Practice: Rhetorical Context

Learning Objective

  • Identify writers’ rhetorical contexts

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Below is an excerpt from the advance text of a speech then-Senator John F. Kennedy gave just a few days before he won the election to become the 35th U.S. president. Read the excerpt, and then answer the questions.

We live in a fast-moving nation. But one thing constant from the birth of our Republic has been our faith in education and our determination to make it available to all our citizens.

It was Aristotle, more than 2,000 years ago, who said: “The neglect of education ruins the constitution of the country.” And Thomas Jefferson echoed these principles when he wrote to a friend in 1786 that “the most important bill is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”

Thus the value and importance of education was at the foundation of Western thought—and was again present at the foundation of the American Republic. . . .

Today I want to discuss education with you—the current crisis in our educational system is a crisis caused by our failure to meet our responsibilities over the past 8 years; and tell you what I think we must do in the future to build an educational system to meet our expanding needs. . . .

Where, then, have we failed in the past eight years? And what must we do for the future?

First, we have failed to provide adequate classrooms for our expanding school population. Today we have 131,000 classrooms fewer than we need—and, at our current rate of construction shortage is actually increasing. The result is double shifts, obsolete, overcrowded, and even dangerous classrooms.

In one community a dog kennel was converted into a school where four classes were being held. In an adjoining town the school superintendent said, “I only wish I had a dog kennel to use.” In another area the school board is renting 2 windowless, cinder block factories to house 883 children—while in other cities kindergarten children are being taught in firetraps. . . .

Second, we have failed to provide enough well-trained and well-paid teachers. Today we need 135,000 more teachers. Almost three million schoolchildren are being taught by teachers working on substandard certificates. And as our school population expands in the next decade, one-and-a-half million more teachers—one-third of all our college graduates—will be needed to keep our educational system going. We are not attracting bright young men and women into teaching because the salaries which we pay our teachers are shamefully low. . . .

Therefore, I propose the enactment of a Student Loan Insurance Act—modeled on the highly successful program which has been adopted by my native State of Massachusetts. Under this program the Federal Government—in return for a small premium—would guarantee student loans made by colleges and universities. Thus colleges would be able to secure funds adequate to meet the pressing financial needs of all of its students—so that no able student would have to leave school because he could not pay his expenses. Although a small special revolving fund would be required, Federal payments would be made only in the unlikely event of default. Basic responsibility for repayment would be in the hands of the student, and the loan program itself would be administered by the individual college or university. In this way we can make sure that no bright young American is denied a college education. . . .

Abraham Lincoln once said that “He has the right to criticize who has the heart to help.” We of the Democratic Party criticize our educational system—and the leadership which has permitted it to falter—because we have the heart to help, and, even more, the programs and the leadership which can build an educational system of which all Americans can be proud.[1]

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  1. John F. Kennedy: "Speech by Senator John F. Kennedy, Beverly Hilton Hotel, Los Angeles, CA - (Advance Release Text)," November 2, 1960. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.