10/07/2012 01:43 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2012

Growing Up to Be President

"Mothers all want their sons to grow up to be president, but they don't want them to become politicians in the process." The second part of John F. Kennedy's observation probably still holds true. But does anyone talk to kids these days about growing up to be president?

Among my 11th-grade American history students, one recalled his third-grade teacher telling him that if he kept at his spelling, he might grow up to be president. Another said a grandparent had talked to him about the possibility. But that was it, and none of them mentioned their parents conveying the message.

I am too young to remember JFK but old enough to remember his younger brother Bobby as well as Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. I also remember grown-ups occasionally telling me that if I worked hard, I could be president someday.

The point was not to single me out, but to include me in part of the American dream: that any (native-born) citizen with enough talent, ambition, and luck could potentially become the chief executive of the republic. (Of course, being white and male would help, too.)

Some of the shift away from that ideal must be attributable to Watergate. The break-in at Democratic headquarters 40 years ago, followed by a steady stream of leaks, denials, and hearings, culminated with the first resignation of a U.S. president. Richard Nixon's eventual pardon was defended as allowing the country to move on: Serious damage had already been done to the prestige of the presidency, some said, and to the public's faith in elected officials.

They were right about that. In late 1973, in the midst of the uproar, the New York Times quoted a "white-haired algebra teacher from Auburn, Maine" as saying, "We used to tell these kids that you may grow up to be president of the United States, that it was something to which they should aspire. Now we can't tell them that anymore because they just laugh in our faces." Those kids, now mothers and fathers themselves, have understandably been less than enthusiastic about encouraging their own children to aim for the White House.

In their perceptions of the presidency, today's students seem less influenced by their parents' experiences than by the fact that the nation has been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for almost as long as they can remember, and by years of recession and fitful recovery.

Though they have watched President Obama's hair turn gray over the past few years, they can also recall the excitement of the last election. It showed that the possibility of becoming president now realistically applies to the students of color and to the girls in my class.

This dramatic expansion in the pool of potential candidates is a good thing. The complexities of the 21st century have only made the job more daunting, and we need all the talent we can find. It might not be a bad idea to once again start reminding kids that they can grow up to be president.