Why is that? After all, as one prominent researcher back in the day highlighted: "Considered as a single unit, the total volume of WPA employment, during the first six years of its history, is sufficient to stagger even a wild imagination. By contrast, the estimated number of man-years required to build the pyramids of Egypt--which have long been symbolic of giant undertakings--looks small" (Donald S. Howard, The WPA and Federal Relief Policy, p. 531, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943).
More recently, Andrea Stone, writing for the Smithsonian, noted that "the WPA remains the largest public works program in the nation's history. It provided 8 million jobs in communities large and small. And what those workers put up has never been matched" ("When America Invested in Infrastructure, These Beautiful Landmarks Were the Result," December 10, 2014). Further, the Living New Deal project is showing us that a lot of "what those workers put up" is still being utilized today.
Indeed, I would argue that the WPA was the largest public works program in human history if one takes into account not only the infrastructure accomplishments, e.g., 650,000 miles of new or improved roadways, but also the history collected, the artwork created, the education classes conducted, the plays & symphonies performed, the health clinics operated, the school lunches distributed, and so on.
Yet, I would bet that if you stopped 10 random people on the street and asked them, "What was the Works Progress Administration?" you would be lucky to find just one or two who knows.
And it isn't just the WPA that is unknown, it's the entire New Deal. In the years that I have researched the New Deal, and interacted with people during various New Deal "expeditions" (i.e., visiting & searching for New Deal sites), I have noticed that many people have barely even heard of some of the New Deal programs & policies. For example, when I visited the headquarters of Green Ridge State Forest, in western Maryland, I asked if they had any information about the CCC, or if any structures might still exist from the time the CCC worked there. The front desk person, looking perplexed, responded that she didn't have any information on the CCR. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I meant the Civilian Conservation Corps, not Creedence Clearwater Revival. I don't mean this story to sound uppity because, before I took it upon myself to do the research, I really didn't know much about the New Deal either.
Out of curiosity, I asked a young adult relative of mine if she learned about the New Deal in school. She said, "not really." She recalled a mention of the CCC, but certainly not the WPA. Remembering my own education, I really can't remember any mention of the New Deal at all (it was probably covered, just not in any great detail like, say, the Civil War).
What gives? Why do so many Americans lack a good understanding of the New Deal, and why aren't schools & colleges emphasizing it more? One college official recently said, "We don’t mandate every single student take a class in American history…so you may find a senior not knowing the specifics of the New Deal. But you will graduate knowing how to think and how to accumulate that knowledge and make connections between things" ("Study Finds Many Colleges Don’t Require Core Subjects Like History, Government," Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2014).
I think politics is behind some of it. There are many people who hate the United States government and wouldn't mind if the history of its positive accomplishments was blotted out altogether. Some of these people no doubt end up in positions where they influence curriculum development and course offerings (to see an example of how politics can influence curriculum development, see "After Protests Over History Curriculum, School Board Tries To Compromise," NPR, October 3, 2014). And some of it probably stems from our nation's belittling of K-12 history, gym, and art, in favor of a greater emphasis on math and science (which is probably why our nation not only has a history-knowledge problem, but also an obesity problem). Further, many well-educated and well-intentioned adults simply don't know a lot about the New Deal themselves, and so a transference of information can't occur.
It's pretty outrageous that we don't do more to educate people about the New Deal --and it's also pretty disrespectful to our elders & ancestors. The New Deal consisted of millions of people who created a vast infrastructure of roads, bridges, parks, schools, waterlines, etc., and then went off to serve in the military or defense industries during the largest conflict in human history (an estimated 60 million people died during World War II, including over 400,000 Americans). Our elders & ancestors worked, fought, and sometimes died, to protect the freedom we have today to enjoy the things they created for us then. But we have not returned that favor--to the fullest--by thoroughly educating our youth about the New Deal and/or by creating a large & comprehensive New Deal museum dedicated to their many astounding accomplishments during the 1930s and early 1940s.
Isn't it time that changed?