Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Johnson’s ‘Great Society’: An unfinished task for our generation

by Natalie Knott

In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson gave the graduation speech at the University of Michigan. In the year since he had assumed office, President Johnson had been pushing through legislation addressing the twin crises facing the nation: poverty and racial discrimination. The “Ann Arbor” or “Great Society” speech, as it would be labeled almost immediately afterwards, was the official call to action by a President to his nation.

There are few moments in oratorical history that reach these heights of possibility, the depth and breadth of purpose and the absolute desire to do “good,” that this moment in history achieved. “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all.” President Johnson, in this one statement, reclaims the commitment for liberty and happiness, promised by our forefathers to everyone, but retained in reality only for the wealthy, white and male.

The three bullet points of the speech and the following policy initiatives involved radical reforms in education, urban planning and the domestic environment. In 1964 there were serious problems in each of these areas that were seriously impeding our progress as a nation. Heartbreakingly, in 2007, most of these problems continue to plague our nation. Our cities remain overcrowded and the public housing located in our urban centers remains a depressing trap for its predominantly minority residents. The destruction of New Orleans and the continued displacement of its poor and black residents, who absorbed the brunt of the disaster, are a clear and brutal sign that we failed our former President’s call to ensure, “that the future generations come, not only to live, but to live the good life.”

The second tenet of the President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ is the protection of our natural resources and the preservation of our country’s natural beauty. Here, too, we are locked in mortal combat between those who look at acres of forest, miles of tundra and the seemingly endless depths of ocean and see them only as resources. We also fight this battle with ourselves. The best scientists in the world have told us if we do not change the way we live: if we don’t walk or peddle rather than drive, if we don’t stop demanding oranges in the winter if we live in Maine, and if we don’t vote based on our common sense rather than our lazy sense of entitlement: we will literally break our world, not to mention our country. As a nation we have yet to manage this: acres of green parkland are abundant in most cities, but in Las Vegas a massive park is in total opposition to President Johnson’s mandate.

The last and most important imperative that our parents (and through them ,us) were charged with is reformation of a broken education system. According to President Johnson in 1964, “Eight million adult Americans have not finished five years of school, nearly 20 million have not finished eight years and nearly 54 million adults have not finished high school.” Most depressingly, however, in 1964 “100,000 high school graduates, with proved ability, do not enter college because they cannot afford it.”

Through both public and private effort, our nation has made improvements in college affordability. Next year, however, Whitman College and others of its ilk will cost (with room and board) over $40,000. We are not doing enough to ensure every high school graduate has the opportunity to fulfill their educational goals and the recently proposed cuts to tuition assistance by President Bush in his budget demonstrate a depressing apathy to middle and working class kids.

Where we have really failed President Johnson, though, is in public elementary, intermediate and high school education. We have more classrooms and teachers (though not nearly enough), but our teachers are hamstrung by standardized tests that have become the point, not the measure, of education. Students are not taught to “enjoy their leisure as well as their hours of labor.” They are taught by society to self-anesthetize with television and video games. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1992 and 2005, “the percentage of students reading at or above BASIC proficiency level decreased from 80 to 73 percent.” “Less than one-quarter perform at or above PROFIECENT level in mathematics and only 61 percent performed at or above BASIC level.”

When each of you plans for your life after Whitman, I implore you to read this speech. President Johnson called our parents to action and most of them did not answer through their actions or their votes. The ‘Great Society’ is still within our reach if we are willing to commit our lives, our voices and our votes to these noble convictions.

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