What Defines a Great Society?
By Mark Rodgers There has been much reflection on the 50th anniversary of the Great Society and its progress, or lack thereof, on issues such as poverty and race. Few, however, have noted that President Johnson’s vision included the culture, and therefore the establishment of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) in 1965.The context was the Cold War, and the arms and space race that was heating up. President Kennedy’s speech on May 25, 1961 audaciously committed America to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth.” Thus, we increased our focus on teaching math and science.As a nation, we were committed to beating the Soviets, but this was not just a race to the top of technical prowess. As Glenn Seaborg, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, told a Senate committee in support of the NEA and NEH: "We cannot afford to drift physically, morally, or aesthetically in a world in which the current moves so rapidly perhaps toward an abyss. Science and technology are providing us with the means to travel swiftly. But what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer."Whether one supports or opposes government involvement in art and the humanities, what was important then, and is equally important now, is the recognition that the question is not how to get somewhere, but why and where we are going. What kind of society do we aspire to be? In this regard, art, religion and the humanities serve as essential guides. Sadly, too many of my conservative brethren measure greatness through the prism of economic and political power, and subsequently how to build such capital. They appear to undervalue the “what for”, and particularly under appreciate the role of art in helping lead us to an answer. The current moves too rapidly, perhaps toward an abyss. Science and technology are providing us with the means to travel swiftly, but what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer. Ming vases, Renaissance painting, Egyptian pyramids, Roman frescos. As we look back in time, it is the “artifacts” of a society that largely defines it. A great society produces great art not just because it can, but because great art expresses great aspirations.As we face cut backs across the federal board, it is understandable that the NEA and NEH should take their fair share. And as local schools tighten their belts, it is not surprising that art and music classes are curtailed. In order to continue to be a great society, however, we need to commit ourselves to invest in the creation of culture -in great “art.” Because without it, we will be adrift."Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning." -- C.S. Lewis