Kennedy, Lincoln and possible lessons of their lives / Joe Nathan’s Column

Originally published on November 20, 2013 at 4:52 pm at


Their important accomplishments, a historical coincidence and current public fascination with major anniversaries recently produced attention to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy. Within one week, we recognized the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. Leading up to the anniversaries, I thought: How can we help young people learn about these events?

Joe Nathan

First, and most important, it’s vital to recognize progress from the time each of these men lived. Unquestionably, America faces huge challenges. But this country has dramatically expanded opportunity and living conditions since the time of Lincoln and Kennedy. We have astonishing new inventions and discoveries that enrich our lives.

It’s easy to be disillusioned or pessimistic. But if we look, there are many examples of progress since Lincoln and Kennedy led the nation.

Young people often need our help seeing progress because they generally lack perspective. They haven’t lived during times when, for example, African Americans were not allowed to vote or had their lives threatened if they tried to do so. Young people haven’t seen bathrooms that were designated “men,” “women” and “colored.” Some of us alive today (including me) have seen these things. America is better now.

Second, even the greatest leaders require assistance. As Reinhold Niebuhr, a prominent Protestant leader, wrote, “Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone.” The Civil War was won not only because of Lincoln, but also because thousands of people were willing to fight and die. Russian missiles were removed from Cuba and nuclear war was avoided not only because of Kennedy. Others helped him develop and carry out successful strategies.

Many civil rights advances that Kennedy worked on were not finalized until after his death, in part because of the skill of Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was a master at working with Congress when he became president.

Third, words have enormous power. Kennedy and Lincoln live on not only because of their actions but also because of their eloquence.

Though many other lessons are possible, I’ll end with another of Niebuhr’s insights: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.” I’d add one word to this: Nothing worth doing can be achieved completely in our lifetime.

We build on the work of others who came before. Others will use and modify our greatest scientific and social accomplishments to help move things ahead.

On various social media during the past week, people asked, “Where were you when you heard Kennedy was shot?” It’s the kind of question that comes up only a few times each generation: “Where were you when you learned New York City’s World Trade Center towers were attacked?” “Where were you when you learned the U.S. had elected its first African American president?” Those are interesting, personal connections to history.

One thing we can do with and for young people is help them think creatively and constructively about history. The coincidence of these 50th and 150th anniversaries gives us that opportunity.

As Lincoln pointed out, “It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, please comment below.