Classroom Activities

  1. Read President Johnson’s speech announcing the War on Poverty on the website, American Presidency Project. Is the speech convincing? Why or why not? What did you find most interesting about the way President Johnson described poverty? Note the metaphors Johnson used to describe the program. In what ways might these metaphors have influenced the way Americans understood poverty at the time? Is it relevant today?
  2. Describe the “social contract” in contemporary terms. Provide some examples of how you abide by an implicit contract in order to balance your individual rights and needs with living in a society that requires order. Under what circumstances do you think it is appropriate to break this contract and protest the larger system itself?
  3. Imagine two citizens:
    • Citizen A volunteers as a tutor at a local afterschool program. She works with young children to improve their reading skills and to instill a love of reading. Several students have improved their reading skills and have become more regular readers as a result of their working together. She is loved by the students.
    • Citizen B has organized several protests outside the state capital to demand greater funding for early childhood reading intervention programs. She also regularly attends school board meetings and demands accountability about how the school is performing on reading tests and how funds are being spent. She is not well loved by the school board.
    • Who is the “better” citizen, and why? Who do you think makes a greater difference? Which citizen more closely represents your own views on how to be a good citizen? Divide into groups and discuss why your approach is more likely to make a difference.
    1. Effective public speakers know the importance of adapting to their immediate audience. How did Shriver recognize and adapt to a somewhat skeptical audience in the April 1966 speech to the Citizens Crusade Against Poverty?
    2. The United States has a long history of political families such as the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, the Bushes, and the Clintons—families with wealth and political power. Think of political leaders who come from influential families and describe both the positive and negative associations that might come from the family relationship. Do you think those associations impact the credibility of these public figures and their speeches?

    Student Research

    1. Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, is often credited with raising awareness about poverty even before the issue was addressed in the political arena. What other books or films can you think of that have helped raise awareness of a particular social issue? Books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at any Speed are two other examples from Shriver’s era. How about the contemporary era? Are documentary films like Blackfish and Fast-Food Nation doing similar work in raising consciousness and even providing impetus for advocacy movements? Research one or more of these (or other) books or films that are known for raising awareness of political/social problems and assess its rhetorical strategies and their effectiveness.
    2. One of the primary supporters of the Citizens Crusade Against Poverty was labor leader Walter Reuther. Widely known for his leadership of the United Auto Workers Union, Reuther also has a long history of supporting a variety of other causes. Using any electronic database from your library, research Reuther’s life and the causes he supported. Describe and analyze his importance to a variety of movements.
    3. The Community Action Program (CAP) provided a workbook (actually a three-ring binder so it could be updated regularly) that described the goals of the community action program. It described the CAP as a “catalyst and coordinator” and outlined the following four goals for the program: 1) Coordination and development of services; 2) Involvement of the people who most need help; 3) Stimulation of change; and 4) Total mobilization of the community. Read each of these descriptions in the workbook and think about their applicability to other issues. How might these categories be applied to reforming health care, for example? Or environmental problems? Or educational reform? Choose an issue that is important to you and write a short “strategy paper” using these four goals as the basis for action.
    4. Research poverty levels in your own state and city. You may wish to familiarize yourself with how poverty levels are calculated (see a helpful Census Bureau description here). After you have discovered statistics for your region, consider the information provided at Confronting Poverty is a “public sociology” website, developed by Professors Mark Rank and Tom Hirschl, with a host of useful resources. Explore the entire website and write a critical analysis of what the website has to offer and how it might help us to understand the causes of poverty and the best ways to reduce or eliminate poverty.
    5. Sargent Shriver would become the vice-presidential running mate for George McGovern only after Thomas Eagleton was dropped from the ticket because of concerns about his mental health. Search a newspaper database to research how the Eagleton controversy impacted McGovern’s already faltering campaign. How was the treatment of mental health coverage different in 1972? Would a vice-presidential candidate today face the same scrutiny that Eagleton did? Provide a bibliography of sources about the Eagleton controversy and the 1972 campaign in general.
    6. In a short, impromptu speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan on October 14, 1960, President Kennedy first broached the idea of sending young professionals overseas as volunteers. He then proposed the idea for the Peace Corps in more detail in a speech in San Francisco on November 2, 1960. Describe the unique role that Kennedy envisioned these volunteers fulfilling. How was this different from the more traditional way Americans thought about serving their country on the international stage? What key terms or ideals about citizenship operated in both the international and domestic contexts?
    7. In the podcast, The Power of the Camera, photographers Robert Houston and Steve Pavey are interviewed about their experiences documenting the anti-poverty movement. Listen to the podcast and discuss the power of stories (both narrative and visual) as a means of talking about poverty.
    8. As a class, watch the documentary film American Idealist. Follow the discussion guide provided by Facing History that is located here. Add your own specific questions about the rhetorical dimensions of idealism. What other famous speakers in history would you describe as idealists? What makes speeches “idealistic” by your understanding of the term?
    9. Shriver initially resisted the appointment to be the Director of the War on Poverty because of concerns that it would “destroy” the Peace Corps. For a sometimes entertaining glimpse into Johnson’s persuasive strategies in overcoming Shriver’s resistance, their February 1, 1964 conversation can be heard here. Other recordings illustrate how Johnson had to balance pressures between the War on Poverty and Vietnam and the pressures placed on Shriver (for example, LBJ on Sargent Shriver, Politics, and the War on Poverty). Does hearing these behind-the-scenes conversations alter any of your perceptions of the relationship between Johnson and Shriver during the War on Poverty?

    Citizenship Resources

    1. Read the following article by Nora Delaney from Harvard’s Kennedy School: “For the Sake of Argument.” From that article and any of the sources linked from the article, answer these questions: How would you define civility? Is civility always a good thing? What are some of the most important considerations when thinking about the idea of civility in political discourse?
    2. Sargent Shriver is not the only public official to invoke the need to support the soldier as a way of shielding an administration from criticism of its war policy. Roger Stahl provides an excellent overview of the rhetorical evolutions of “support the troops” (Roger Stahl, “Why We ‘Support the Troops’: Rhetorical Evolutions.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 12.4 (2009): 533-70). After reading Stahl’s essay, discuss how calls to support the troops are used to deflect criticism. Is that a rhetorically successful strategy? Is this ethical? How might advocates distinguish between criticisms of war policy and “supporting the troops?”
    3. Read this article by James Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman (based on their book), proposing a new national holiday, Deliberation Day. This opening section provides a good overview of the many advantages of deliberative democracy and deliberative polling. Do you think such a holiday would be beneficial? Would there be any downsides?
    4. After Sargent Shriver read an article by legal scholars Edgar and Jean Cahn, “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective,” he immediately asked the authors to become part of the War on Poverty (which they did). The authors didn’t necessarily take issue with a militaristic perspective on the War on Poverty, but they did call for that to be balanced and complemented by a civilian perspective. They detailed both perspectives throughout their article. Read the article and create a chart with the headings “Military” and “Civilian” at the top. List all the characteristics associated with each perspective in each column. Review the types of citizenship associated with each perspective.
    5. Shriver contended that democracy required citizens to do more than just vote. Yet many Americans see voting as the primary act of citizenship. How much of your duty as a citizen do you feel is fulfilled by the act of voting? Is volunteering also an important part of citizenship? Are there other behaviors or acts that are expected of good citizens? Make a list of all the activities that you consider to be a part of your citizenship and provide a rough estimate (or pie chart!) of your time spent on each activity. Compare and discuss your observations and percentages with classmates.