The guardian genius of democracy: The myth of the heroic teacher in Lyndon B. Johnson's education policy rhetoric, 1964-1966

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The myth of the heroic teacher posits that transformational educators, through sheer will, dedication, and selflessness, can break through complacent school bureaucracies to alter the lives of students born into difficult circumstances. Like all myths, the heroic teacher myth functions as depoliticized speech; it reconciles the competing egalitarian and individualistic components of the American Dream by providing a heroic resolution to indissoluble tensions. As president, Lyndon B. Johnson invoked his experience as an educator to construct a character formally aligned with historic conceptions of ideal teaching. Through this construction, he developed a framework of educational heroism that related synecdochically to the institutional reforms propounded by his landmark education legislation. By analyzing Johnson's education policy rhetoric between 1964 and 1966, I argue that Johnson's use of the heroic teacher myth operated to shift the antipoverty emphasis of the Great Society to the center of federal calls for education reform. I conclude by juxtaposing Johnson's invocation of the myth against that of contemporary education reformers, who marshal the myth toward a less sustainable vision of education that valorizes heroic teachers as the solitary cure for poverty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)477-510
Number of pages34
JournalRhetoric and Public Affairs
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sep 1 2014


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language

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