Sure, RFK and JFK were important. But one Kennedy embodied the American values of good citizenship.
It’s fitting that the Olympics are concluding this weekend, only as schools begin to re-open around the country. Because when students return to the classroom, their civics teachers ought to consider asking them an Olympic medal-stand version of this question:
Which of Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s children did the most to promote democracy in America?
When I’ve asked this question in recent years, the responses have followed a familiar pattern: No one thinks Teddy deserves anything more than the bronze; many want to give Robert more than the silver; but, in the end, most say John merits the gold.
Interestingly, I think all these responses may get it wrong.
To me, the Kennedy whose life arguably has the most to teach us about good citizenship is Eunice.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver never served as president. Or held a cabinet position. Or gave a speech that is often quoted. No one ever called her “The Lion of the Senate.” And few people even noticed the 100th anniversary of her birth (last month, on July 10).
But Eunice Kennedy Shriver embodied an extremely important dimension of American civic life, a dimension rapidly fading before our eyes, even though Alexis de Tocqueville viewed it as one of the keys to the success of democracy in America.
Shriver saw a social problem that needed to be addressed and proceeded to roll up her sleeves and tackle it. From the bottom up.
Shriver’s signature achievement, creating the Special Olympics, began in 1962 in her own backyard as a day camp designed to help people with special needs learn to swim.
In time, her nonprofit organization grew to offer meaningful athletic opportunities to millions of people, while profoundly changing public attitudes about disability.
The backyard origins of Shriver’s world-changing enterprise would not have surprised de Tocqueville. “Americans of all ages, conditions and all dispositions constantly unite together … to hold fetes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries to the antipodes,” he marveled.
To de Tocqueville, America’s prolific bottom-up enterprises did more than just help those they directly served. They also indirectly aided democratic society by bringing together people from all walks of life to rub shoulders in collaborative endeavors often focused on the needs of others. As such, these voluntary associations fostered cross-cutting relationships that helped participants become better neighbors and better citizens.
In de Tocqueville’s America, “townships and voluntary associations were the means through which citizens who knew and trusted each other could solve problems, as well as broaden their individual perspectives and develop their civic skills,” observes Daniel Stid in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
Sadly, in our day, the de Tocquevillian spirit that infused Shriver’s backyard enterprise seems to be in short supply. Rarely do we roll up our sleeves and tackle social problems ourselves. Even more rarely do we forge cross-cutting friendships with people whose worldview differs greatly from our own.
Yet, our best hope for overcoming political polarization (and political exhaustion) may very well be found in rediscovering the important role that voluntary associations play, not just in solving problems, but in building the civic glue that brings unum to our pluribus.
Civics education courses could greatly help in this effort by offering students a robust vision of citizenship that emphasizes the importance of civic life outside of politics, of being a good neighbor and working to build better communities from the bottom up.
Obviously, students need to learn all about the JFK and RFK aspects of civics, about our founding documents and enduring principles and Constitutional structures.
But they also need to learn the Eunice Kennedy Shriver aspects of civics, the can-do spirit and voluntary initiative that so impressed de Tocqueville.
In starting the backyard enterprise that became the Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver taught us all what it means to “ask not” what politicians can do for us, but to ask instead what we can do to help others.
Which is why Eunice is the Kennedy most deserving of a Citizenship Gold Medal. At least in my book.
William Mattox is the author of The James Madison Institute’s civics curriculum, Celebrate Freedom, and a volunteer leader with the Village Square. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
Article originally published by the Dallas Morning News here: https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2021/08/08/who-is-the-greatest-kennedy-of-all-the-one-who-started-the-special-olympics/