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John Gardner - Classroom
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For Teachers

Above all, John Gardner is a teacher and a mentor. In that spirit, the film, JOHN GARDNER: UNCOMMON AMERICAN, and the companion Website can be used to supplement the teaching of a variety of topics to secondary school and college students. For teachers working with leadership groups outside of the classroom -- from student government to community service organizations -- the film, John Gardner's writings, and his life experience can raise important issues relating to citizenship and provide valuable examples of civic engagement.

Gardner's life and times provide a front row seat to the major events of the last century and insight into the modern world that confronts students today. The film and Website are tools for classes investigating the ten major thematic strands in social studies, as outlined by the National Council for the Social Studies and followed by many history and culture curricula: culture; time, continuity, and change; people, places, and environment; individual development and identity;individuals, groups, and institutions; power, authority, and governance; production, distribution, and consumption; science, technology, and society; global connections; civic ideas and practices.

The following examples illustrate a few of the ways teachers can make use of these materials to deepen students' understanding of certain subject matter:

Time, Continuity, Change

Students studying the essential historical themes of time, continuity, and change can examine these ideas through John Gardner's life. John Gardner was settling into what he thought was a comfortable life as an academic when World War II erupted. It forced him to re-evaluate his life and move in surprising new directions. From his days as an intelligence officer with the OSS in World War II , Gardner had his hand in almost every major historical movement of the last fifty years in this nation.

In the 1950's, he was a leader in the effort for education reform, which led to his influential book "Excellence." As Secretary of H.E.W., he implemented sweeping education legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which revamped the federal government's role in education and targeted funding for poor children.

In the 1960s, he was the engineer of President Johnson's Great Society, the success of which remains a subject of debate to the present day. Gardner was front and center in implementing and enforcing civil rights and Medicare. From the 1970s until today, Gardner has been a leader in promoting citizen action to reform government, create new leaders, and solve the needs of communities.

Students can study Gardner to gain a better understanding of these events, their enduring legacies, and their successes and failures.

Individual Development and Identity

John Gardner has been one of the seminal thinkers on the role of the individual in society and the need for personal and national renewal. His book, "Self-Renewal" and related writings about change have helped shape the way people think about individual development. Through Gardner's life, students can analyze the way one man shaped his own identity and test his ideas against their own experiences. Classes can analyze case studies like Experience Corps and the White House Fellows Program in terms of individual development and growth throughout life. The range of Gardner's writings provide a broad range of provocative ideas relating to leadership, excellence, and self-renewal.

Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

John Gardner had a unique seat to investigate how large institutions and groups work in society. "Self-Renewal" was a call to arms for American society to nurture the talents of individuals and to recognize the need for continuous change and growth if American society is to remain vibrant. As the president of Carnegie Corporation, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, and founder of Common Cause and Independent Sector, John Gardner has focused on the themes described in "Self-Renewal." His writings and ideas underscore his belief that individuals have the power and responsibility to effect change in their communities. Gardner, himself, after leaving HEW created several organizations designed to empower people to use their skills and determination to have a positive impact on others. One estimate claims that Gardner's programs have changed the lives of nearly 200 million Americans.

Students can investigate how Gardner's views on the development of leaders, personal self-renewal, and the ways institutions can spur individual growth compare with the thinking of others.

Power, Authority, and Governance/ Civic Ideas and Practices

As a counselor to five presidents and a member of Johnson's cabinet, Gardner saw power at the highest levels. He also wielded great power both as a government official and as a thinker and activist who fought against the ideas of the political establishment.

Classes can look at Gardner's involvement in government as a case study of how power and ideas can work together for change. Gardner's life also provides one model of how the individual can stand up to power despite the high cost.

The Vietnam War had a profound impact on American foreign and domestic policy. Some people argue that the War on Poverty failed because President Johnson wasted resources on the war. Gardner, himself, eventually decided the war had undermined Johnson's presidency and told him so privately just before he resigned as Secretary of HEW. This material can be used to explore the often competing obligations of public servants and the question of a person's obligation to speak out.

After leaving the government, Gardner founded Common Cause, one of the first citizens' lobby that was organized to speak for the interests of ordinary people. This group pushed for campaign finance reform in the early 1970's and still does today. Classes can investigate the strengths and weaknesses of the approach taken by Common Cause.
John Gardner has spent most of his life thinking about how a successful society should operate. Classes may wish to examine his writings and his life in the context of the historical themes.

The Film The film itself is a valuable tool for teaching about specific historical events in America: Click here to Order the Film.

A Son of the West | Call to Action | Education and Excellence
Engineer of the Great Society | Tackling the Problems of Urban America
Common Cause | Empowering Communities


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