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President Lyndon B. Johnson after receiving honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree. Michigan Governor, George Romney, is on President Johnson's right.

Why The Great Society Speech Matters Today

On May 22, 1964, newly elected Lyndon B. Johnson gave one of the most famous speeches in American history at the University of Michigan. "The Great Society" Speech was a bold, revolutionary call to a group of college graduates to go above and beyond themselves to create a better America.

Johnson told the crowd that the Great Society needed to be built around three areas: the cities, the countryside, and the classroom.

The Cities

Johnson knew that urbanization was taking America by storm as manufacturing and other jobs were mostly in cities. With this inevitability, he warned the graduates of the negative consequences that cities breed.

"Worst of all expansion is eroding the precious and time honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference."

This quote from the speech couldn't be truer today. Before the pandemic, a research study found that 60 percent of Americans were lonely, reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship. No doubt city life played a role in this unfortunate finding.

The Countryside

As mentioned, Johnson was concerned about the state of America's vast countryside. He appreciated the beauty and awe that is the American landscape and he feared that with the rise of cities, people would abuse and neglect the country's natural sanctuaries.

"We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing."

Here Johnson points out the repercussions of this new convenient way of life Americans found themselves with. In food production, the situation has gotten worse with a 2019 study finding that 99% of farmed animals in the United States live on large factory farms. We know factory farming is bad for everyone and everything involved: animals, rivers, streams soil, and people.

America hasn't done much better in the forest department either. A robust study from the University of Maryland and the World Resources Institute found that America experienced a net loss in trees between 2000 and 2020.

Why did Johnson make the claim that America was in danger back then? Well in part because of new technology and data that examined environmental concerns back then, but I bet Johnson thought the root of the problem was human ignorance.

If we look at today, most of us don't know where our food comes from and spend little time outside our suburban or local city. Most of us are used to instant gratification provided by the megacities and cement scenery that surround us.

The Classroom

The final building block of the Great Society put forth by Johnson was the classroom. I do believe we have come a long way in education since the 60s, but he does highlight issues that are prevalent today.

"In many places, classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated. Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid,"

A 2019 assessment backs up this claim, revealing that roughly half of U.S. states report overcrowding concerns. Furthermore, Teachers' pay is still a hot topic as in 2021, the median salary for a high school teacher was 61,820 dollars. This may sound like a lot but when you adjust for inflation and take into account some teachers have to live in city limits, the dollars don't stretch as far as they use to.

Johnson also mentioned concerns regarding the quality of education in America.

"But more classrooms and more teachers are not enough. We must seek an educational system which grows in excellence as it grows in size. This means better training for our teachers."

This is something we still deal with. We had National Guard troops deployed to substitute during the pandemic and states across the country are lowering the standard to be a teacher. In some states, you don't even need a college degree to begin teaching and in other states, you can obtain an emergency license with any bachelor's degree.

Did Johnson foresee all of these things happening 60 years later? Probably not, but nonetheless, it is shocking how relevant the speech is today.

The Main Takeaway

Although the relevancy is important, the main takeaway is the way he addressed these issues with the young graduates. He didn't use doom and gloom language like we are used to seeing on the news. He used this speech as a call to action.

"For better or for worse, your generation has been appointed by history to deal with those problems and to lead America toward a new age. You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation."

This quote sounds more like a war call than a commencement speech if you ask me. He doesn't tell the students to point their fingers at the world but to point their fingers at themselves.

At the end of the speech, LBJ reminds us that the future will look back at this time in history books and examine how we dealt with the issues.

"So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the future men will look back and say: it was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life."

So let us give the future a chapter of American history they can be proud of and want to emulate.


Written By: Nathan Payonk

Author of Newsletter: Nathan Payonk

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