THE BLOG
11/13/2013 04:06 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Calling Doris Kearns Goodwin: An Unfair Revision of JFK Legacy: New High School History Texts Needed

I should have expected it, even from those presently writing historical texts for our young, who need hope and optimism, and inspirational political models wherever they can find it. Yet, I did not.

But then, on November 11, there it was. Page one of the New York Times documented how high school text books, beginning in the 1980s have replaced those written through the 1960s and 1970s.

John F, Kennedy, our 35th President, who at age 46 was assassinated on November 22, 1963, after only 1036 days in office, had earlier been described as a tragic hero, who inspired youth throughout the world, accomplishing much, despite limited time to learn, grow and lead. The 1975 text by Clarence Ver Steeg and Richard Hofstadter explains that in his handling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, "Kennedy's true nature as a statesman became fully apparent." (New York Times, November 11, 2013. page 1)

The President now is described in high school text books as a flawed hero, with major concentration on JFK's failures, rather than his inspiration and successes. While present texts do offer positive assessments of the Peace Corps and the space program, they now focus on the failed invasion at Cuba's Bay of Pigs. Further, the assessments of the President's Vietnam policies, where he is unflatteringly labeled a "Cold Warrior" who escalated troops in Vietnam, and his civil rights record are judged harshly.

A fair explanation of perspective and first hand accounts seem sadly missing in this changed assessment of the late President. As one who was a college student during the Kennedy presidency, and later worked at the DNC, with special assignments at the White House, I would like to offer a sliver of each.....

It is important to remember that when the President was elected, a fear of Communism dominated public thinking, and the domino theory explaining its spread was accepted as gospel. In 1959 President Eisenhower sent military troops to aid and consult in South Vietnam, and these troops were later involved in combat. This fear, and the way to offer protection, was soundly in place when the 35th President took office. Even the President's critics concede in these more recent, highly critical high school texts that we cannot predict how Kennedy would have eventually governed, had he been given the chance. In Gary Nash's 1991 "American Odyssey," after describing "scattered accomplishments" that did not amount to much, he concluded, "As his term progressed, his initiatives became bolder, and his handling of Congress became more aggressive and assured." (Ibid, A3)

I can personally correct a cold misinterpretation about civil rights. For I was deeply involved in this effort. The 1975 Ver Steeg/Hofstter text assessment is ignored. They write correctly that during the Kennedy presidency, despite congressional obstacles, "buses, hotels, motels and restaurants were largely desegregated." The later texts credit this achievement entirely to the Civil Rights Act signed by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

But the initial text is accurate. While a student at my alma mater, Goucher College, in Baltimore, during the years 1960 through 1962, students and faculty, inspired by President Kennedy, worked tirelessly to end the segregation of the community where Goucher is located, Towson, Maryland. Many of us in Maryland were horrified at the signs that dominated certain neighborhoods and establishments. "No Coloreds, Jews, or Dogs Allowed." Public rest rooms, as well as water fountains, were segregated.

However, before the Kennedy presidency, we had remained isolated in how to best address this horrific inequity of day to day life. In the college town of Towson, while there were no such signs in the inner town, no resource for food, fun, or grooming was open to African Americans. Before the assassination, these goals were peacefully accomplished in areas throughout Baltimore, including Towson. The "Baltimore Sun" covered many such activities, including those in Towson. This quality of progress was quietly made in many areas where prejudice flourished. President Johnson was able to shepherd the historic Civil Rights Act through Congress after the President's assassination because of the horror, remorse and mourning throughout our country; but, as accurately stated in the 1975 Ver Steeg/Hofstter text, before this act a great deal had been accomplished.

Thomas Thurston, an education director at Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center who works with high school history teachers, explains that earlier texts had good citizenship as a goal for students, but later ones now stress the importance of our founding documents.

I work with today's young students, and I can affirm what you already know: The pervasive cynicism, hopelessness, and rage permeating our society is leading to a high incidence of depression and dangerous acting out in our youth. Young people today are in dire need of text books that underscore historic strengths in our nation's leadership, and in so doing provide them with motivating role models. These depictions inspire hard and concentrated work, despite obstacles. This emphasis is needed before our students can really understand the genius of our founding documents. Further historical revisions, incorporating the hope and grit of earlier ones, are surely called for. Can someone please forward this to Doris Kearns Goodwin?