The Study Guide is an on-going project. Initial development work is in two segments. The first segment is “Discussion Questions on Kennedy, Frost and Civic Engagement” from Appendix A of our book, JFK: The Last Speech. The second segment, “Reflecting on the Film” are questions that were posed following a screening of the film at Florida State University in April 2019. These sets of questions suggest a number of ways in which important lessons in English, history and the arts might be derived. Thus the Kennedy/Frost story might serve to put students of today into thoughtful contact with these ideas and issues, just as that October day and the context of that time commanded the attention and thought of Amherst students in 1963, and continues to do so. We invite educators at all levels, practicing or retired, to consider these matters and, if so inclined, to contribute a lesson plan or plans rooted in The Last Speech story, aimed at any relevant academic subject area, and suitable for any educational level from elementary through college. Please click HERE to see more detail on our hopes and intentions for compiling a set of such plans for future use as an educational resource of broad utility and distribution.
Discussion Questions on Kennedy, Frost and Civic Engagement
JFK asked, “what good is a private college or university unless it’s serving a great national purpose?”
Should we hold colleges responsible for serving a national purpose or should they be understood as serving basically private purposes, providing education for self-development and economic gain?
He continued “unless the graduates of this College and other colleges like it who are given a running start in life—unless they are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion—unless they’re willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.”
What are the “presuppositions upon which our democracy is based?”
JFK claimed graduates of “a college such as this” have a special responsibility for sustaining our democracy. Do you agree? Why or why not?
Who IS responsible for maintaining our democratic system? Are there institutions that have corporate responsibility, for example Congress, the political parties, and educational institutions?
JFK said to his Amherst audience that “privilege is here and with privilege goes responsibility.”
What is the nature of the privilege and of the responsibility to which he refers, and where did these ideas originate?
How has the reality of privilege and the obligation of responsibility influenced America’s politics and economic system?
What is the distribution of privilege and the acceptance of responsibility today?
Kennedy stated that “the problems this country now faces are staggering” and that “we need the service, in the great sense, of every educated man or woman.”
The problems he referenced were
— finding 10 million jobs in the next 2 years.
— governing our relations with over 100 countries.
— making it possible for Americans of all different races and creeds to live together in harmony.
— making it possible for a world to exist in diversity and freedom.
How do the problems our country faces today differ from those Kennedy enumerated?
Why did Kennedy single out “educated” men and women; doesn’t everyone share equally in the responsibility for addressing our problems?
Kennedy observed, “The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”
Is this an extraordinary assertion? Who questions the powerful today? Are the questioners disinterested? What about today’s artists; are they disinterested questioners of power?
Kennedy observed, “Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. . . . When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
What is the power of poetry as expressed here? Can you distinguish between external constraints on power and internal constraints, character for example? What role does poetry play in establishing and nurturing character?
Kennedy asserted that “art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
Do you agree with that statement? How does art accomplish that result? What basic human truths are meant here? In what sense do they serve as touchstones of our judgment?
Kennedy notes, “If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.”
Do artists as a group have greater sensitivity and concern for justice than the rest of society? Should they be given special attention in this regard?
Kennedy summed Robert Frost’s contributions as follows: “He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. ‘I have been,’ he wrote, ‘one acquainted with the night.’ And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man.”
How can these contributions help cleanse politics? Why is a faith in the spirit of man a contribution to “good” politics?
Kennedy concluded, “I look forward to a great future for America—a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.
I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment.
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.
I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.
I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”
JFK made these statements over fifty years ago. How have we as a country measured up to his vision in each case?
The film and the book show that a number of graduates of the class of 1964 were moved by the words of Kennedy and Frost.
After reading the descriptions of their experiences, what was it that struck a particularly responsive chord in these young men? Why did the speech and subsequent events make an impact?
A number of those in Kennedy’s audience responded to the themes of his address and their liberal education by joining the Peace Corps.
Why do you think this service was particularly appealing? How did their education prepare them for this opportunity or did it?
Steve Downs (chapter 7) and Gene Palumbo (chapter 8) focus on their pursuit of justice. These pursuits required them to question governmental policy. However, neither one is a poet or an artist.
Would Kennedy and Frost have approved?
George Wanlass (chapter 9) is not an artist but he appreciates art. He has promoted the arts among the young and those who lack resources.
Has he responded to Kennedy’s call, and if so, how? How has the breadth of his education helped him in these pursuits? Does what he is doing serve democracy, and if so, how?
While Kennedy came to Amherst to praise Robert Frost, their relationship was not always smooth, as Roger Mills details (chapter 1).
What were the points on which they disagreed? Do you accept Robert Benedetti’s thesis (chapter 11) that they ultimately agreed on the responsibility of those with broad educations to assume leadership in a democracy?
Since 1964, Robert Frost’s poetry may have become “less traveled by.”
Why should we read Frost today? What does he offer citizens today?
Jon Meacham in chapter 14 states that Kennedy “led practically and he led spiritually.” And Mickey Edwards in chapter 14 concludes that Kennedy left behind “a framework for judging those who would deign to lead.”
What are the major legacies of John Kennedy’s public service? Frost suggested that we need objectives “to look forward to with pride”; did Kennedy provide us such objectives? What might they be?
Kennedy argued for the perspective of the outsider, the non-conformist, in his speech.
Is this faith in the diversity of perspectives a lasting heritage? How did his record as president measure up to this value?
Some argue that Kennedy picked the “best and brightest” for his administration.
Was the “best and brightest” approach flawed? In what ways? Give examples. If you were to teach a seminar on leadership, what aspect of leadership would Kennedy best illustrate? Did his attraction to the arts support his leadership style? How?
A current high school graduate decides to accept Kennedy’s challenges and Frost’s philosophy of education.
What course of study should he/she consider? What experiences or early career paths should he/she explore after graduating from college?
The political climate during the Presidency of John Kennedy was vastly different from today’s.
What would the voters of today think of him? Would his “elite” background be a stumbling block? What about his personal life? Would he have been seen as “soft” on governmental critics? Would he win the youth vote?
At the end of his speech, Kennedy praised Frost by saying that because of his life, our hold on this planet has increased.
Could you say the same for Kennedy? He had great promise and gave inspiring speeches, but did he accomplish enough to increase our hold on the planet? Or, was it enough that he communicated promises for us to keep and inspiring phrases for us to remember?
One could characterize Gene Palumbo’s account of his experiences in El Salvador as a parable. He recounted the social strife incurred when a society doesn’t address polarization among its citizens.
Do you see parallels between his experience and current realities in politics at home and/or aboard?
Several authors implied that Frost and Kennedy “invented” or contrived their public images. In the 1950s, many Hollywood stars crafted a public persona; however, that was not an expected behavior for a poet or a politician.
How would you describe their public images? Does Kennedy’s speech fulfill or contrast with his public persona? Does what he says of Frost fulfill or contrast with Frost’s public persona?
In Part 2, chapters 6 through 10, members of the Amherst class of 1964 detailed the ways Frost and Kennedy impacted their lives.
Do you see common threads in their stories? Describe them. Did these narratives suggest divergent interpretations of Frost and Kennedy within the group? Did any of these classmates misunderstand Kennedy or Frost? What do their experiences have to teach others?
“Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you
And whom, it is said, you are so unlike …
…Let the new sound in our streets be the patient sound
Of your discourse”
—Richard P. Wilbur, “For the Student Strikers” 1
Reflecting on the Film
The following questions formed the basis for reflections on the film following the April 2019 screening at Florida State University in Tallahassee: 2
- Memories or acquired impressions of President Kennedy’s career and death clearly vary by age. What are yours?
- The term “liberal arts” is used repeatedly in the film. How would you define it?
- Do the liberal arts play a particular role in democratic citizenship? Can that role be practiced in all higher education institutions?
- Do you think that the ideals of the Peace Corps and President Kennedy’s New Frontier” are still valid?
- What did the poet Robert Frost see as the relationship between poetry and power? What part did he play in Kennedy’s “turn toward peace?”
- Is it realistic today to expect the beneficiaries of higher education to “serve the public good” as a career choice or strong avocation? How about those with major student debt burdens?
- What does the historian Ellen Fitzpatrick mean when she says that JFK was “no puritan?” How would that play today?
- What aspects, if any, of the Kennedy presidency and his relation to Robert Frost would you like to see reinvigorated today?
- Do you see any connection between Kennedy’s “turn toward peace” and his assassination in November 1963?
- Mickey Edwards wrote that Kennedy left behind a framework for judging those who aspire to lead. Do you agree?
The film addresses a critically important topic — the relationship of education to democratic citizenship.
– Dr. Peter Easton
What are the “Liberal Arts?”
The term “liberal arts education” is used a great deal in the film. What does it mean? Here are a few thoughts. The liberal arts are generally considered the oldest program of higher education in Western history, including a span of subjects from literature, philosophy, history and mathematics to the social and physical sciences. They do not traditionally extend to the professional, vocational, or technical curriculum, for which they may serve as either a prior basis or a close companion. One higher education prospectus puts it this way: “A liberal arts education not only challenges you to solve problems; it also trains you to ask which problems to solve and why.” In short, such a curriculum is designed to nurture our critical and creative capacities through direct experience with the bases of our knowledge.
“Civilization will not perish from lack of specialized knowledge or specialized institutions. Its greatest need may rather be the development of people of larger understanding and of the qualities and judgment to assume its complex burdens. For this purpose the first-class liberal arts college, itself a unique creation of the American scene, remains a notable and most promising institution.”
– John E. Sawyer, President of William College 1961-1973
1 Richard Wilbur “is a poet for all of us, whose elegant words brim with wit and paradox,” announced Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin when the poet succeeded Robert Penn Warren to become the second poet laureate of the United States. Wilbur won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his collection Things of This World: Poems in 1957 and a second Pulitzer for New and Collected Poems. He won the Wallace Stevens Award, the Frost Medal, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, two Bollingen Prizes, the T.S. Eliot Award, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Award, the Prix de Rome Fellowship and many more honors, fellowships and awards for his poetry. (See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/richard-wilbur)
Wilbur taught at Wellesley College, Wesleyan University and at Smith College. He graduated from Amherst in 1942.
2 Questions in “Reflecting on the Film” and the section, “What are the ‘Liberal Arts’?” were prepared by by Dr. Peter Easton, (Amherst ’64), retired Florida State University faculty member in Education Leadership and Policy Studies.