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Public Education and the Arts: Lessons From the New Deal

Gaining, rather than losing, what unemployed workers have to offer would help to improve the quality of our schools, our economy and our national spirit.

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On December 9, 2013, at more than 100 sites across the country, teachers, parents, students and labor and community allies rallied in a Day of Action to Proclaim the Promise of Public Education. Among the common complaints were a lack of resources for their schools, the loss of programs they feel are vital to a rounded education, such as art and music, and inequality in school funding. Just two days before those events, in northern Manhattan, several unemployed actors and musicians, all PTA parents, were braving a bitterly cold day in the schoolyard selling Christmas trees to pay for after-school programs and class trips for their children’s public school. In a mixed-income neighborhood such as theirs, parents often must work odd hours or at more than one job; thus after-school programs are essential. Other parents from this school work tirelessly to raise funds to restore part-time art, music and science teachers to the school – resources that have fallen to the axe of an austerity-driven politics. The unemployed actor in charge of the Christmas tree sale, who had rented a truck and driven to Pennsylvania to get the Christmas trees, had just come off another marathon fundraising event for the school – the production of an evening of Broadway-caliber entertainment performed by professional actors, dancers and musicians who are among the school’s parent body.

These fundraising efforts constitute months of full-time, unpaid work for parents like these. This public school is fortunate to have parents who have the time and talent to devote to such projects, but other schools are not so lucky. They have seen programs cut and schools close with no other recourse. And this unemployed actor would much prefer to be working for pay at his craft instead of running around to local merchants to solicit ads for the Schoolapaloosa playbill or driving hundreds of miles to a tree farm to cart trees back to a city schoolyard.

If this were the Great Depression instead of the Great Recession, these parents would not have to be engaged in endless fundraising efforts to pay for what should be provided as a matter of course in a decent public education system. During the Great Depression, thanks to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation – an independent federal financing institution – thousands of laid-off teachers’ salaries were paid while the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built thousands of new schools across the country and refurbished others. If this were the Great Depression, the unemployed actor might very well be employed in his own profession, in one of the programs of the Federal Theatre Project funded by the WPA. He would be providing first-class entertainment at no or low cost to audiences that had never had access to professional theater before. The Federal Theatre Project gave unemployed actors, musicians, dancers, playwrights, set designers, directors and stagehands a leg up in desperate times. It gave aspiring new playwrights an opportunity to stage their work. It gave ethnic audiences – who may never have seen their own heritage depicted on stage – the opportunity to both see and portray it. And the Federal Theatre Project developed, in exploratory ways, new uses for theater talents in the fields of education, therapeutics, diagnosis, social and community work. Along with the other New Deal arts programs, the Federal Theatre Project democratized and de-commodified the arts and left a rich legacy of cultural history, artifacts and aesthetic experience that historians are only now beginning to appreciate.

All of these programs provided not only jobs for the unemployed and resources for broken communities but, perhaps even more important, hope to a population in despair. As art historians Roger G. Kennedy and David Larkin remarked, “they coaxed the soul of America back to life.”1 Tragically, when the 2007-08 economic meltdown happened, we failed to heed the lessons the New Deal when it could have taught us about how to revitalize the economy and the national spirit. Instead, arts and other vital programs in the public schools have been slashed, schools are being closed or privatized, teachers are laid off, and schools built in the 1930s are being allowed to fall into disrepair. The eulogy to the Federal Theatre Project by its talented director, Hallie Flanagan, provides a sad counter-epitaph for our times.

“Such a theatre can oppose against destructive forces without and within a positive creative force, a formidable upthrust of power. Against the death forces of ignorance, greed, fear, and prejudice, such a theatre is a life force. Creating for our citizens a medium for free expression such as no other form of government can assure, and offering the people access to the arts and tools of a civilization which they themselves are helping to make, such a theatre is at once an illustration and a bulwark of the democratic form of government.”2

Heeding the New Deal legacy – gaining, rather than losing, what unemployed workers have to offer – would help to improve the quality of our schools and the achievement of our children. Today’s failing schools, chronic unemployment and lack of democracy are the bitter fruits of our failure to learn these lessons.


1 Roger G. Kennedy and David Larkin, When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy (Rizzoli, 2009), 323, quoting from a letter written to Aubrey Williams from the sculptor Gutzon Borglum in Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (New York: Harper, 1950), 59.

2 Hallie Flanagan, Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1940/1965), p. 373.

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