Student Activity

The Great Society and the Case for the Humanities

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the legislation authorizing the creation of NEH
Photo caption

As President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the legislation authorizing the creation of NEH, more than two hundred people looked on, including First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, Gregory Peck, Dumas Malone, Ansel Adams, Ralph Ellison, Walter Gropius, and Paul Mellon.

October is designated as National Arts and Humanities month in the United States. But, what is meant by the "humanities"?

Did you realize the humanities understood as the study and interpretation of languages, history, literature, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, history of art, and culture along with the fine and performing arts are considered worthy of support by two federal agencies?

Did you know that these agencies, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), were established as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society with the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965?

The story of how the National Endowment for the Humanities came into existence is a fascinating one and instructive for all those interested in the humanities. At the time when Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs—especially the war on poverty and civil rights legislation—dominated most of the domestic agenda and the Vietnam War was being escalated abroad, the nation’s lawmakers and the president also established a federal agency exclusively devoted to supporting the humanities. The underlying rationale for the agency was based on widely held opinion that the American experiment in self-government requires a thoughtful and informed citizenry. With this starting point an eloquent public argument was made that “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens” and “to know the best that has been thought and said in former times can make us wiser than we otherwise might be, and in this respect the humanities are not merely our, but the world's best hope.” (Report of the Humanities, 1964).

This LaunchPad serves as a student’s guide to reading the key documents that tell the story of the founding of the agency. Activities to engage students are built around four key texts:

  • President Lyndon Johnson’s address at the University of Michigan, known as the Great Society speech;
  • President Johnson’s remarks in Providence, Rhode Island at the 200th anniversary convocation of Brown University;
  • Excerpt from the Report of the Commission of the Humanities; and the
  • “Findings and Purposes” section of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209).

Part One. The Great Society

Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 23, 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) became the 36th president of the United States. He soon began thinking about what he wanted to do with the awesome powers and responsibilities of the office he had inherited and envisioned an ambitious and sweeping legislative agenda of progressive programs and policies known collectively as the Great Society.

President Johnson delivered the commencement address to the graduating class at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964. He used the occasion to articulate his vision of the Great Society.

Text Dependent Questions

  1. Why do you think that President Johnson used the occasion of a college commencement address to announce his vision of the “Great Society”? How does the speech appeal to the idealism of youth?
  2. Why would the achievements and values of America’s past not be considered adequate for the next fifty years, according to Johnson?
  3. Why does Johnson think that the students will need “indignation” as well as “imagination” and “initiative” to meet the coming challenges?
  4. In four short paragraphs, Johnson sets forth his definition of the Great Society. In your own words, paraphrase of the meaning of the Great Society based on those paragraphs.

Part Two. Remarks in Providence, Rhode Island, at the 200th Anniversary Convocation of Brown University, October 1964

A few months later, as the presidential campaign was heating up, Johnson made a campaign swing to Rhode Island.

At Brown University, on occasion of the 200th anniversary of its founding, Johnson made a speech about the importance of government support for institutions of higher education, the arts, and the humanities.

Text Dependent Questions

  1. Johnson begins with the proposition that in the present time, “greatness of States is measured not by their size, but by the worth of their schools.” What evidence does he make for this statement?
  2. What is the “partnership” that Johnson praises? Why is it “old and fruitful”?
  3. What challenge does this partnership now face?
  4. According to Johnson, why is it important for education to be accessible to every child in the United States?

Part Three. Report of the Commission on the Humanities (1964)

In 1963, three scholarly and educational organizations—the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Council of Graduate Schools in America, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa—joined together to establish the National Commission on the Humanities.

These organizations instructed the commission to conduct a study of the "the state of the humanities in America." In June 1964 the commission released its report.

They argued that the emphasis being placed on science endangered the study of the humanities from elementary schools through postgraduate programs and recommended "the establishment by the President and the Congress of the United States of a National Humanities Foundation” to redress the balance.

Read an excerpt from that report that offers a clear and cogent rationale for establishing a federal organization devoted to the humanities:

Text Dependent Questions

  1. What is the role of the humanities scholar according to this excerpt?
  2. What is the proper relationship between democracy and the humanities?
  3. What role do the humanities play in foreign affairs and international relations?
  4. What is problematic about leisure and how might the humanities help with the problem?

Part Four. National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209)

An act to provide for the establishment of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities to promote progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts in the United States, and for other purposes.

Politicians in Washington considered the advice of the commission’s report. Did we need two new federal agencies? The White House came on board in late 1964 and action was taken in the new Congress in 1965. The resulting bill was the culmination of a movement calling for the federal government to invest in culture, just as it had in science.

On September 29, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as separate and independent federal agencies to promote and support the arts and the humanities to all Americans.

Text Dependent Questions

  1. Why does the act establishing the two agencies begin with “[t]he arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States”? Do you think this is a good beginning? Why or why not?
  2. Why do you think the federal government believed it appropriate in the year 1965 to take a supporting rather than a leading role in encouraging the humanities and art scholarship?
  3. Science and technology alone are not sufficient to guide our public policy and nation’s future. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain and use evidence from the readings in your answer.
  4. Does “democracy demand wisdom and vision from its citizens”? Why or why not? If you answered no, why not? If yes, where would wisdom be found?

For further research, reflection, and discussion

  • In the fifty years since the founding of NEH, do you think that we as a society have become “masters of technology,” or are we rather becoming the “unthinking servants”? Give your reasons based on evidence from reputable sources.
  • Fifty years later, is it still important for agencies such as NEH to promote the humanities to American citizens, particularly students in schools? Why or why not?
  • The findings and purposes statement mentions the importance of the cultural leadership of the United States. This is sometimes called “soft power.” How well do you think the U.S. has used its cultural leadership around in the world in your lifetime? Offer some concrete examples to buttress your argument. Would more emphasis on the humanities help the image of the United States abroad?
  • The NEH website is a good place to explore if you want to learn more about the work of the agency over the past fifty years. Pick a congenial humanities topic such as a favorite major author, historical event, or idea, and by using the search box find out what NEH has funded on the topic. Write up a report for your class on what you learned.
  • The September 2015 issue of Humanties Magazine is devoted to the 50th Anniversary celebration. Pick one of the articles to read and review, and report back to your class about what you learned about the agency and the humanities.

To learn more about Lyndon B. Johnson and the Great Society, the following sites are recommended: