Congress, the Great Society, and Today
This lesson studies legislation passed in response to President Lyndon Baines Johnson's call for America to become a "Great Society." Students will detail the President's vision, summarize its historic context, and explain the ways in which Congress responded. The main source for their research will be the online exhibit entitled The Great Society Congress created by the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress.
Students will study the Great Society and Congress’s role in shaping it. Students will develop research, critical thinking, and historic analysis skills through collaborative research, analysis, and discussion. They will research in an online exhibit about the 89th Congress to learn about the achievements of the "Great Society Congress." They will conclude by assessing the importance of this congressional action as a model for addressing issues today.
Between January 1965 and December 1966, the 89th United States Congress enacted the most extensive legislative program since the New Deal. The Voting Rights Act, Immigration and Nationality Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and Social Security Act are but a few of the many significant laws passed during the 89th Congress. They were transformative pieces of legislation and provided the cornerstone of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s far-reaching Great Society agenda.
What was the Great Society? What role did Congress play in creating the Great Society? And what perspective does the history of the Great Society bring to issues today?
U.S. History, Government
9 – 12
Five 45-minute class periods (1 day analyzing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 State of the Union Address; 1 day researching the historical context; 2 days of research in the Great Society Congress website; 1 day assessing how the work of the Great Society Congress is relevant today)
Day 1: Analyzing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 State of the Union Address
Prior to day 1: Assign the students to read the excerpted State of the Union Address.
In class on day 1:
- Engage the whole class in a general discussion of President Johnson’s speech by asking:
- What did the President mean by the phrase “The Great Society?”
- What are the 3 elements of what the President called “our basic task?”
- What role did the President suggest that Congress play in constructing The Great Society?”
- Lead the students in a closer study of the President’s speech by dividing them into three teams. Each team will become the class experts on one of the basic tasks outlined in the speech. (Note: they are found in the section entitled “The Task” and they are numbered in this excerpt.) Each team will read their assigned section of the speech closely, write a one-paragraph summary of the section of the speech containing their assigned task, and summarize it orally for the whole class.
Day 2: Relating Topics to their Historical Context
Students will work in the same groups assigned on Day 1, researching print and online sources for the historical context of the topic they were assigned. Each group should identify three broad topics from America in 1965 that relate to their assignment. (e.g., poverty, hunger, health, the environment, communism, war). Each team will then draw on its work and findings to complete Worksheet 1 of the accompanying lesson materials.
Days 3 and 4: Researching the Great Society Congress Website
Each team will access the website The Great Society Congress for information about three legislative ways Congress addressed one of the issues they listed on Worksheet 1. (For example, students assigned to study Basic Task 1 “A Growing Economy” might identify the Appalachian Regional Development Act as one action taken by Congress). Students will organize their research findings by completing Worksheet 2 of the accompanying lesson materials.
Day 5: Assessing the Relevance of the Great Society Congress as a Model for Today
- Students will work in their groups to draw upon their learning in the previous steps of this lesson, creating an assessment of the legislation passed by the Great Society Congress as a model for today. Each team should summarize its findings by completing Worksheet 3 of the accompanying lesson materials.
- Each team will share its assessment of like and unlike qualities with the whole class.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion of the Great Society as a model for congressional action today.
This lesson was created in partnership with the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress.
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