They know their ABCs, but not their JFK

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2013 - 5:01 PM

Fifty years after the Kennedy assassination shook the world, students are mainly indifferent.

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Rob Lowe as President John F. Kennedy and Ginnifer Goodwin as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in National Geographic Channels production of Killing Kennedy.



Photo: Joey L, National Geographic Channels

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Students in Meg Peterson’s world literature class at St. Paul Central High School can recite passages by Chinese writer Lu Xun and rattle off events in the American Revolution. But when it comes to questions about one of the most devastating days of the 20th century, the response is a sea of shrugs.

Not a single one of the 30 juniors knew that Nov. 22 will mark the 50th anniversary of President John Kennedy’s assassination and only five could cite Dallas as the location. Reactions were similar next door, though about half of the 30 teenagers in an advanced-placement class had seen footage from those tragic days.

“It’s interesting stuff,” said 16-year-old Lucia Toninato. “But it’s not really relevant.”

That may be news to mainstream media. Publishers are issuing about 20 new books on the assassination this year and TV will dedicate more than 100 hours of programming to the anniversary this month. But to younger Americans, they might as well be telling stories from the Stone Age.

“I don’t know if ‘forgotten’ is the right word, but that visceral ownership of that moment has not been passed on to newer generations,” said actor Rob Lowe, who plays JFK in National Geographic Channel’s “Killing Kennedy,” airing Nov. 10.

Lowe speaks from experience as the father of a college freshman. “We’re trying to introduce details to people who might not know what it meant for this country to lose him.”

Joyce Ladner, a civil rights activist who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, is worried that young people, particularly blacks, are not getting a proper education about Kennedy and the role he played in the civil rights movement.

“It’s a very sad situation because they’re not learning the history that could inspire them and their generation,” she said.

O.J. trumps JFK

JFK was the first made-for-TV president — a telegenic political force whose death and funeral became a four-day television event viewed by 93 percent of Americans.

A generation ago, it was routinely regarded as the most important moment in TV history. But in a survey on that topic last year by Sony Electronics and Nielsen, it ranked only 15th, behind 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Challenger space shuttle accident and even the O.J. Simpson car chase.

Veteran journalist Roger Mudd, who covered Kennedy for CBS, thinks one problem is that there are so many media sources that Americans no longer get a concise, responsible account of current — or past — events.

“We have a whole nation sort of left on its own,” Mudd said. “With no stimulation to find out what happened yesterday or any interest in it, all those marvelous stories from before just float away.”

But that hasn’t kept people from commemorating such historical milestones as Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Independence Day and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Lary May, professor emeritus of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota, said it’s no coincidence that Kennedy’s death isn’t similarly memorialized.

“I think the assassination was when our country started to lose faith in the government,” he said. “The uncomfortable connection would explain the amnesia.”

Challenge for teachers

Some argue that discomfort is exactly why schools need to put more emphasis on JFK and the other events of 1963, when tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States were high.

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