Building a “Great Society”

This is still the season when many of us are celebrating graduating seniors and cheering young people on as they chart their next steps. What kind of world will their generation create? Sixty years ago, as President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke to college students at Ohio University and the University of Michigan in May 1964, he spoke publicly for the first time about the idea of a “Great Society”—and told students that young people could be its builders.

When he spoke at Ohio University, he noted that America was demographically a young country, so its future would belong to young people — “so to you of this student body, I say merely as a statement of fact, America is yours: yours to make a better land, yours to build the Great Society.” He continued: “It is a Society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled. Where no man who wants work will fail to find it. Where no citizen will be barred from any door because of his birthplace or his color or his church. Where peace and security is common among neighbors and possible among nations. This is the world that waits for you. Reach out for it now. Join the fight to finish the unfinished work in your own land and in the rest of the world.”

Two weeks later President Johnson spoke at the University of Michigan’s commencement ceremony. Once again he told the students that America had the opportunity to move “upward to the Great Society” in their time, and said their imagination, their initiative, and their indignation could be the tools needed to create it. He also defined the “Great Society” more fully in that speech, and he began by saying:

“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 . . .”

The Great Society is one where all children and young people — and adults — will be able to find joy and thrive. It’s fitting that President Johnson shared his vision with young people first. Some of the ideals President Johnson envisioned in the Great Society and the policies needed to support them came under attack almost immediately, and many have remained under attack in one form or another ever since. Just days ago, we saw the House Agriculture Committee voting to advance a farm bill proposing changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which children, young people, and families in big cities and rural communities across the country rely on to help with nutritious meals, that would cut SNAP benefits by an estimated $30 billion over ten years. This is a far cry from the vision of a society “where no child will go unfed.” We see ongoing resistance to the call to end poverty, and new pushbacks against the call to end racial injustice. But at the same time, we also see how far we have come, and how in each new generation young people set a new standard for where we will go next.

If creating a great society is still a challenge that is constantly being renewed, young people are still ready for the challenge — and their imagination, initiative, and indignation are still the right tools for the task. I hope they will never be discouraged by the unfinished work but will always keep building.