There have been a lot of people lamenting the miserable job market for Ph.Ds in the humanities, but there are few suggestions out there for how to find all these graduate students work in a bad economy. Steven Joel Trachtenberg, the president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University, offers a solution worth thinking about. He proposes the creation of an organization that is a cross between the Peace Corps, the old Works Progress Administration, and the Fulbright Program.
My proposal is for a national program that combines some of the elements of Works Progress Administration programs from the Great Depression, the Peace Corps, and the Fulbright Awards. I mention the WPA not because we have entered another depression — so far so battered, but also so far so good — but because its various programs took the unemployed and found them work which, with some notorious exceptions, the nation needed done. And this effort included support for writers and artists. The Peace Corps and the Fulbrights, with their histories of sending Americans abroad (and bringing foreigners here as Fulbright scholars) have proven their intellectual worth, their pragmatic value, and their foreign policy bona fides. I am, however, suggesting them as models of successes, not as templates.…
The work, as I imagine it, would not replicate or overlap with the work of Peace Corps volunteers. First, the program would recruit from the limited pool that I have described. Second, the work needs to be white-collar — educational at a high level, administrative, or organizational; volunteers will not be making bricks or laying water pipes or teaching in primary and secondary schools. Third, depending on the interest of the host country and the volunteers, periods of service could be longer than the 27-month tour in the Peace Corps. Fourth, mastering a new “strategic” language will be a primary requirement of volunteers, no matter their specific daily work — a point I will return to shortly. Fifth, at the completion of a tour, volunteers will be encouraged to maintain the linguistic skills and the cultural information they acquired while abroad. This may be done through the kind of employment they find, ideally in government service, but industry and academe could serve as well. (I say encourage rather than require because we no longer have conscription, and the unwilling are never very happy or useful.) It seems obvious to me that banking people competent in language against a future when their skills will be needed will be a good investment.
And the benefits:
When the economy improves a bit, imagine some of the alumni of this program entering academe not bitter from four years of adjuncting without health insurance, but energized by new experiences, and bringing unusual combinations of knowledge to their universities. Imagine if every English or history department had someone who had recently lived in the Middle East or Africa?
Now there is a program that would be worth spending some federal money to advance. We could think of it as a post-doc in the real world!