To become a better speaker, I study great speeches and speakers. Though I do read some, most come from the 20th century, because we don’t have earlier audiovisual records. In case you’re wondering, my choice for best speech of the 20th century is Robert Kennedy’s remarks from the back of a truck in Indianapolis, after the murder of Dr. King. Quoting Aeschylus from memory and using notes prepared in less than an hour earns more credit. “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” The speech is five minutes. It helped prevent a riot. It merited a documentary.
My focus today, nevertheless, is on Robert Kennedy’s brother. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, wound up on the walls of Catholic households, or perhaps in a photo in an office. On the American Rhetoric 20th Century Top 100, JFK appears six times. (RFK’s Indianapolis speech ranked 17th. Almost all the speeches above are wonderful, by the way, but prepared.) My speech choice is not one of JFK’s six on the list, and not even his most famous in Houston, but it encapsulates a key thought. Delivered at “technical institution” Rice University on 12 September 1962, it talks about science and space exploration. A NASA site has the full transcript if you prefer reading. The entire speech contains multiple interesting parts, including the first few minutes, compressing human history into fifty years. Today’s key quote begins about 8:30.
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Perhaps the most important part of my coursework at the University of Georgia has been the illumination of social axioms. (It’s certainly not the math.) Schooling in the United States has major problems. Why does the public fund schools? Because the vast majority of earners consider intellectual development of society’s children an important task. Though many grumble about cost, few question the task. What intellectual development should the schools provide? After that, argument begins, where individual axioms constrain choices. Tonight, I don’t want to debate standards, tests, topics, textbooks, and the rest. JFK mentioned none of them. Instead, he mentioned products, like the Saturn C-1 booster rocket, the Mariner spacecraft, the Tiros weather satellites. Beyond practical and impractical things, space was there, with a new hope for knowledge and peace. Thus, he asked for “God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
Currently, we live in a world with much labeled extreme. Or should I corrupt spelling and use X-Treme? There’e extreme sports and extreme boot camp fitness and extreme makeovers and even extreme couponing. Watch out for flying tomato sauce cans! Wikipedia mentions a few characteristics of these extreme sport activities. Most have individual, not team competition, and most have subjective aesthetic judging criteria. Many begin with a anti-traditional mindset. Achievements belong to the individual or small group, not society.
In comparison, JFK’s speech repeatedly mentions the larger group, a “great national effort of the United States of America.” He knew it was adventure, “in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.” Yet the moon task progresses beyond extreme, to a fresh notion of challenge. Challenge involves a group and has clearly defined goals. Going to the moon was a challenge, not just extreme. Challenges, like serving as small town mayor, attempt to yield good.
When I examine my recent experiences, are they challenges or merely extreme? Most of my travel, like around the world in 8.0 days, was merely extreme. Solo travel accomplished little. I acknowledge this fact. After my Statistics PhD failure, I took travel for transition, to help with the shift. The days of haphazard travel have diminished. My summer 2012 journey to Asia, while highly unusual, was about challenge and a societal goal. In my work, I pursued this PhD partially for myself, since I like academia and thinking about numbers, but my primary purpose is to improve people’s numeracy skills. Yes, education academics, skills. Statistics has always been about tools. Intellectually capable adults, most people, should have training to handle straightforward tasks: to read and comment about polls, compute expected utility, and compare the risk of medical treatments.
Those are not simple tasks, and my goal stands like a nearly impossible challenge. It is. It’s harder than going to the moon, because I’m defining success involving a large proportion of society. What did JFK, with help from his writers, say?
… that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Thanks to the Common Core Standards, most US states have decided to no longer postpone statistical literacy, my desired task. I am willing to not merely be extreme, but accept the challenge. There will need to be much organization, energy, and skill. And yes, I intend to win.
I choose to go to the moon. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
While I want to find a helpmeet, I travel nevertheless. And I hope to not be found wanting.
I choose to go to the moon.