Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why We Need A New Deal Museum (part 10 of 10): Because so many people don't know the history of the New Deal

(This town hall in Williamsport, Maryland was built with the assistance of WPA labor. Across the nation, WPA workers engaged in over 125,000 projects to build, repair, or improve public buildings. Photo by Brent McKee.)

Have you ever noticed that there are tons and tons of television documentaries about things like the Great Wall of China, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Roman civilization...but hardly any on the Works Progress Administration?

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.

(Between 1933 and 1942, CCC workers planted about 3 billion trees and created or improved about 800 parks. The CCC workers above are building a retaining wall in Ohio, in September of 1936. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)

We know, from listening to policy debates, as well as reading the comment sections under Internet news stories, that an awful lot of people don't realize how beneficial New Deal programs & policies are to their daily lives, for example, FDIC protection of their bank accounts, WPA-built recreational facilities, and union-negotiated pensions.

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.

(New Deal policymakers understood that things like history, recreation, and art were important for a well-rounded citizenry. Today, it seems that these activities often take a back seat (if they have any seat at all) to rote learning and standardized testing. See, e.g., "Many schools cutting back on physical education," Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 14, 2013. WPA poster, image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.) 

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?


  1. In reference to your earlier post about the drama and theater aspect and the reaction, I talked with an associate about the mind numbing stupidity of associating dramatists like Aeschylus or Marlowe with Communism. Her view (as a Baby Boomer) was that anyone today cannot get the scope of the overwhelming level of paranoia, fear, and littleness unleashed by the HUAC juggernaut. Studies like the book "Organization Man" and plays like "The Big Knife" give insights into the transformation of the entire nation which did the impossible under FDR to a cowardly "go along to get along" mentality that was made worse by the reaction of the strata of Baby Boomers who reacted with overwhelming disgust at how insipid their parents generation became by becoming even worse. Fleeing into absolute hedonism in reaction to the assassinations and cover ups. Later becoming the financial pirates that have looted and de-industrialized the arsenal of democracy and transforming a nation of producers into the 1% of ultra wealthy and the rest back into the Forgotten Man. I myself note the spark of creativity that is buried deeply in people when I'm investigating New Deal projects and talk to people about it. However, the Cold War and CIA run cultural warfare operations such as the Council For Cultural Freedom have snuffed out largely any memory of that which made us great unfortunately.

    1. Yep, I heard something similar from a baby boomer about Vietnam--that, looking back at it, mistakes are more clearly seen. But, at the time, he said the fear and paranoia about communism was so bad that many (most?) people wanted something done. It's a recurring theme throughout history, isn't it? Fear and anger are common drivers....while it seems empathy and compassion are much less common drivers.