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Why You Should Care About Robert Kennedy

Posted by on Thursday, May 29, 2008 in Political Life at Vanderbilt, Preparing for College.

For as much bluster that the French get in our current political sphere (Freedom Fries . . . really?) the center of Washington, D.C. with its sweeping boulevards, towering columns and monuments, perpendicular vistas, and multitude of parks and park benches is as French as any American city gets. Makes sense, in that it was planned by a Parisian, who designed one heck of a walking city.

I just returned from our nation’s capital to attend the To Seek a Newer World: The Life and Legacy of Robert F. Kennedy, a jointly coordinated program between Vanderbilt University, The First Amendment Center in Washington, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. The program originated through conversations about RFK’s 1968 presidential bid between Dr. Mark Dalhouse (Director of Vanderbilt’s Office of Active Citizenship and Service) and John Seigenthaler (Former Editor, Publisher and CEO of The Tennessean, and otherwise Vanderbilt legend). This program, set in the stunning backdrop of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Ave, brought together key staffers and advisers within Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, civil rights leaders, key political journalists of the era as well as current historians and political figures to discuss one simple topic: the relevancy of Robert Kennedy’s life and short stint in public office on our lives today as Americans.

We invited incoming students and prospective students from the area (ergo, why I attended), in addition to the 30-some current Vanderbilt students who are a part of Vanderbilt’s Maymester course on U.S. history taught in the D.C. area. It was as genuine a learning experience as it gets, no filtering, no spin. It was history, live and direct from those who lived it. It is experiences like this that attracted me to and have kept me around higher education, and why I love being at Vanderbilt especially. You can watch the program in its entirety online on CSPAN.

Even though I am several hours removed from the experience as I write this, I am still taking it in. Maybe you’re a politico in your school, maybe on student council, perhaps even involved in local government. However, if you’re like me, you may be a casual observer of politics, sometimes enamored, yet often annoyed by the seeming hollowness of the whole exercise. No matter your disposition, do me a favor: read a couple articles on RFK (be it the recent copy of Vanity Fair or something you find via Google), watch some of his speeches on Youtube, or simply ask your folks about their recollections of the Spring and Summer of 1968. What you may find, as I did, is a calling to a younger generation to give up the desire to “preserve their neutrality,” in a “time of moral crisis.” In other words, get off the sidelines, engage in the public discourse, and in so doing, participate in first person in your own education and betterment.

A fascinating discussion developed at the symposium on the parallels between our current world and that of 1968 – a protracted and divisive war, an unpopular president, a slowing economy, and a growing socio-economic divide. In that time, like now, young people were called to speak up, get involved and voice their opinion, even, and especially when, they held a dissenting opinion. At a speech given at Vanderbilt in 1968, Robert Kennedy brought this sentiment into focus: “Only broad and fundamental dissent will allow us to confront — not only material poverty — but the poverty of satisfaction that afflicts us all. So if we are uneasy about our country today, perhaps it is because we are truer to our principles than we realize, because we know that our happiness will come not from goods we have, but from the good we do together.”
So what? RFK spoke often of his belief that his generation was to be the one to find that newer world, one that not only trumpeted equality and social justice but actually followed through on that promise through civic engagement. Robert Kennedy never saw that vision come to fruition, and some claim, neither has America.

Cynics in our cultural mist will claim that the current generation of college students, and those immediately entering their ranks, are only concerned with the utility of a college degree to enhance their earning potential. Do not believe them. In a recent survey by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute it was noted that the percentage of entering college freshmen indicating that helping others was a driving personal value was at a 40-year high. In addition, that same survey found that more students than ever (more than 35%) indicated that being a community leader after graduating college was “very important” or “essential” to them. This is greatly promising.

These intents, however noble, are not self-fulfilling. They require action, or more specifically, engagement. In the same UCLA study, only slightly more than half of entering American freshmen indicated that they frequently asked questions in class within the past year. Education, like our democracy, is participatory. Participation in your education, through the simple act of asking questions, must become as natural to you as breathing whether you attend Vanderbilt or not. It is a give and take: of positions, of ideologies, of previously held assumptions. It requires a dispensing of neutrality, staking a position, defending it, and respecting the transformative power of when another person trusts you enough to do the same. Civil discourse is not dead, and a newer world is still to be had.

A Post Script

I get asked a lot about the political life at Vanderbilt. Is it a protest around every corner type place, or more apathetic, passively watching the political process pass like a garish parade? The answer to most questions like this is clearly subjective, and my attempt to objectively answer it puts me in the muddy but candid middle. Vanderbilt is a place where debate is active, no question about it. It is a place where people care deeply about issues and can find an audience to air their opinions. This mostly happens in classrooms and at Vanderbilt’s modern version of the Roman Forum known in Vandyspeak as “The Wall.” A central meeting place for students, faculty and staff alike to join organizations, sign petitions, and raise money and awareness for a variety of causes. My sense from being around many college campuses is that while Vandy students have certainly organized around a variety of causes in the past, it does not take the protest-a-minute persona that some campuses (in)famously adopt. Issues live here though, and do so in a spectrum. It’s a place where democrats, progressives, independents, libertarians and conservatives will find a place, and a voice (we have 5 different student newspapers, including a liberal and conservative publication).

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