Culture as History: From the Great Depression to the Great Society

Fall 2021
Winter 2022
Evening and Weekend
Sophomore - Senior
Class Size: 37
8 Credits per quarter
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We begin our study at a time when the country is only now emerging from a year of crises, most importantly, the Covid 19 pandemic, which has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. History can provide us with one lens, culture another, to understand how the U.S. reacted to previous decades when crisis and change challenged the ways in which we understood ourselves and our country. To that end, we will examine cultural products, from high art to popular culture, with particular focus on film and literature, to see how they reflect our history and shape our mythology.

During Fall Quarter we will study the 1930s, widely known as the Great Depression, when 25% of Americans were unemployed, banks were failing, and farms were literally blown away in massive storms of dust. To cope with this crisis, President Roosevelt’s initiated the New Deal, an ambitious federal effort to change things. His first 100 days in office were only the beginning of a radical shift in government policy and action. We will ask some important questions: How did these huge challenges shape the art, film, and literature? What was the impact of two great migrations—from the dust bowl states to the West and from the agricultural south to the industrial north—on American society? In such a time of hardship and deprivation, how did the Golden Age of Hollywood emerge to reflect our cultural realities through genre films, such as the screwball comedy, the musical, and the Western? We will examine how the tensions around race and class figured into this turbulent period. Winter texts will include Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, and Thomas Schatz’s Hollywood Genres among others.

From the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s, the country was again faced with massive challenges. In Winter Quarter, we’ll focus on the mid-century and how upward—and outward—mobility informed who and where we are today. We will learn about the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and Johnson’s Great Society, how the Vietnam War and counter-cultural pursuits transformed the country; how cars, freeways and the rise of the suburbs re-shaped the cultural landscape; how television expanded the scope of mass media and popular culture. Fall texts will include James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, David Halberstam’s The Fifties, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Each quarter, our work will include critical reading of books and films, music and visual art. This will be a hybrid program with in-person seminars and workshops (roughly six hours on alternate Saturdays), and remote lectures and screenings (3-4 hours per week) on Wednesdays.

Credits may be awarded in American History and Cultural Studies.


Fall 2021 Registration

Course Reference Numbers

So - Sr (8): 10201
Winter 2022 Registration

Course Reference Numbers

So - Sr (8): 20160

Academic details

Maximum Enrollment
Class Standing

$35 fee fall and winter quarter for entrance fees. 


In Person or Remote
Hybrid (F)
Hybrid (W)
Time Offered
Evening and Weekend
Schedule Evergreen link
see Schedule Evergreen for detailed schedule

First Meeting