Teaching Guide: Exploring Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. After evaluating the 1963 speech by President Johnson, Johnson’s March 1965 speech to Congress, and the 1965 photograph of President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act, how would you describe President Johnson’s views on civil rights? What issues did he identify as priorities? Why did he find them important? Did his perspectives change over time?
  2. In the War on Poverty, the Johnson administration set out to eliminate poverty. How did they try to do this? What causes of poverty did they identify? Use the photograph of Richard Solis and the report reviewing health programs in answering this question; you may also wish to consider other sources from the set. Do you agree with their perspectives?
  3. President Lyndon Johnson began his career teaching in an underfunded, rural school. How did the Great Society address inequality in education? Focus on the photograph of a Neighborhood Youth Corps teacher aide, the photograph of a teacher distributing Project Head Start diplomas, and the report on ESEA programs in answering this question.
  4. The Johnson administration successfully implemented Medicare, legislation for which had been introduced during the Kennedy administration. The video of President Kennedy and the video of an American Medical Association representative show the two men arguing for and against Medicare. What arguments do they make? Do you find them convincing?
  5. Examine the editorial cartoon closely. Describe it. What does it show? What does it represent? What message was the artist trying to convey?
  6. The editorial cartoon, the report by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the announcement from Robert McNair document criticisms that the Johnson administration received. Summarize the criticisms presented in each source. Then assess the validity of the claims. Were the criticisms fair?
  7. The War on Poverty achieved great success but also faced stark challenges. After reading the 2014 report by the Council of Economic Advisers, would you characterize the War on Poverty as a success? What work remains to be done? Do you think the United States will ever eliminate poverty? Why or why not?

Classroom activities

  1. Ask students to consider the editorial cartoon, the report by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the announcement from Robert McNair, and then write a speech that President Johnson might have used to respond to his critics. Alternately, students may write a series of letters in which he responds to each of his critics. Ask students to review the 1963 speech by President Johnson and Johnson’s March 1965 speech to Congress to consider Johnson’s priorities and the way he presented his ideas. Students should draw upon specific examples and details from the documents in the set.
  2. Ask students to use contemporary newspapers from your area to research current issues related to poverty, education, health care, civil rights, and urban development. Working in small groups, students should share research findings and discuss common themes. As a group, students can develop their own vision of a “Great Society” for their area today. What issues should be addressed? How would students address them? Students can present findings on a poster (either digital or physical) that features the newspaper articles they used as well as their plan.

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