Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Soft American --- More Relevant Than Ever

I think it was in a Washington Post article about the JFK 50 mile race that I saw reference to a piece written in late 1960 by then President-elect John F. Kennedy about Americans "getting soft".  I found the article so timely and compelling that I found it on the internet then created a PDF of the article (via $\LaTeX$) so that I could embed it into my blog.  It's obvious the article was written in late 1960 --- there are references to the Soviet threat and one department he names, "The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare", was renamed the Department of Health and Human Services in 1979 --- but its message is as relevant as ever.   One passage, in particular, deserves excerpting:

"For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies.

In this sense, physical fitness is the basis of all the activities of our society. And if our bodies grow soft and inactive, if we fail to encourage physical development and prowess, we will undermine our capacity for thought, for work and for the use of those skills vital to an expanding and complex America.

Thus the physical fitness of our citizens is a vital prerequisite to America's realization of its full potential as a nation, and to the opportunity of each individual citizen to make full and fruitful use of his capacities."

You could argue that JFK was exaggerating the problem and the consequences of slothfulness.  We have, after all, gotten along pretty well economically as a nation in the 50+ years since this piece was published.  Perhaps the observed "softness" was an inevitable result of having one of the strongest and most devoted work ethics in the western world (more time on the job = less time pursuing fitness)??  Even if we set the arguments aside regarding the importance of the issue and whether JFK was right to encourage Americans to step up their physical vigor, I think most of us can concede that the problem has gotten even worse.  If JFK were alive today I think he'd be beside himself.  But since he's not, give his editorial from 1960 a read.

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