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Needed: A New Deal for Academics

by Jonathan Zimmerman on Feb 10, 1999

Jonathan Zimmerman

Six years ago, I received a Ph.D. in American history. Today, I hold a full-time teaching job at an American university.

In other words, I’m lucky.

By now, everyone has probably heard horror stories about freshly minted academics who can’t find gainful employment in academia. Some of them serve as “adjunct faculty members,” the migrant poor of the modern university. Teaching six or even eight courses a year at $1,500 or $2,000 per class without benefits — they wait in vain for a full-time position. Others abandon the quest altogether, entering other blue- and white-collar jobs. They paint houses or sell them, stock shelves or trade stocks — everything except what they were trained to do.

The reasons are simple. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the number of new doctorates skyrocketed. Then the universities began their long fiscal decline, cutting back drastically on faculty hires. Suddenly, new Ph.D.s found themselves competing with a hundred or even a thousand other candidates for a single job.

One can see these despondent souls at any academic conference, squirming uncomfortably in their suits and waiting — always waiting for the interview that never comes.

How can we assist them? Should we even try? In an era when every side of the political spectrum seems to worship the God of the Market, it’s hard to muster much public concern for out-of-work academics.

As the Right will argue, most of these people are not really “out” of work; they’re simply “in transition,” shifting their jobs to meet new workplace realities. The Left counters with its own market strategy, calling upon graduate schools to limit the number of students they admit. Once we reduce supply, its argument goes, demand will shoot up.

Perhaps so, sometime in the hazy future. Right now, though, our new cadre of Ph.D.s need jobs that harness their special skills, knowledge and experience. No market magic will do that trick. Only government — dare I say it? — can perform it.

It has happened before. During the 1930s, as every high school student learns, the federal government put millions of people to work building bridges, parks, and highways. Less familiar is the so-called “white-collar” New Deal, which provided jobs for artists, actors, and especially writers.

The Federal Arts Project commissioned works by Jackson Pollock and other young painters, who created more than 2,500 wall murals in schools and post offices. For unemployed actors like Orson Welles, meanwhile, the Federal Theater Project provided new roles and a small income.

As the Depression shut down publishing houses and newspapers, finally, the Federal Writers Project gave jobs to unemployed authors. From Saul Bellow and Studs Terkel to Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, 6,500 Americans wrote stories, guidebooks, and histories for the FWP.

If the federal government were to employ academics today, what useful work could they perform? Our civic discourse is so constricted — so beholden to market mechanisms, and so blind to public possibilities — that we almost never ask this question.

But answers are easy to imagine. English Ph.D.s could revise turgid textbooks or tutor at inner-city schools, where vast numbers of students cannot read at grade level. Historians could archive local records and put them on the Web, giving millions of Americans a new window onto our collective heritage. Art and theater scholars could design new public television shows, especially for children.

To be sure, such programs were easier to defend when America was mired in a depression. Asked why the government should support actors and artists in the 1930s, New Deal official Harry Hopkins simply responded, “Hell, they’ve got to eat like other people.”

In today’s booming economy, however, that argument won’t wash. Academics do find jobs in the private sector, after all; they “eat.”

But a society, like a soul, does not live by bread alone. It also needs the sense of history and humanity that academics — through many years of study — have acquired. If we fail to create useful public employment for them, most of this wisdom will go to waste. And we will have only ourselves — not the market — to blame.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).