and learning from my classmates who are my age. The class has truly been one of the most captivating historical experiences that I have had. Although the reading load is quite substantial, I find myself looking forward to what I am going to learn next about the famous/infamous JFK.

The three hours just seem to whiz past as we spend half of the class with Professor Simon discussing the political aspects of JFK’s career and the significant factors that influenced the decisions that he made and his motives. We also discuss the context of the time period and how JFK navigated the controversial waters that surrounded the 1960s era.

Then, with Professor Stone, we discuss the assigned readings (online articles and novels) and how each presents JFK and constructs a certain persona of him. With both professors, we discuss the various (some far-fetched) conspiracy theories and how many people to this day do not agree with the conclusion of the Warren Commission. Overall, I am so pleased to be taking this class, allowing me to participate while learning about a legend at SMU.

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Understanding the past; preparing for the future

An update from Gerry, a sophomore majoring in biology and minoring in history in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences:

I have always liked to consider myself a history buff of sorts. Studying how certain aspects of culture and events cause change over time has always been an intellectual hobby of mine. With that in mind, I have always had a keen interest in John F. Kennedy’s time in office and the events that occurred during that period. Specifically, I’ve always been intrigued with how JFK’s presidency would come to change the nation as a whole. When I saw this course as an option, I was beyond excited.

In class, we have just discussed the election of 1960 – a most unique and even pioneering time in American history. By looking at how the campaign and then the election itself unfolded, I gained a deeper appreciation of just how influential a seemingly unimportant fact can be. These kinds of discussions are why I’m glad I’m taking this course. In addition to the course itself, I picked up a copy of the paper the Dallas Morning News printed on November 23, 1963 (the DMN re-released it in honor of the 50th anniversary of the assassination). Looking through it has truly helped to add more context to what we’re studying in class.

Though it’s sure to be a great deal more work, I’m quite excited to see what else I learn from Professors Simon and Stone. I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of the group of students that gets to partake in this course taught 50 years after JFK’s assassination. It is so important that we as a people not forget or diminish the events that occurred that day or the long-lasting effects it had on our nation.

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From class to campus to city

An update from Taylor, a sophomore biochemistry and psychology major:

On October 2, 2013, the Daily Campus printed an article titled “In Dallas, JFK assassination legacy lingers.” It was a month into my class on John F. Kennedy, and we had class the day before this article was printed. In our class, we read “American Tabloid” by James Ellroy, a quasi-fictional story chronicling the story behind the assassination of JFK.

Throughout the class we talked about a few reasons John F. Kennedy could have been assassinated, but it was strange to read the article in the Daily Campus discussing the hatred that Dallas had toward Kennedy, especially in light of my class. I had no idea Dallas citizens weren’t supportive of JFK in general, but it made me less surprised that the assassination did occur in Dallas. We had learned about the varying opinions people had about JFK: some thought he was the golden boy who brought hope to America, while others thought he was a womanizing, sickly and hesitant man who hurt America.

Although I’m still learning about JFK, it was very exciting to me to see something from my class also show up in another form: the newspaper on campus. It makes this class seem more prevalent and applicable to our lives as we learn in the city where JFK’s assassination took place.

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