November 22, 1963 was an important day for our generation, even though it was three decades before many of us were born. On that day, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I say this with no regard for party or policy, but with every regard for hope and inspiration.
The youngest president ever elected (but so much more than that), President Kennedy brought a flood of youth to Washington and sparked the imaginations of millions more around the country. In his inaugural address, he spoke of the proverbial torch being passed to a new generation, one whose energy and devotion would “light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
That fire was extinguished on Nov. 22, 1963.
Disillusioned, that generation left the institutions of change that Kennedy had inspired them to join, and the old stewards of power – the likes of Nixon – returned. But it did not disappear. Instead, that rebellious group formed a counter culture, actively protesting against a society and political system it viewed as problematic.
Today, our community, our nation and our world are challenged by the same issues that President Kennedy labeled “the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” But, are we, the new young people, responding in the same motivated fashion?
In November 2008, I would have said, “Yes.” Barack Obama had seemed to reignite that torch. During that election cycle, the Stanford Democrats sent 130 students for an Election Day canvass for Obama – in Nevada. The University was aglow with activity across the political spectrum.
However, just two years later, as The Stanford Daily itself reports, that fervor is disappearing. Having led President Obama’s re-election campaign on campus and served as co-president of the Stanford Democrats for the last year, I can likewise speak to the difficulties of engaging students in politics.
Throughout the election cycle, I heard that President Obama is a “letdown” or a “failure.” Our peers asked: “Why should I dedicate my time to a man who hasn’t done and won’t do anything?” Students, resigned, drew away from politics.
I’m not here to defend the President’s record or insist that you support him. I am, however, here to argue that we cannot simply give up on politics.
Whether we like it or not, political discourse at the local, state and national level has a profound impact on our daily lives. From Palo Alto’s ban on homelessness to immigration reform, Stanford is not as bubble wrapped as we like to think. The world can see into the Stanford bubble, even if we choose not to look out of it.
We cannot simply hunker down and lament political polarization. We cannot simply blame septuagenarians in Congress for bad policy. Returning to JFK’s speech, Kennedy reminds us: “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.
“Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty,” JFK said that day. Stanfordians have consistently responded to this call, from Herbert Hoover and President Kennedy himself (although he did drop out) to Ted Koppel and John Steinbeck. Beyond these traditional fields, one can easily find a myriad of Stanfordians whose work on the nation’s behalf has benefited us all. Indeed, Vint Cerf, who spoke here recently, helped develop the foundation of the Internet under the auspices of the Department of Defense.
The question before you now is if and how you will continue their legacy.
While the options number too many to list here, I challenge you to think about how you can pop your own Stanford bubble. Perhaps that means getting involved in one of Stanford’s multiple East Palo Alto tutoring organizations or coming to a Stanford Democrats or Stanford Conservative Society event. Maybe you want to develop apps with FWD.US, Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration reform lobby, or work toward curing disease with the National Institute of Health. I could continue ad nauseam.
If it wants us to leave the Farm as prepared citizens, the university, for its part, should do more to encourage this discourse. It should reduce regulations on free speech and encourage our civic engagement. But until we will demonstrate that we are a politically active and aware campus, the administration is unlikely to do so.
In keeping with last week’s column, I’d like to conclude with a challenge. Tonight is President Obama’s sixth State of the Union. Tune in on your dorm TV. As you consider the challenges our nation faces, consider how you might bring your skills to bear on them.
“The trumpet summons us again.” Will you listen?
Contact Nick Ahamed at email@example.com.