JFK & the “Enviable Distinction” of a Harvard Liberal Arts Education

The John F. Kennedy presidential library has a digitized copy of JFK’s 1935 Harvard University application form. It’s easy to read JFK’s application essay as a quickly done, fill in the space, drill. JFK’s chances of getting accepted were pretty good regardless, I’m sure. This twitter worthy essay would be laughed at by just about any admissions committee today, but, to be fair, there wasn’t much space provided on the application for for JFK to elaborate. Here is what JFK wrote:

The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a “Harvard man” is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.

April 23, 1935
John F. Kennedy

The only sentence, of the 5 total, that addresses the benefits of a Harvard academic education is the 2nd. JFK thinks Harvard can provide him “a better background” and “a better liberal education” than any other institution. It’s a sentence that provides a pleasant reminder of how important a Liberals Arts education once was (and to some degree still is) regarded by America’s wealthy elite families. I would argue that a Liberal Arts education is still the highest and best form of education personally, socially, and politically speaking, we can promote for the maintenance of a free society. (Watch this interesting TED talk on this subject.)

The rest of JFK’s paragraph is really about the importance of being a “Harvard man.” The “something definite” that Harvard had to offer JFK was that “enviable distinction” of being a graduate of an elite school. An education is, of course, more than just something you get in a classroom, it’s also a process of acquiring social skills and making important and influential connections.

For the most part, the world has come to expect from the liberally educated class a certain set of elevated behaviors and leadership qualities. Someone has to model both excellence and pathetic failure in the social realm, and like it or not the elites are typically those cast in those roles. The sneer of “Elitism” may be thrown, sure, but the truth is most of us long to be part of some type of elite, even if we act like it doesn’t matter to us. The whole point of being educated, really, is about quality. The quality of your own mind and soul and about recognizing quality in the things you see, hear, and taste. This type of quality education was the “something definite to offer” JFK was looking for from being a “Harvard man.”

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