Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson gave a commencement speech that changed the relationship between our country and its people. In that speech, he offered a vision of a “Great Society,” and in few places has the mark of his vision remained stronger than in education.
Johnson, who himself had struggled to afford school to become a teacher, had a finely tuned sense of human potential, of justice, and of what was possible with hard work and a good education. In his speech at the University of Michigan, he asked America to see the powerful connection between educational opportunity and the nation’s economic and moral health. And he asked us to recognize that it was within our power, collectively, to change outcomes, to ensure decent opportunity for every child. Indeed, he knew our future depended on our seeing that truth.
Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination. We are still far from that goal.
Today, eight million adult Americans, more than the entire population of Michigan, have not finished five years of school. Nearly 20 million have not finished eight years of school. Nearly 54 million — more than one-quarter of all America — have not even finished high school.
Each year more than 100,000 high school graduates with proved ability do not enter college because they cannot afford it. And if we cannot educate today’s youth, what will we do in 1970 when elementary school enrollment will be five million greater than 1960?
… Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.
By some measures, we are far closer to the country Johnson knew we could become. As he noted, a quarter of this country hadn’t completed high school at the time of his speech; now, that figure is less than a tenth. Thanks in large part to federal grants and loans, college is a reality for millions of students who could not attend otherwise.
Perhaps just as important, we now have far greater proof of Johnson’s belief that education can change life trajectories, and far greater understanding of what it takes to make that opportunity possible.
Yet, as I arrive to work each day at the Department of Education — itself a descendant of his vision for a more equitable society, housed in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Building — I recognize that poverty and other circumstances of one’s birth, far too often, remain “a bar to learning.” And the need for education is, frankly, greater today than it was half a century ago. Today, paths to a good life without a good education have essentially vanished. Yet at every level, poverty and race are still far too closely tied to educational opportunity and educational success. From course offerings to suspension and expulsion rates to college enrollment and graduation, we are not yet the equitable society Johnson knew we were capable of becoming.
In another commencement speech Johnson gave, at Howard University in 1965, he said, “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity—all our must citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”
Those words rang true five decades ago, and they ring true today.
Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education