The humanities and social sciences in the United States today are on the verge of collapse. After forty years of austerity and disinvestment in higher education, more than 75 percent of the teaching in America’s colleges and universities is done by part-time adjunct instructors paid abysmally low salaries. A generation of younger scholars are at risk of being shut out of viable careers, representing a tremendous loss to our society and culture.
The Great Depression offers not only an historical example of direct public employment for members of America’s creative class, but also lessons for making it happen. Just as the New Deal provided jobs for thousands of out-of-work writers, artists and performers during the Great Depression, a new jobs program is needed now for scholars who, through the casualization of intellectual labor, find themselves without jobs or precariously employed.
The New Deal’s Federal Art Project (FAP), Federal Writers Project (FWP), Federal Theater Project (FTP), and Federal Music Project (FMP) provide useful models. Through these WPA cultural projects, talented young people—including women, ethnic minorities and people from working-class backgrounds—were able to pursue creative careers despite the economic calamity. These initiatives democratized access to culture in another way as well—bringing music, art, and theater to geographically remote or socially marginalized communities—often for the first time.
A new federal jobs program hiring young talent in the humanities and social sciences—a Federal Scholars Project—could similarly advance these democratic objectives. Much as the FWP detailed the histories and cultures of various states and cities through its American Guide series, and the FAP created art for the broadest public possible, a direct employment program for the humanities and social sciences would produce teaching, research, scholarly studies and cultural materials as public goods.
Although the College for All bill now before Congress would help to reverse the long slide into the academic gig economy, a Federal Scholars Project could do even more. Developed in consultation with the New Deal for Higher Education campaign, College for All would make four years of higher education free for most Americans, while requiring that institutions that received new federal funding commit to having 75 percent of all teaching done by full-time, tenure-track faculty within five years. Passage of College for All would be an enormous victory in the struggle to restore the New Deal vision of public goods, but it shouldn’t limit our horizons.
Imagine a Federal Scholars Project that teamed up academic humanists and social scientists with artists, writers and performers to create innovative representations of America’s past, present and future. A Federal Scholars Project could also facilitate the formation of new experimental institutions and sites for the production of knowledge and culture, much as the FAP did in the 1930s by sponsoring the Design Laboratory, the first comprehensive school of modernist design in the United States. Also, employees of the Federal Scholars Project could still be assigned to financially strapped universities and colleges, archives, libraries, museums and other types of community-based cultural centers as a way of providing indirect assistance.
Finally, the New Deal’s cultural projects only came about because unemployed members of the creative class organized to demand jobs. The proponents of the cultural projects succeeded in the 1930s because they were part of a broader social movement—a Popular Front—that included white-collar unions that advocated for racial, ethnic and gender equality and antifascist solidarity in addition to public patronage for culture. Securing a robust federal response to today’s crisis of academic employment will likewise depend on organizing and coalition-building among unions and contemporary movements for social equality and workplace diversity, but it can and must be done. The history of the WPA cultural projects shows us the way.