Social Education 58(1), 1994, pp. 16-18
1994 National Council for the Social Studies

Teaching American Popular Culture: History and Economic Reasoning Are Only the Beginning

Beth Kraig
Over the past century, the United States has forged a consumer-centered popular culture that now has strong roots at home and overseas. Pizza Hut feeds Russians in Moscow, while McDonald's is a hit in Beijing. Tokyo fans spend millions on recordings by Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Elvis. Brazilians put television soap operas at the top of their priority lists. Although educators in the United States often bemoan their monolingual students, they forget that young people do know an international language with words like Mercedes, Schwarzenegger, Sanyo, rap, Reebok, and Coke. Today's youth speak the language of American popular culture.
As a historian, I believe students should understand subjects like mercantilism or the nineteenth-century development of capital-based industries. I also recognize, however, that gold and railroads do not dominate my students' world but rather credit cards and cars, shopping malls and supermarkets, and music and advertising.

Students see and experience all the trappings of this consumer-centered commercial culture. Yet they seldom understand the history of popular culture in the United States, its origins, and its ongoing operations. Why did advertising develop as a major industry? How does it both reflect and shape American culture? How did consumers influence the growth of the television industry, and how do they continue to shape its programming, even as that programming has strong influence on their lives? Why did professional baseball integrate its teams before public schools integrated their classrooms? By introducing such questions and helping students use economic reasoning to formulate answers to them, we can engage students in the study of history and assist them in understanding their roles as consumers, workers, and citizens.

Introducing American Popular Culture to Your Students
An examination of American popular culture can begin with a discussion about the meaning of the phrase "American popular culture." Asking students to define the term usually elicits specific examples of what it denotes: television, clothing fashions, movies, fast foods, celebrities, sports, music. The examples come easily; with this subject, students come to class already aware of much of the content of their lessons.

But consider a mystery. Why are these the components of American popular culture today? In the past, popular culture included folk dancing, quilting bees, and telling stories. Activities like folk dancing and story telling are still prominent parts of popular culture in many parts of the world. Why did American popular culture develop as it has? Why is it that versions of American popular culture are flourishing in many parts of the world, but not in all? Students might speculate on answers to these questions.

The answers should have something to do with the common attributes among the items on the students' list of American popular culture examples. The material components of popular culture are products, created and marketed by producers, and purchased or rejected by consumers. A consideration of this commercial process can serve to clarify the roles and powers of producers and consumers. Neither dominates the other completely. For example, consumers can always reject a product by declining to buy it, but producers may determine the range of products available, at least initially. There is, of course, considerable overlap between producers and consumers. Producers, after all, are a subset of consumers.

To help students understand and analyze the actions of consumers and producers, and to identify the ways in which those actions combine to shape American popular culture, present the diagram below. It is organized as a continuous loop, or circle, to suggest that American popular culture is constantly being reshaped (it does not reach an "end"), and it develops through the interconnected actions of producers and consumers.

The actions on this diagram can be explained as choices, or responses, based on expected benefits and costs. These expected bene&Mac222;ts may be called incentives, and the expected costs may be called disincentives.

The diagram also suggests the interconnected choices of consumers and producers. Consumers offer a diverse range of behaviors and beliefs (#1) for public scrutiny; this enormous package of behaviors and beliefs can be described as American culture. Producers want to create incentives that will encourage consumers to buy their goods; they survey the American culture, searching for clues about the types of cultural offers that consumers will choose as most beneficial. Having surveyed American culture, producers choose (#2) those things that they anticipate will prove most popular to consumers. These they offer as products (#3).

Consumers then survey the products (a sports car, hair coloring, movie plot, dessert, computer game, and so on) and choose the ones they believe will offer the most benefits, for the lowest costs (#4). As they make their choices, they reshape American culture. If many choose to wear sports team jackets, then American popular culture will take on a slightly different look. If many choose to listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers instead of Bruce Springsteen, then American popular culture will have a different sound. Of course, this means that producers will have to resurvey American culture and make new choices according to what they find. The process is fluid; it never stands still.

A thorough understanding of this process involves constructing explanations for why people choose specific things at certain points. To construct such explanations, students must first examine historical or current evidence about the people involved in a particular aspect of American popular culture. Economic reasoning suggests that the evidence be probed to determine which incentives and disincentives motivated people's choices.

Feature Multicausal Explanations
Leading students in examining the choices and incentives that operate at a given moment of American popular culture involves encouraging them to formulate complex, multicausal explanations for controversial events. Because American popular culture has developed within a market economy, where the profit motive serves as a primary incentive, students may be tempted to explain every popular culture phenomenon solely by reference to the almighty dollar. But terms like cost and bene&Mac222;t also apply to social, political, racial, ethical, environmental, or other aspects of the human experience. When students examine all possible categories for the range of benefits and costs considered by choosers (consumers and producers), they usually move beyond reductionist explanations of human experience.

Creating Attention-Getting Lessons
Potential lessons in American popular culture include many provocative topics, ideal for stimulating student interest and encouraging students to construct explanations for controversial historical and contemporary choices. Violence in films and television, censorship of rap lyrics, commercial use of beauty, the environmental effects of automobiles, and the rise of conspicuous consumption are a few of the contemporary possibilities. Despite the diversity of such topics, using the framework outlined above makes it relatively simple to create clear, effective lessons.

Teachers can build a list of potential lesson topics by reviewing the growing body of material on American popular culture, and they can update the list through ongoing review of contemporary magazines and newspapers.1 It is often possible to move from current articles to historical sources. U.S. history is filled with examples of popular culture content teachers can use to engage students in an analysis of people's choices. For example:

We can take one example from recent U.S. history to show how teachers can use economic reasoning to analyze a problem and deduce a possible explanation. In the 1940s the United States was highly racially segregated. Yet, in 1945, Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hired an African-American player, Jackie Robinson, as a player in his organization. Why would the owner of a baseball team move ahead of the culture in this respect? Why would he not follow popular norms? After you have invited the students to speculate on possible explanations, ask them to examine the previous diagram to analyze this problem economically.2

For each stage of the process outlined in the diagram, students must identify the choices made and the incentives and disincentives at work. For example, Branch Rickey, as producer-seller, had to survey American culture, as offered by fans (consumers), while formulating his choice. What did he see as he surveyed the fans? Similarly, Jackie Robinson was a producer, offering his skills as a baseball player and his status as an African-American man to fans (consumers). He, too, had to survey the fans, both before and after he chose to sign with the Dodgers. The fans surveyed the new product (integrated baseball) and chose varied reactions. What did fans choose, and why? Obviously, many decided that they found integrated baseball appealing. How did their choices reshape American popular culture? Integration slowly spread to other clubs and other sports. What choices did other owners and players make, as they surveyed the cultural changes shaped by fans' choices? Owners became more willing to search for talented minority players and more minority players chose to work for formerly segregated ball clubs.

It is important in planning your lessons to ask students to list as many choosers, choices, incentives, and disincentives as possible, and to push students to widen their own searches accordingly. Can Branch Rickey's choice be explained solely in financial terms? Would a strongly racist person have acted as he did? Why did Robinson respond favorably to Rickey? Would he have joined the Dodgers for a low salary, simply to take a stand against bigotry? How did fans respond? How did white players on the Dodgers or on opposing teams respond?

Once students have assembled their lists, they can weigh the possible effects of each cost and benefit and outline their explanations for the phenomenon they are analyzing. Students' explanations will vary. Lessons then must include debate and discussion, as students present their analyses and explanations, and argue their merits to others. Assessing students' work at this stage includes judging the accuracy and comprehensiveness of their evidence and the logic and clarity of their arguments.

Some conflicts will remain unsettled. This is both predictable and desirable. If lessons seem to lead all the students to the same explanations, they should be expanded to include more evidence and more issues. As analysts, the students must become comfortable with some ambiguity in the evidence; as debaters, they must practice respectful, thoughtful dissent. I find it useful and rewarding to tell students about the many conflicting arguments historians, economists, sociologists, and other professional analysts of American popular culture create. I remind them to stay alert to ßaws in others' arguments, but also to look for ßaws in their own; in doing so, they engage in intellectual discourse and develop the skills of good citizens.

Closing Thoughts
If social studies teachers require further arguments and inspirations to motivate them to incorporate lessons on American popular culture into their classes, we need look no further than today's headlines. Countries like Japan and South Korea continue to buttress their economies with trade in consumer-centered products, as their own cultures increasingly undergo shifts toward consumer-centered behaviors and ideals. Russia, Hungary, Poland, and other formerly communist nations are discovering that consumer-centered economic growth seems to be their fastest track to success (and many analysts have noted the role played by American and European consumer culture in bolstering demands for economic and political reforms in the former Soviet bloc). Developing nations struggle to establish consumer-centered economies and cultures, while experiencing related outcomes including, for example, increased or decreased pollution and loss of traditional cultures. Clearly the consumer-centered economy and culture of the United States are topics with global significance.

Closer to home, experts argue about the effects that fashion advertising has on young women and debate about how to change America's long-standing love of the automobile. Other experts try to determine how to create new automobiles that Americans will buy. The development and ongoing influences of American popular culture are clearly politically charged topics, but this is no excuse for not teaching about them; it may be the most compelling argument for adding them to the social studies curriculum. Without tools and methods for analyzing American popular culture, students may be more vulnerable to its manipulations and more likely to let the conclusions of "experts" determine their own judgments. There is much intellectual terrain between, for example, the argument that consumers are helpless pawns trapped in a web of advertisers' lies and the argument that American popular culture is a benign, insignificant modern phenomenon.

Students need to stake their positions in that open area through careful use of reason and analysis. Social studies teachers who support them in this process contribute not only to their growth as consumers, but to their growth as responsible, thoughtful citizens.

1In its content and footnotes, George Lipsitz's article, "The Politics and Pedagogy of Popular Culture in Contemporary Textbooks," The Journal of American History (March 1992): 1395-1400, offers a good range of sources on popular culture topics.2The best source for content to support a lesson on Jackie Robinson's entrance into major league baseball is Jules Tygiel's Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).Beth Kraig is Assistant Professor of History at Paci&Mac222;c Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.