In May of 1964, President Johnson delivered a speech to the University of Michigan graduating class. I came across it while watching the PBS series American Experience.
Undoubtedly the Vietnam War casts a long shadow over President Johnson’s tenure in the White House. Political opinions aside, he cannot be faulted for lacking vision.
Hearing the speech, I was reminded that pragmatism can sometime give way to the idealist that dwells within.
I will share some excerpts with you.
The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.
The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.
It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.
But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.
…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.
…once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.
Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination.
…we must give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn from. Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.
We must seek an educational system which grows in excellence as it grows in size. And this means better training for our teachers. It means preparing youth to enjoy their hours of leisure, as well as their hours of labor. It means exploring new techniques of teaching, to find new ways to stimulate the love of learning and the capacity for creation.
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.
…our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit…
We have the power to shape the civilization that we want.
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.”
It is as true today as it was when it was first spoken in 1964. Reading The Great Society speech, afforded me a chance to reflect on the current state of affairs. I hope it creates a similar effect on other readers.