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schools of thought
It's strange how far behind in school work a student can fall in one week. Again, Scott had allowed outside interests to occupy time normally spent on homework. Only a few weeks back from his vacation—a break he used to catch up in his class assignments— and he faced a new backlog of required reading and written reports.
Clearly, it was because of The History Shoppe. The weekly visits had captured his imagination causing him to cut back on time he normally would spend doing homework. But this week he was fortunate. With no new “assignment” from the Professor, Scott could focus on the demands of school and wait for next Wednesday. But he had to put in long hours to catch up with his classmates.
When Wednesday arrived, however, Scott did not hesitate. As soon as the school day ended, he was off to see Dr. Pop. He was especially excited today because he had no idea of what historical film he would enter. Maybe he would visit a movie that explained historical schools of thought? Maybe it would be a film in which historians debated an historical event. Scott was unsure of what would happen.
Professor Papadopoulos greeted the young historian warmly and led him into his main showroom. Here the two, student and mentor, conversed about trivial matters until the old man changed the subject. “Today I want to introduce you to the concept of the historian as interpreter,” he said. “Think of the historian's craft as existing on two levels. First, he or she is a master of the facts. Facts, as you know, are the building blocks of the profession. For example, ask historians of the American Civil War on what day of the week President Lincoln was assassinated, and you will get an accurate response. Ask what play Lincoln was watching at Ford's Theatre that terrible evening and again you will receive a correct answer. This is mastery of facts.
“But, there is a second, less specific level,” he explained to Scott. “This is the interpretative level. In this case, if you ask the same Civil War historians the significance of Lincoln's assassination, you will receive varying responses. ”
“But, how can that happen, Dr. Pop,” Scott said, “I thought history was a science.”
“No, Scott, history is not a science and historians are not scientists,” the Professor replied. “History is a discipline within the humanities, like language and literature and the other arts. However, historians strive to be as accurate as scientists, and in their studies they rely on the scientific method.”
“I know what that is,” Scott interjected. “We learned that in General Science class last semester: Make your hypothesis, set forth your proof, and draw your conclusions.”
“Excellent. That is what we do,” the old man added. “From our research we draw tentative conclusions which we set forth as hypotheses. Next, we prove those hypotheses by referring to the facts, the evidence we have gathered. Then, come our conclusions which usually confirm what we first hypothesized. But sometimes our facts refute our hypotheses. Either way, we report what we discovered.
“Do you remember me telling you how the good historian presents his or her findings like a good lawyer arguing a case in court?” asked the Professor.
“I sure do,” Scott answered quickly. “The good lawyer argues with facts and reason, not emotion.”
“That's correct. And that's the first level of the historian's craft: the search for, and use of, factual information,” the old man declared.
“Now, let me ask you a riddle,” he continued. “What experiences the same event, but doesn't?”
Before Scott could even think of a response, Dr. Pop answered his own question. “Two or more people, that's what experiences the same event but doesn't. Or, I might have said two or more historians because in telling the story of the past, historians frequently debate the meaning of the facts at their disposal.”
Scott smiled politely, but not with total comprehension.
“The second level of our craft is that of interpreting the facts,” the Professor noted. “Historians often do not see the meaning of the facts in the same way. There are so many human filters affecting the interpretation of history. A person's political point of view can affect interpretation. A religious person will probably understand history differently from a non-religious person. The same could be said for variations in nationality, age, gender, race, social class, and even the time periods in which historians are living.”
“Wow, it sounds so confusing,” Scott said.
“Well, not really,” the Professor replied. “It means the more historians interpret the past, the more diverse their answers become. And these contending interpretations usually can be separated into general schools of thought.
“Let me explain,” he continued. “An excellent example is the issue of the origins of the First World War. After that great conflict French and British historians generally concluded that the Germans caused the war. The German scholars, however, blamed the French and Russians. The Russians mainly blamed the Germans, but they also indicted the Austrians. The Italians argued that the Austrians precipitated the war. No, claimed the Austrians, it was the Serbians supported by their Russian and French friends. And depending on which American historian you read, any one or all of the above countries started the war.
“Ah, but were the historians finished?” Professor Papadopoulos asked rhetorically. “No. After years of argument, a new generation of British and French historians began to blame Britain and France. Young German historians blamed Germany, and some even said Italy started the war. All along, however, the Marxist scholars, those people intoxicated by the economic philosopher Karl Marx, argued that that the Great War began because of the inner dynamics of the collapsing capitalist system in Europe, and was, moreover, inevitable.
“These are all men and women of intellect and honor looking at the same facts and drawing varying conclusions. That's why history can never be a science, and that's how schools of historical interpretation appear.
“Keep that in mind, Scott, as you visit the films today. But first, I have some rearranging to do in my storeroom. It won't take me long. While I'm doing that, I would like you to sit at my desk in the corner and review some old catalogs I acquired recently. Look at them, and when I return, tell me what you think about them.
“Please, Scott, sit here at my writing table” he said. With that the old man opened a cabinet drawer and picked out about a dozen thin booklets.
“What kind of catalogs are they,” Scott inquired.
The Professor placed them on the desk and slid them toward his student. “These, my boy, are sales brochures for new cars. People considering the purchase of a new automobile would be given such catalogs by the dealers of different makes of cars. Personally, I think they're beautiful. I wish we had vehicles like these nowadays. But, you go through them and tell me what you think.”
“I'd love to look at them,” Scott replied as the old man buttoned his cardigan sweater and went into an adjoining storeroom.
What Scott found was an amazing collection of sales booklets for American automobiles in the 1930s. Pontiac, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet—these and others were depicted in colorful photos and drawings. And, of course, the text in each booklet made the case for why each make of automobile was the best one to buy.
Just the words on the front covers captured Scott's interest. In bold block letters, the manufacturers boasted:
Chrysler… The Talk Of The Whole Smart World !
When Better Automobiles Are Built
Buick Will Build Them — Buick for 1934
How cool is this? Scott thought as he leafed through the booklets. He loved the sleek look of the Ford V-8 DeLuxe Roadster for 1936 which, according to the description was “Styled for Youth….Long and low—up-to-the-minute in every line and detail. Tells the world you are driving something altogether modern in a motor car.” He noted, too, that this particular model came with safety glass and a rumble seat as standard equipment!
Scott wondered about that. Actually, he didn't know what a rumble seat was until he spotted one displayed on a picture of a yellow Plymouth DeLuxe Convertible Coupe for 1937. There, where the trunk was located on his parents' car was a retractable, open-air seat for two. “Wow,” he said aloud. “How great would it be to ride back there!”
In the brochure for the 1937 Chrysler Royal , Scott found it interesting that women were being targeted by the selling message. At one point the text explained that “Every woman wants a car she can enter or leave gracefully…. Doors are wide…both top and bottom…and what a boon that is! No woman can enter or leave a car gracefully if she has to crawl through a narrow space…with the imminent risk of ruining her gown on a dirty fender.” A page later, the text proclaimed that “The car measures 50 inches from floor to ceiling… plenty of headroom for the tallest escort and his top hat!”
One of the more unusual brochures displayed realistic sketches of the various models of the six-cylinder Oldsmobile for 1934. Beneath the color pictures, someone had penciled in the actual prices. The raciest model was the Sports Coupe—complete with a rumble seat—which was priced at $695 FOB, meaning if the car were picked up at the General Motors plant in Detroit ; it cost $807 if delivered to the local dealership. The top-of-the-line car was the five-passenger Oldsmobile Six Sedan priced at $755 FOB or $860 delivered.
When he opened the booklet extolling “THE NEW LaSALLE V-8” for 1939, Scott decided that this was the most luxurious car represented here. He had never heard of this make of automobile, but he was impressed with it. The LaSalle was heralded as “Cadillac engineered and built” and “the one car of genuine quality and true distinction in the medium-price field.” And, again, a prospective buyer had handwritten the approximate prices which ranged from the two-passenger Coupe at $1,350, to the Convertible Sedan at $1,900. Not too much, Scott thought, given that an eight-cylinder V-8 engine was always more costly than the smaller V-6. And besides, the text explained that “the price of the car is unusually low. If your present car is of average value, it will easily cover the down payment. The balance may then be handled, if you so desire, on monthly payments to suit your convenience.”
Scott had spent about twenty minutes reading through the brochures, and there were still a few he had not yet inspected. But the Professor had finished his task and returned. “Well, what did you think?” he asked. “Weren't those wonderful publications? Are your folks in the market for a 1939 LaSalle?”
“They may not even know what a LaSalle was,” Scott replied excitedly, “but these are fantastic brochures. What great pictures. And such beautiful cars.”
“What did you like about them, or I should say, what did you learn from them?” the old man asked.
“First, I learned that back in the 1930s they designed some great-looking cars. Sleek featured, big inside, gorgeous colors, and I love the rumble seats,” Scott answered.
“Yes, I remember those rumble seats fondly. But, if it started to rain, they were not so comfortable,” the old man explained. “But enough of nostalgia. Did you draw any other conclusions?”
Scott was a bit embarrassed. “That's all I saw. What did I miss?” he asked.
“The era, the era,” responded the Professor. “Didn't you notice anything strange about the dates of the new automobiles and what we usually think about the 1930s?”
“Oh, of course,” Scott replied, “this was the time of the Great Depression. I've seen the Depression in TV documentaries and read about it in books. It was all about economic collapse, massive unemployment, breadlines for hungry people, home and farm evictions, and widespread poverty. It was a brutal era.
“But, after looking through these brochures, it doesn't seem so bad, does it?” Scott remarked.
“Well, let's find out first hand. Let's transport you back into the Great Depression, to 1936 to be specific,” the Professor said. “The film you'll visit is called Millions of Us. It was the first movie made by an American labor organization, and it was intended to expose the disastrous effects of the economic collapse on working-class people.”
As the old man spoke, Scott seated himself in the Clio machine in anticipation of his visit to the past. “I'm set to go,” he announced. “Ready when you are, Dr. Pop.”
Before he heard a reply, the young historian was watching as a hand gripping a piece of chalk wrote the title of the movie on a blackboard: “Millions of us: A story of today.”
“Hi. Welcome to our film,” said a friendly voice from behind. Scott turned to greet the speaker. “Hello. I'm Mary Wilson, and I'm here to escort you. I'm not really affiliated with this film. But my husband is one of the extras in the movie. He's been out of work for a long time, and this film was a chance to earn a few dollars, enough for some groceries. ”
“Hello Mary. My name is Scott Tennyson and I'm pleased that you're allowing me to visit,” the young man replied.
As he turned back to the film, Scott noticed that the first scenes dramatized the hopelessness of the times. A middle-aged woman forlornly wandered through a bleak alley and searched through a trash can. Was she seeking edible food? Perhaps. The camera then focused on a discarded newspaper with the headline,
GOVERNMENT PROJECTS HIT AS INADEQUATE!
“Nice dramatic touch, no?” Mary Wilson asked of Scott. “I know it's not actual footage of a jobless person searching through a garbage can, but it's an accurate representation of what countless American men and women do every day. And as for the relief projects initiated by the federal government, they're not doing the job fast enough. This is 1936. We've endured more than six years of this Depression. We can't take much more of it.”
“These are rough times,” Scott responded. “I understand that much of the country is unemployed nowadays, and has been for a long time.”
Before Mrs. Wilson could reply, Scott saw a young, able-bodied man sleeping in a doorway while in his head the film makers projected visions of abundant food. In his slumber he saw ham and eggs, coffee, lobster and other nourishment. He also saw himself dining at a table covered with a white tablecloth while he was dressed in a suit. Clearly, in this time of economic distress the man was dreaming.
The film then followed him as he awoke and meandered through the city. Here he encountered more signs of desperation. There was another newspaper headline, this one proclaiming:
NUMBERLESS SKILLED WORKERS COUNTED AMONG UNEMPLOYED DECLARES REPUBLICAN CHIEF
Then a contrast between those who have and those who have not as this jobless fellow encountered a well-fed man emerging from a restaurant smoking a cigar. No job or even charity here, however. The man who had just finished eating pointed the hungry wanderer toward a government Relief-Headquarters for Unemployed. The hapless man, however, did not bother to enter.
Offered as a balance to the government relief effort, an elderly woman soon took pity on the jobless man. She directed him toward a private religious charity. She presented the drifter with a card declaring, “All Ye Down-Trodden Ones Call at 354 Rockwell St. ‘Jesus Saves.'” But Scott soon recognized that Sister Mary's Mission was closed—except on Saturday nights. Unfortunately, this was not Saturday, and the man was still hungry.
“This film is a powerful condemnation of society's indifference to the economic collapse,” Scott said to his guide.
“That's right. We know that the movie is propaganda for the labor movement,” Mary commented,” but we have to show the country, if not the whole world, the kind of suffering we workers are enduring. Do you know that the unemployment rate in 1932, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States, averaged 23.6 per cent? That's one-quarter of the entire American workforce out of work! And this year, after nearly four years of initiatives from the New Deal administration, the unemployment rate is still about 17 per cent.
“That's nice improvement. And that's good,” Mary continued. “But it's not good enough, and it's not fast enough. I'm raising three kids with an unemployed husband who is hurting as a man because he can't feed his wife and family. Do you know what that kind of pressure does to a man? to a wife? to the children? If a country can't provide honest work and a living wage for its citizens, why hold on to that country? Maybe we need a new social arrangement.”
Scott was startled by Mrs. Wilson's radical frankness. But his attention was quickly refocused on the film and a radio speech from “Loyal Americans, Incorporated broadcasting from the lovely Fiesta Room of the Blackhurst Hotel, the playground of society whose motto is ‘The Best Is for the Best.'”
In a city park where the speech could be heard on public loudspeakers, Scott observed a row of about a dozen men who were obviously jobless. Meanwhile a radio voice assured the idle men in park that “ America has been called the land of opportunity, and justly so. Where else in the world does the great opportunity for honest work exist in such a boundless degree as in America? Where else can everyman find a just price for his labor?” As the listeners in the park smiled mockingly, the speaker declared that “a real willingness to work has never gone unrewarded, uh, that is for long.”
Scott recognized the use of juxtaposition in the film. By placing poverty opposite scenes and words suggesting plenty, the film makers were illustrating the hypocrisy and lack of concern among many Americans. “Are there really people who are this indifferent to those trapped by the Depression?” he asked Mrs. Wilson.
“Of course there are,” she responded. “Many people are only interested in their own survival. They don't care what happens to the Wilson family and anyone else.”
Scott found the ensuing scene curious. When the starving rambler stopped in front of a market where apples and oranges were displayed outdoors, he seemed ready to steal a piece of fruit. Whether it was his sense of morality, or the policeman standing near the apples, the man did not yield to the temptation. But, the policeman showed no hesitation himself as he reached for an apple, wiped it on his sleeve, and bit into it. Scott easily recognized the double-standard being demonstrated.
While the police officer chewed the stolen apple, and a wealthy woman fed morsels of food to a pampered pet dog while seated in the backseat of her chauffeured automobile, the radio lecture continued his offensive banter:—“fortified by the strong arm of the law which will always shield and defend us from all that is subversive and un-American. We shall soon emerge from this Depression into a land of milk and honey—the land of plenty where the privilege of every American will be to enjoy the fruits of his labor...”
Meanwhile, the wandering man remained hungry. In one last gesture, he leaned over to retrieve an apple which had accidently fallen to the sidewalk. Whether or not he would have eaten it was unimportant because at the last second the policeman's hand snatched the apple from the ground and then gave it to the chauffeur.
Scott understood the symbolism: the hungry laborer and even the small-business fruit merchant were of secondary importance to law enforcement. Its priorities were to itself and to the wealthy.
As the hungry man left the market, even the popular song sung in the background, “I Can't Give You Anything but Love,” reaffirmed the lack of charity in the scene.
“Now, watch as our film shifts its emphasis,” Mary Wilson interjected. “We've made our points about the existence of hunger and despair in the midst of plenty. Now notice where the film goes.”
As Scott looked attentively, the wanderer seemed to find work. The sign on an employment office announced Metal Workers Wanted. But, there was a catch. He quickly discovered that there was an on-going labor strike against the company seeking new employees. In fact just to enter the company office he had to pass four men who appeared unemployed yet unwilling to become scabs and take a striker's job.
This was reinforced when the wanderer approached the company to start working. Here he encountered picket lines with men and women carrying signs proclaiming:
WORKERS UNITE! FIGHT!
GIVE US OUR DEMANDS
The remainder of the film became a dialogue between the hungry man and a union organizer who spoke for the strikers and for all men and women united in collective bargaining efforts.
The rambler explained his action, noting that he had been a machinist until his plant was closed several years ago. Since then he had survived on small jobs—washing dishes, hauling trash—whatever he could find as he moved from town to town through five states in search of work.
Over a free meal of beans and bread, courtesy of the union, the jobless man and the organizer conversed. “You know something, buddy,” the union spokesman said, “this is your strike, too….Can't you see that the guy who closed your plant down is ganged up with the owner of this one.” As he explained it, “They're organized. Get that, organized. They don't have to see each other to get together. They've got Chambers of Commerce, militia, law and order. They've got the whole setup right in their vest pocket. When business takes a nosedive, they take it easy, and you and I take the air.”
When the wanderer asked for the answer to this problem, the response was swift and certain. There are “millions of us who want three squares and a job, who want a chance to work so we can send our kids to school. And so we can have a roof over our head,” explained the organizer. “Millions of us gettin' together, that's the answer.”
As Scott watched, a montage of industrial scenes passed before him: Men's hands tightening bolts, measuring, filing metal; then he saw a freighter being loaded, tall buildings, and food. And the union man continued his discourse. “We want a man-sized hunk of everything our hands have made. And just think, buddy, that's the whole cockeyed country. Everything that's in it, our hands make. Every rivet and bolt and brick, you betcha. Our hands worked and scraped to build all those things, every bolt of them. But who owns them? Who gets the gravy? Not you. Not me. Oh, no. We built ‘em, but we don't own it. They belong to the fancy gents who buy our brains and our backs and sell the things we make for a fat profit.”
As he spoke, the union man's rhetoric became increasingly strident. “We're soldiers fighting for a chance to work for what the founders of this country called the Pursuit of Happiness,” he argued. He then quoted Abraham Lincoln who said that, ultimately, the people own the country and have a constitutional right to amend a government when they grow weary of it, even “the revolutionary right to dismember and overthrow it.”
Scott wondered if the film was about to call for a workers revolution. “But we don't have to go that far,” the organizer explained. “All we have to do is stick together. Organize, the way the big shots are organized. We've got to show them our strength, and our power, and our solidarity.”
“Don't worry, Scott, he's not going to call for revolution,” Mrs. Wilson said reassuringly. “He's just frustrated; we're all frustrated by the slow pace of government in solving the problems they made. We just want jobs so we can get back to our normal lives. We're not Communists or Fascists. We're proud American workers. Our hands and backs made this great country. But, now, we need help. We want work, we need jobs to survive.
“The Roosevelt administration is moving in the right direction, but it's much too slow. Economic stagnation has been here since the stock market crashed in October of 1929,” she continued. “The Republicans believe that the capitalist free market will grow us out of the Depression. The Democrats follow FDR and believe that the economy can only be stimulated by active government spending on domestic projects. Maybe the answer is somewhere in between. We really don't know or care. We want employment.”
Scott listened intently then turned back to the final scenes of the film.
Left now to decide for himself about his new job, the jobless man walked directly to the picket line and borrowed a protest sign—appropriately declaring DON'T SCAB—from an African American striker. He joined the parade of united workers.
Scott was about to ask Mrs. Wilson a question, when the film ended and he was transported back to The History Shoppe. Even before the young man could clear his head, the Professor began quizzing him. “Well, what do you think of your experience in the 1930s?” he asked.
Scott rubbed his eyes. “Those were tough times. I can honestly say these workers were in a bad situation. No meaningful jobs in years. I don't know how anyone could survive,” he said.
“If you were writing a book on the Depression and had seen this film, what would you conclude?” the old man asked.
Scott thought for a moment. “I would conclude that the system was unfair to these people. They were honest, hard-working Americans whose labor built this country. Their backs and their hands were crucial to the growth of the United States as an industrial power. And now they were forgotten by government and business. And when they organized in unions, they meet even more difficulties. But they didn't have any choice.”
“So, you see the workers as victims of the collapse of the American economic system—and the government response as too weak?” Professor Papadopoulos responded.
“Yes, precisely,” Scott answered. “That's a good summary of my interpretation.”
“OK. But I want you to now visit another film. This one is from the U.S. government and released in early 1937. The title is Work Pays America . It was produced by the WPA, the Works Project Administration, a branch of President Roosevelt's administration that was dedicated to finding jobs, even making jobs, for the unemployed. Essentially, this film is official government propaganda on how the WPA is succeeding in the battle against the Great Depression.”
As he spoke, the Professor carefully threaded the Clio machine projector, then flipped the switch. “Goodbye for now,” he said, “I think this one will fascinate you, too.”
Scott suddenly found himself in a small theater that seated about twenty people. The beam of light coming from a small window high on the rear wall told him that a movie was about to begin. As he seated himself, a young man sat next to him and introduced himself. “Welcome to our screening room. The name is Frank Chan. I work for the WPA, and you're just in time to review our latest production explaining what we are doing about hard times. People don't want the free money of the dole, they want jobs. And we are in the business of making jobs for Americans,” he said.
“Hi, I'm Scott Tennyson. I guess I'm in the right place, because I'm trying to learn all about the Depression,” he whispered in response.
“Oh. There's no need to whisper. We're the only people here for the screening,” explained Mr. Chan. “So we can speak openly as we watch. If you have any questions, just ask, and I'll try to answer them.”
As soon as the film began, however, Scott was bowled over. With bouncy marching music in the background, the movie moved excitingly through a lengthy array of WPA activities. From the outset—a map of the United States filled with footage of workers—Scott observed a parade of scenes which highlighted the scope of WPA endeavors to put jobless men and women back to work.
In rhythm with the pulsating music, the narrator explained the Works Project Administration. “The Great Depression left millions of able and willing Americans bewildered and jobless,” he declared. “In 1933 the federal government came to the help of local agencies which had fought a courageous, but losing fight against the growing need for relief.”
The narrator continued his short history lesson. “But the dole was not enough. Good, sound men and women wanted to earn the help they got, to hold up their heads, to keep themselves from going rusty. Retail business needed their purchasing power to stimulate trade. And all over America communities needed…improvements and public services which had been cut off or postponed during the lean years when local revenues were pitifully low.”
Scott felt it significant to hear the mission of the WPA and to learn that it began more than two years after Franklin Roosevelt became President. But the pictures, they were the most impressive aspect of this experience. He saw scene after scene of working men. There were strong men and average men—men with shovels and axes—men with saws, hammers, and wrenches. Some worked alone, some worked in large groups. But all were laboring together.
“Keep in mind,” Mr. Chan said to Scott, “the men you see on the screen would be on relief, receiving a government handout each month, were it not for these WPA jobs. This is good, honest work, hard work. And it brings them more money than the dole while it restores their sense of personal responsibility.”
Because the film focused early on the road building achievements of the WPA workers, Scott saw lots of streets and highways being constructed or repaired. It was as if the WPA was determined to improve the entire infrastructure of American automotive transportation. Workers spread gravel on new roads, poured concrete for new highways, and even laid bricks by hand to modernize streets in the cities and in rural areas.
The narrator emphasized the role of the WPA in creating thousands of miles of rural roads. Mountains were carved open with explosives and jackhammers and heavy construction equipment—and in some cases, even teams of mules—all to build new roads that would link American farms to distribution centers.
“You see, farms are the foundation of America's food supply. Without them, we all starve,” Mr. Chan told Scott. “We at the WPA agreed early that there needed to be reliable highway transportation to move farm products to market rapidly and safely. That's why we placed so much emphasis on this area. Until the WPA came along, there was no organized system of farm-to-market roads. Today such a system exists, and it's expanding daily.”
Just as Scott was about to inquire about the size of the program, the narrator anticipated him: “How big is the WPA road program?” he asked. He then explained that in just 18 months WPA laborers laid enough mileage to stretch around the Earth five times.
The figure impressed the young historian, as did the many scenes in which scores of men worked together, like an army of industrious ants, building and improving. He saw them in national parks clearing brush and rocks to make roads for tourists. He saw them also toiling to improve public health facilities, particularly when constructing reservoirs to ensure adequate water supplies for the nation's population centers.
But these legions of manual laborers were crucial, too, in other projects. Scott saw them building stadiums and other facilities for public gatherings. He observed them constructing and repairing thousands of bridges, as well as dynamiting mountains and digging deep trenches to install modern sewage systems for American cities.
From sewers, the film quickly jumped to WPA projects to upgrade airports around the country—and in the case of Philadelphia, to build the first airport in that city's history. Hundreds of airports profited from these laborers. Since this was still early in the development of transcontinental air travel, the WPA even built hundreds of landing fields along the official air routes to accommodate emergency landings
And the list of achievements continued. Now it was slum clearance in the older U.S. cities. Scott saw dilapidated buildings demolished to make way for new housing for low-income citizens, or playgrounds for urban recreation. The country seemed gripped in a building boom. Scott began to wonder what had happened to the Great Depression.
“Is there any construction project the WPA is not undertaking?” he joking asked.
Mr. Chan smiled proudly. “We've accomplished a lot, but there's so much more to do. Throughout the country we're continuing this fight because there are still millions of men and women looking for jobs.
“You know, Scott, I'm so happy President Roosevelt was reelected last year, and by a landslide vote. This is how we fight the Depression, how we put people to work and defeat hard times. And, obviously, this is what the American people want.”
At this point, Mr. Chan leaned toward the young visitor. “Now watch how the film switches its focus,” he said. “We've finished with manual labor section, now we're going to highlight our accomplishments with workers who have specialized talents.”
At that moment, the narrator began talking about the WPA efforts to find employment for white collar workers. Here, Scott watched traffic control operators recording traffic flow and recommending new routes and regulations for motorists and pedestrians. He saw automobile inspectors testing the safety of cars. He witnessed also an array of jobs specifically for women: clothing designers, seamstresses, weavers, school lunchroom cooks, and library workers.
“We also find many positions for women in the public health fields,” Mr. Chan stated as the film began to show female health workers handling babies, testing the vision of needy people, and assisting children afflicted with polio. At schools throughout the nation, the film proclaimed, WPA employees are watching over the health and learning of nursery school children, even to the point of administering doses of cod liver oil.
Scott shuddered a bit when he saw children swallowing the oily medicine, but the narrator was confident that WPA health workers were laying “the foundation for a new generation of good citizens.”
“I'm impressed,” Scott said to Mr. Chan. “I never knew the federal government was doing so much for the public.”
“Oh, yes,” his host replied, “we're very active. And don't forget, WPA services are free of charge for those on relief. Clothing made by our seamstresses is given free to the needy. School districts use our workers at no charge. We charge nothing. But through salaries, we are pumping money into the economy, boosting purchasing power, and stimulating private employment in the process.”
“But where do you get the money to hire all these people in the first place,” Scott inquired.
“First, our budget comes from money raised by taxes. And if that's not enough, the government borrows money from future revenues and places it on the books as a deficit,” Mr. Chan explained. “It's called deficit spending and the Roosevelt administration has pioneered its use here in the United States.”
Scott turned back to the film just as it began relating its efforts in adult education. Teaching English to immigrants, vocational training for men and women, home economics classes for future wives, were typical of the areas of WPA endeavor. For students already in college, the WPA had programs for part-time employment that ranged from working in a cannery to breeding and catching fish.
Even artists found jobs with the WPA. An African American choir staged concerts of spirituals, “the real folk music of America.” Muralists painted the walls of schools, libraries, and other public facilities. Sculptors made statues for public parks and buildings. From art restorers to anthropologists reconstructing the skeletons of prehistoric animals, the WPA provided employment for thousands of the nation's cultural creators and preservationists.
The rapid pace of the film was exhausting. Scott had little time to think deeply about what he had just seen because the list of accomplishments kept coming. Appropriately, the image of churning flood waters inundating homes and towns led to an explanation of how WPA employees often acted as agents of disaster control. Here they were called “the shock troops of disaster,” who in times of natural calamities—be it flood, drought, or wildfire—conducted evacuations, filled sandbags, distributed food, provided emergency housing and clothing, worked with private agencies such as the Red Cross to provide medical assistance, and repaired or constructed public sanitation facilities.
One of the most impressive scenes to Scott occurred when the film discussed drought relief. As he watched, the screen filled with images of many teams of farm horses driven by suffering farmers. A virtual army of strong horses tore up and then smoothed the earth in the process of making new roads and fire lanes. To Scott, the picture of so many powerful farm animals united in a single effort symbolized the strength, coordination, and determination of the American people. It was a scene that contradicted his understanding of the Depression as a time of national weakness.
“What a picture!” he said to Mr. Chan. “No doubt, people are hurting, but with that kind of coordinated muscle power, I can see that they refuse to be beaten by these hard times. They're fighting back.”
“It's a magnificent image, isn't it?” Mr. Chan replied. “It embodies the resolve of the American people to overcome this economic mess. And we in government are helping in the struggle.”
From the depiction of power harnessed for improvement, the film jumped then to the youth of the nation. In presenting the role of the WPA in working with parks and playgrounds and other recreational areas, Scott glimpsed the future of the U.S.A. Countless zoos and parks and other public facilities were being constructed, improved and maintained by people employed through the WPA. He saw smiling children in clean recreational areas. There were boys and girls borrowing toys, and attending summer camps where they participated in swimming, sewing, and marching. All the while the youngsters were watched over by trained men and women who would be unemployed were it not for the WPA.
And for the entire family, the film presented its achievements in repairing and maintaining national monuments and historically important regions of the nation—from Fort Niagara to Abraham Lincoln's early homes. Furthermore, all these accomplishments, according to the film, represented only a glimpse of the 120,000 projects undertaken in the first year and a half of the Works Project Administration.
Scott sat quietly as the final scene of the film appeared: a husband and wife with their young children in the arms confidently striding toward a better future. He was very impressed as the movie ended.
“Welcome back. How was your visit to 1937?” asked Professor Papadopoulos with a slight smile on his face. “What do you think now about President Roosevelt and his administration?”
“Unbelievable,” Scott remarked. “After the first film, I figured the government wasn't doing very much. But, after this one, I'm very impressed with the New Deal. And I only saw the WPA and its activities. I image there were many other agencies waging the same battle.”
“You're right, Scott,” the Professor responded. “There were so many New Deal programs with abbreviated names like WPA, CCC, EHFA, AAA, and RFC that people referred to New Deal projects as alphabet soup.”
Scott found that amusing.
“But that wasn't the point of sending you into this film,” the Professor noted. “We were talking about schools of historical interpretation. I think you can now see two schools emerging here: you just experienced what we could call the ‘ Roosevelt was excellent' school. The first film was another school: the ‘ Roosevelt didn't do enough fast enough' interpretation.”
Scott's mind clicked. “I understand,” he interjected, “modern historians could follow either of these lines of argument when interpreting the history of the 1930s. And that would make them supporters of one or the other school of historical thought.”
“You're on the right track,” the old man reassured Scott. “But, there is a major omission.”
“And what's that?” Scott asked.
“There is still another way to understand the Roosevelt administration and its response to the Great Depression, a third major school of interpretation,” said the Professor. “And that's the next short film I want you to visit today.”
“Excellent. I get transported into three movies today. That's a record,” Scott said gleefully. “What's this one?”
“Your final film for the day is an animated cartoon,” Dr. Pop answered.
“A cartoon? You mean like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny?' Scott asked.
“No, not them,” said the old man. “Instead you will be visiting a political campaign film supporting the Republican Party candidate for President of the United States in 1936. Remember, 1936 was an election year, and FDR was running for reelection after serving his first four-year term. Republicans didn't think highly of the New Deal. Their candidate for President was Alfred M. Landon, the conservative governor of Kansas. His running mate for Vice-President was Frank Knox, a prominent newspaper publisher from Chicago. ”
“It sounds very interesting. I can't wait to go,” Scott replied.
“Alright, then,” said the Professor, “this film is entitled A Fable of the New Deal.” Think of it as a third line of historical argumentation. Are you ready?”
The next thing Scott knew, he was sitting with a large crowd of noisy people watching the opening scene his next film. As the credits rolled by, a young woman reached out her hand and introduced herself as Rachel Bronson. She informed Scott that he was in the audience at a political rally in Denver for Alf Landon. It was an important rally, she added, because the Presidential election was only a few weeks away.
“I've never seen this film before,” she added. “But we were told it would please us a lot. Anything to help us run Roosevelt and his gang out of the White House in November.
“Just look at that opening scene,” she urged Scott. “It's a cartoon of the Capitol Building in Washington with unsightly additions built on its roof; all patched together by the alphabet soup of New Deal agencies. My thoughts, exactly.”
The film narrator had a confident style. “The United States of America, heritage of three centuries of labor and achievement, the land of liberty, opportunity, and equality under the law,” he asserted, as footage of the Statue of Liberty and Washington, D.C. passed by.
Scott soon recognized a familiar image: another large team of farm horses. Scott counted more than thirty animals pulling a massive harvesting machine across bountiful farmland while the narrator proclaimed that America was “a land of peace and plenty, the home of 130 million people.”
Suddenly, the film shifted from footage of real people to an animated world of Uncle Sam and Ma Liberty—Sam read a newspaper from the spring of 1929, while Ma sat in her rocking chair quietly knitting. But, when it was time to open his mail, Uncle Sam had to face reality in the form of bills coming due.
There was a billion dollar bill for “feeding the dogs of war” in the Great War. Then came staggering assessments for federal, state, and local taxes that ran into many billions of dollars. There was even a bill from Dr. Experience totaling $720 million for headache powders and medical services following the Stock Market Crash in October 1929 when, as the narrator lightly admitted, “Uncle Sam went on a binge on Wall Street and lost his shirt.”
In the next scene, Scott recognized a caricature resembling President Roosevelt riding a donkey and tooting on a horn. Behind him followed three little boys—called by the narrator “a lot of busybodies”—wearing those mortar board hats that comically symbolize someone who is educated but not too bright. A sign clearly showed that this modern Pied Piper and his followers were on a road Over the Hill to the Poorhouse , not on their way to Utopia, the perfect society.
Meanwhile, the audience in Denver was roaring with laughter. Each image tickled the assembled Republicans, especially the sight of a woodpecker attempting to peck at Roosevelt's wooden head, only to find it so hard that the bird's bill was bent.
“This is hilarious,” chuckled Rachel as she gently elbowed Scott in the ribs.
When he turned back to the cartoon, Scott sat impassively as an array of political charges was hurled at the Roosevelt administration. In presenting the Democratic Party Platform on which FDR had campaigned in 1932, the narrator suggested that its planks—states' rights, balanced budget, lower taxes, economy, and sound money—were legitimate political positions, “every plank a solid pledge and promise.”
But, wait. There was a flaw in this arrangement. The traditional Democratic Party donkey on which FDR had ridden to victory turned out to be a New Deal jackass. As the narrator explained, the jackass was a political hybrid “without pride of ancestry or hope of prosperity,” whose actions were undermining regular Democrats. And assisting the jackass were those three little boys, now called “the political mischief makers, the Brain Trust boys.”
Rachel couldn't control her excitement. “Isn't that the truth, all those college degrees and economic theories, but no real answers to our problems? That's Roosevelt's advisors, his brainy advisors, and they really did cause a lot of mischief during the last four years. But that'll be finished soon.”
“See how they're hiding dynamite into those scrolls marked N.R.A. after Roosevelt's pet agency, the National Relief Administration,” she said to Scott. “We know what happened to the NRA. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.”
Scott was confused by the next scene of the Brain Trust boys with a bottle marked Russian Vodka. “What does the bottle of vodka represent?” he asked his new friend.
“Oh, you know,” Rachel replied. “We Republicans refused through three presidents to recognize the Communists as the legitimate rulers of Russia. But, not the Democrats. In their first year in office they gave diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union and opened the door to heaven knows what kind of Bolshevik intrigue here in America. Again, it's those infernal Brain Trust morons who are behind it.”
While she explained American politics to Scott, the jackass smashed the Democratic Platform to smithereens. And soon he was in Uncle Sam's house trying to feed from a pork barrel just when Ma Liberty had a skillet of Recovery cooking on the stove.
The Republican crowd exploded in laughter when the New Deal jackass, his head deep in the pork barrel, knocked over the simmering Recovery—or, as the narrator phrased it “spilled the beans and now the fat is in the fire.”
And when the jackass crashed into a bees' nest while running from the fiery results, the audience roared again as the angry bees came out as Air Mail airplanes. “That's one of our greatest issues,” said Rachel. “We've had too many air crashes and deaths because this administration has forced pilots to meet an impossible schedule in delivering mail through the air.”
Scott recognized other Republican issues, particularly farm issues, as the rampaging jackass kicked at livestock, wheat, corn, and cotton. And once more the viewers broke into laughter.
But when Ma Liberty extinguished the jackass' fire with buckets of water, one labeled Common Sense, the other marked Economy, the audience applauded and whistled its approval. And when the salt and pepper shakers morphed into shakers of Courage and Confidence, seasonings that Ma Liberty added to the Recovery she was preparing, the crowd approval intensified.
“Here comes the showdown,” Rachel said as the jackass approached “the real Democratic donkey.” With a bratty Brain Trust boy on his back, the New Deal jackass was sent hurling into oblivion by a swift kick in the rear delivered by the authentic Democratic donkey.
With the Republican audience clapping and laughing loudly, Scott leaned over to Rachel and asked an obvious question. “Why do you Republicans dislike President Roosevelt? I thought the New Deal was getting the country back on its feet.”
“Be serious, Scott,” she replied. “This administration has been a disaster. They imposed restrictions of what and how much a farmer can plant. Is that freedom?
They did away with the tariffs that kept out cheap foreign-made goods and protected the livelihood of American farmers and laborers. But most importantly, they saddled this country the largest debt in our history. It's our children and grandchildren who will have to pay off this financial burden.
“Don't you understand, Scott, the Democrats have violated the Constitutional freedom on which America was built. They have made government an aggressive agent for social change, just like the Communists with their planned economies in Russia. We Republicans believe in individual freedom and personal initiative, not government agencies telling you what you can and can't do. We never forget Thomas Jefferson's warning: ‘That government governs best which governs least.”
“Frankly, Scott, we can't afford another four years of this extravagant mismanagement and subversion of the American way. It's tyranny.”
At that moment the auditorium erupted in approval as Uncle Sam hitched his plow to the Republican elephant and the real Democratic Donkey, and with no New Deal jackass in sight, began to till his field with two-party government “under the safeguards of the Constitution.” As the narrator completed his script predicting “prosperity, safety, and self-respect for the United States of America, ” a rainbow in color appeared on the horizon under the words LANDON & KNOX. The audience stood and applauded.
Scott could still hear the clapping when he found himself back in The History Shoppe. “Wow, Dr. Pop that was an amazing experience. But I'm more confused than ever,” he said. “Just when I figured Roosevelt was too slow and didn't care that much, I changed my mind and found the New Deal doing wonderful things for people on relief. But, then I visited a Republican campaign cartoon, and I see FDR as economically destructive and maybe even un-American. What's an historian to do?”
“Well, that's for the historian to decided,” Professor Papadopoulos said philosophically. “Each student of history brings different things to the judgment process. Each brings varying levels of education, personal values, background experiences, and even personal prejudices to his or her interpretations.”
“Does that mean history is a personality thing?” asked Scott.
“No. It doesn't mean that at all because the honest historian will always be true to the facts,” the Professor replied, “and the facts will ultimately prevail.”
“Now, we have to end our session for today. Three films have taken up the entire afternoon,” the old man responded. “But I have an idea. When you return next Wednesday, I would like you to be able to give me a satisfactory response to an important question that is at the heart of the historian's profession.”
“Sounds intriguing,” said Scott. “What's the question?”
“On your next visit I want you to answer the question: ‘What Is History?'”
Scott started to answer immediately. After all, he had been meeting with Dr. Pop for weeks. Why wait until next time? He could define History right now.
“Not so fast,” the Professor interrupted. “This question demands careful and thoughtful research by you. It may not be as easy to answer as you think. Next week, then, when we meet again.”
With that challenge in mind, Scott gathered his school books and walked toward the front door. He was confident that he could handle Dr. Pop's question. But, he felt obliged to do at least a little research on the subject.
As he approached the door, Scott hesitated for a moment. He had a sudden thought. “There was something I wanted to ask you, Professor,” he said, “but I can't remember what it was. I'm sure I'll remember it as soon as I leave. But, I guess it will keep until next time. It's been a long afternoon. Three films. I'm exhausted”
He turned and waved goodbye to the old man who stood in the doorway watching as Scott departed. “See you next week,” Scott shouted. “And I'll have that answer for you. Bye.”
He was almost home when it hit him. “Nuts,” he muttered to himself, “I was supposed to ask his price on that old French coin.” He thought about going back The History Shoppe, but it was too late. The sun was already setting. Scott decided to pursue the matter next Wednesday. As he rationalized it, the coin had been around for more than two centuries. Another seven days wouldn't make much difference.
|Copyright © 2009 J. Fred MacDonald-All Rights Reserved.|