Samuel J. Redman: The Right Way to Put Kids to Work

Roundup: Historians' Take

Samuel J. Redman is a historian in the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.Library

NEWT GINGRICH caused controversy recently with his unusual suggestion that schools "ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they'd have pride in the schools, they'd begin the  process of rising."

While the notion that unionized school janitors are draining our economy is woefully misguided, Mr. Gingrich, the former House speaker who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, is onto something when he says we should find ways to hire unemployed young people to maintain our educational infrastructure. And we can - by reviving the National Youth Administration.

Founded in 1935, the N.Y.A. aided over four million people between the ages of 16 and 25 in the midst of the Depression, providing desperately needed stipends to students while also working to improve and maintain the infrastructure of places like schools, universities and museums.  High schools around the nation hired students to help maintain school grounds and athletic fields - not unlike Mr. Gingrich's proposal. Other students found temporary work at museums, earning money while helping preserve and organize priceless collections of artifacts. These jobs were not terribly glamorous - some were downright tedious - but in the climate of the Great Depression, students and other underemployed youths were grateful for the steady pay.

Recent oral histories collected by the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, throw light on the practical difference the N.Y.A. made in the lives of those it enrolled. Jack W. Rosston, for instance, told of working on campus at Berkeley through an N.Y.A. program. "For my freshman year,  I got $10 a month," he explained. "That paid for my transportation to Berkeley from San Francisco."

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