Spring Honors Colloquium

Spring Honors Colloquium

The semester is quickly coming to an end, but academic lectures and events at AMU are still going strong!

Last week, Dr. Martin Medhurst, Professor of Rhetoric and Communication and Professor of Political Science at Baylor University, spoke for the Spring 2015 Honors Integrated Colloquium. His paper, “Competing Visions of Liberty: LBJ, Reagan and the American Dream,“ was responded to by Ave Maria University’s Seana Sugrue, Associate Professor of Politics, and Michael Novak, Distinguished Scholar in Residence

Medhurst spoke on how Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan had very different ideas about both liberty and the American dream. Beginning with Johnson, Medhurst examined each of the presidents’ political formation, historical circumstances, vision as outlined in public speeches and policies enacted while in office in order to get a sense of their competing visions of liberty.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was Lyndon B. Johnson’s “political hero,” Medhurst said, and Johnson’s views were “clearly…shaped by New Deal principles.” Johnson, throughout his presidency, looked forward to a “Great Society” in which there would be total equality for all Americans. He passed more social legislation than any other administration in U.S. history, including the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Fair Housing Act (1968) and the War on Poverty. For LBJ, Medhurst explained, “there was little that was not a function of government” and liberty originated in “law and specified legal rights.”

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, sought to “reduce the role of federal spending and federal oversight in the lives of everyday people,” Medhurst said. Reagan thought it was a problem to think of government as the principle agent of progress; he sought to help Americans “better their own lives through their own creative effort” instead of “wait[ing] for government” assistance. For Reagan, Medhurst stated, “the American dream began and ended with individual liberty.”

These two presidents’ visions of liberty were “not only different,” Medhurst said, “but in some ways directly opposite.” Johnson grounded his ideas in a progressive reading of the Constitution, while Reagan grounded his ideas in a classical interpretation of the Constitution. Johnson’s vision was of a liberty to, leading to equality of outcome. Reagan’s vision was of a liberty from, leading to equality of opportunity. Johnson sought to guarantee the end of equality, while Reagan only sought to guarantee equality of opportunity. And for Johnson, liberty lay in the concrete (programs, laws, grants), while for Reagan it lay in the abstract (opportunity, creativity, imagination). “In the main,” Medhurst said, “their ideas about liberty tended to follow along positive and negative axes.”

Medhurst was responded to by Seana Sugrue and Michael Novak, after which the floor was opened for questions from the students and further discussion.

The Honors Integrated Colloquia, led by three professors representing diverse disciplines, are interdisciplinary discussions for students in the Honors Program. They are dedicated to fostering an interdisciplinary and integrated conversation, focusing on texts and ideas within the core curriculum, as well as broader ideals and themes within the overall philosophy of the curriculum.