01/31/2014 11:38 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

'The Surest Basis of Public Happiness'

LARRY DOWNING via Getty Images

As a former theater director, I appreciate the stagecraft of a State of the Union event -- the bellowing of the House Sergeant at Arms, the honored guests whose presence is intended to rub off on the presidency, and the orchestrated cheers by members of Congress, whose ovations are counted the same way critics count laughs at a Broadway premier.

Unlike a theatrical farce, though, a State of the Union is no laughing matter. Consider these words:

"Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them."

You don't remember President Obama saying this? Don't worry, because he didn't. Instead, President Johnson articulated these ideas in his 1964 address. Still, these themes -- schools, training, jobs -- are as appropriate today as they were 50 years ago, even though the United States has made substantial progress in the past half-century.

President Johnson spoke of our $600 billion dollar economy. Adjusted for inflation, that's $4.5 trillion, but with a GDP last year of more than $15 trillion, America has made irrefutable economic progress.

Similarly, early in 1964 the Civil Rights Act had yet to pass. People of color and women were often excluded, legally, from the equal protections promised in our Constitution. That too has changed for the better.

Still, there remains an uneasy sense that middle class lifestyles are at risk, supported by unnerving statistics that suggest a hollowing out of our labor profile. We have more people at the higher and lower ends of wage distributions, and fewer in the middle, which is the income inequality about which President Obama spoke.

Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President, recently wrote that getting the U.S. economy to fire on all cylinders requires addressing "deep supply-side fundamentals" including enhancing education, workplace skills and companies' capacity for innovation.

At ACT, we see these issues as part of a continuum. As a nation, we need to develop strong academic skills in the early grades, and then accelerate achievement day after day, year after year, so that students graduate from high school ready for college and career success.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said: "It's not enough to train today's workforce. We also have to prepare tomorrow's workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education."

No matter which side of the political aisle you sit on, we think that's a sentiment worth supporting. At ACT, we're actively recognizing students, high schools, community colleges and businesses that advance these aspirations. We're introducing a new assessment program that reaches students early in elementary school to help them stay on track for success.

And we believe that when potential employees can demonstrate real skills to possible employers, millions more people will enjoy the "better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities" that President Johnson spoke about 50 years ago, that President Obama spoke about this week -- and that a future president will undoubtedly speak about 50 years from now.

President Washington delivered the first State of the Union speech in 1790 -- in New York City. Establishing a theme that has endured across four centuries, Washington said: "There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness."

On this point, let both sides of the aisle rise in unanimous ovation.


Jon Whitmore is CEO of ACT, a global nonprofit organization whose mission is "Helping people achieve education and workplace success."

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