Social Education 58(1), 1994, pp. 8-9
1994 National Council for the Social Studies

Using Economic Reasoning to Improve the Teaching of U.S. History

Mark C. Schug and Richard D. Western
Schools in the United States rely upon history more than any other discipline to teach young people about their national identity and all that entails. In practice, however, the teaching of U.S. history has evolved in ways that bring it into disfavor even among those most inclined to endorse the goals it is intended to serve. The criticisms have culminated in major proposals for reform put forward by the Bradley Commission (1988), the California State Department of Education (1988), and the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools (1989).
A key problem is that the teaching of U.S. history continues to suffer from its reliance on a routine pedagogy of information coverage. The tendency to stress information per se trivializes and deadens the teaching and learning of history and encourages a conceptual sort of leveling in which history gets represented in lists, not in ideas, stories, or arguments. It encourages teachers to rely on textbook summaries, lectures, and recitation and often to skim over complex material. It induces in students a passive relationship to their object of study-so that many students say, in effect, that in doing history, there is not much to do (Schug, Todd, and Beery 1984).

Economics always has been considered, together with political science and geography, a fundamental aspect of U.S. history. Clarifying the workings of the U.S. economy and its relationship to the world economy is a common goal in school district curriculum guides across the nation. We might presume, moreover, that attention to economics should enliven history courses by adding a vital analytic perspective to the traditional perspective of chronology. Unfortunately, these potential bene&Mac222;ts often go unrealized. Research suggests students acquire little new economic understanding from social studies courses even when teachers report including economics in the course (Walstad and Soper 1988). Moreover, U.S. history textbooks are criticized for lacking accurate information about the historical development of the economy (Miller and Rose 1983). We need to rethink the way we teach U.S. history in light of these circumstances.

Improving the U.S. History Course with Economic Reasoning
The purpose of this special section of Social Education is to introduce ways of using economic reasoning to improve teaching and learning U.S. history. Our authors stress a specific set of economic principles that can help students grapple with a wide range of historical questions. Several authors pursue this goal by presenting students with historical paradoxes, or "mysteries," in U.S. history. Then, they invite students to unravel the mysteries by applying economic principles and thoughtfully examining evidence gathered by economic historians. Examples of these history mysteries include:

We contend that the teaching of U.S. history would be enriched in three ways if it included economic mysteries in the study of important topics. First, emphasizing the use of economic reasoning would help history teachers achieve improved focus. They could work from a definite analytic perspective, which would tend to highlight historical moments and themes associated with economic choice. Second, it would help to provide coherence in instruction. The principles informing classroom inquiry would be the same from problem to problem throughout the school year. Finally, the use of economic reasoning would help to foster active, inquiry-oriented learning. It would enable students to do history, by using analytic principles to formulate problems and bringing evidence to bear on the problems.

Overview of the Special Section
The authors in this section offer insights and teaching ideas to show how using economic reasoning might strengthen the teaching of U.S. history. Donald R. Wentworth and Mark C. Schug present the fundamentals of integrating economic reasoning into a U.S. history course. To illustrate, they pose a question: why did settlers continue to buy land after the passage of the Homestead Act, which provided free land? Jean Caldwell and David Gash explain that American Indian cultures differed greatly from the Europeans they encountered. Nevertheless, we can understand the behavior of American Indian groups by using the same economic principles that help explain European behavior.

Beth Kraig points out that mysteries from American popular culture can help make U.S. history engaging to learners and give them opportunities to practice economic reasoning. For example, despite baseball's long tradition of racial segregation, Branch Rickey decided to hire an African-American player, Jackie Robinson, for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Why?

Mark C. Schug and Jennifer Fontanini explain how teachers of U.S. history can use public choice theory to examine the historical role of government. Why, for example, did government regulators-officials appointed to help farmers-permit railroads to set prices above competitive levels, imposing high costs on farmers?

Donald Wentworth gives us an interview with Ben Franklin. Sagacious Ben explains how economic reasoning can help history teachers introduce their students to the influence of the world economy on the historical development of the United States.

Jean Caldwell and Robert Highsmith focus on the historical role of banking and currency questions. They explain money supply issues in relation to economic expansion and contraction.

James Clark alerts teachers to resources now available for instruction aimed at integrating economic principles into U.S. history courses. He shows that teaching history is no mystery if you know where to look.

Bradley Commission on History in Schools. Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools. Washington, D.C.: Bradley Commission on History in Schools, 1988.California State Department of Education. History-Social Science Framework. Sacramento, Calif.: California State Department of Education, 1988.Miller, Steven L., and Stephen A. Rose. "The Great Depression: A Textbook Case of Problems with American History Textbooks." Theory and Research in Social Education 11, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 25-39.National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools. Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, 1989.Schug, Mark C., Robert J. Todd, and R. Beery. "Why Kids Don't Like Social Studies." Social Education 48 (May 1984): 382-387.Walstad, William B., and John C. Soper. "High School Economics: Implications for College Instruction." American Economic Review 78 (May 1988): 251-256.Mark C. Schug is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Richard D. Western is Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.