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How Economics Can Strengthen the Teaching of U.S. History. Overview. Problems teaching history How economic thinking might help Features of Focus: Understanding Economics in U.S. History. Problems Teaching U.S. History. Schools rely on U.S. history to teach Our national identify

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How Economics Can Strengthen the Teaching of U.S. History

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How Economics Can Strengthen the Teaching of U.S. History


  • Problems teaching history

  • How economic thinking might help

  • Features of Focus: Understanding Economics in U.S. History

Problems Teaching U.S. History

  • Schools rely on U.S. history to teach

    • Our national identify

    • An academic understanding of our past.

  • But, history teaching is criticized as being

    • Boring in content and pedagogy

    • Superficial

    • Trivial

    • Remote

Problems Teaching U.S. History

  • Students usually take 6 semesters of U.S. history:

    • Grade 5: 2 semesters

    • Grade 8: 2 semesters

    • Grade 11: 2 semesters

  • Yet, national tests show that achievement in history is low.

U.S. History Achievement Levels: 1994, 2001, NAEP

What Can Economics Contribute?

  • Economics stresses the idea that all people make choices.

  • But, they don’t know at the time what the consequences of their choices will be.

All social phenomena emerge from the choices that individuals make in response to expected costs and benefits to themselves.

Paul Heyne

Individual Choices

John Maynard Keynes

  • The inevitable never happens. It is always the unexpected.

Who Would Have Predicted in 1980?

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union.

  • The reunification of Germany.

  • Nelson Mandela becoming president of South Africa.

  • Economic stagnation in Japan in the 1990s.

Who Would Have Predicted in 1980?

  • Record U.S. economic expansion in the 1990s.

  • An attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11.

  • All-out war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They Didn’t Know How It Would All Turn Out

  • In writing history or biography, you must remember that nothing was on track. Things could have gone any way at any point. As soon as you say “was” it seems to fix an event in the past. But nobody ever lived in the past, only the present.

They Didn’t Know How It Would Turn Out

  • The difference is that it was their present. They were just as alive and full of ambition, fear, hope and all the emotions of life. And, just like us, they didn’t know how it would all turn out.

  • The challenge is to get the reader [student] beyond the thinking that things had to be the way they turned out and to see the range of possibilities of how it could have been otherwise.

    • David McCullough

The Economic Way of Thinking

  • Focus: Understanding Economics in U.S. History introduces students to the economic way of thinking.

    • It stresses how people at the time were making choices in response to anticipated benefits and costs.

    • This approach allows students to be “present-minded” about the past.

History Matters: Douglass North

  • History matters not only because we can learn from the past but because the present and the past are connected by the continuity of a society’s institutions.

Fostering Cooperation

  • Human cooperation allows for gains from trade.

  • Economic growth depends upon the institutions that create a hospitable environment for cooperative solutions to problems associated with trade.

    • What institutions induce economic stagnation and decline?

    • What institutions induce prosperity and growth?

What Explains Different Outcomes?

  • Sustained economic growth in the United States and western Europe?

  • The spectacular rise and fall of the Soviet Union?

  • The growth of Taiwan and South Korea?

  • The dismal record of sub-Saharan Africa?

  • The contrasts between North America and Latin America?

Institutions Matter

  • Choices made by our ancestors have fundamentally shaped the institutions with which we live today.

    • Young people can learn to see events as outcomes produced by the choices people make every day.

    • They can also understand how people’s choices are shaped by institutions.

Teaching Matters, Too

  • “With its explicit emphasis on choices, costs, incentives, rules of the game and voluntary trade, the curriculum presented here will provide educators with a valuable source of focus and direction.”


  • Authors

    • Jean Caldwell

    • Tawni Hunt Ferrarini

    • Mark Schug

  • Published by the NCEE

  • Generous support from the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation


  • Linked to NCEE Standards

  • Essay by Professor Douglass North

  • Introductory essay on the economic way of thinking:

    • Why Did the Colonists Fight When They Were Safe, Prosperous and Free?

The Guide to Economic Reasoning

  • People choose.

  • People’s choices involve costs.

  • People respond to incentives in predictable ways.

  • People create economic systems that influence individual choices and incentives.

  • People gain when they trade voluntarily.

  • People’s choices have consequences that lie in the future.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Unit 1 Three World Meet

1. The New World Was an Old World

2. Property Rights Among North American Indians

Table of Contents

Unit Two: Colonization and Settlement

3. Why Do Economies Grow?

4. Understanding the Colonial Economy in a Global Context

5. Indentured Servitude: Why Sell Yourself into Bondage?

6. Specialization and Trade in the Thirteen Colonies

Table of Contents

Unit 3: Revolution and the New Nation

7. The Costs and Benefits of American Independence

8. Problems under the Articles of Confederation

9. The U.S. Constitution: Rules of the Game

Table of Contents

Unit Four: Expansion and Reform

10. Rising Living Standards in the New Nation

11. How Did Cotton Become King?

12. Francis Cabot Lowell and the New England Textile Industry

Table of Contents

13. Improving Transportation

14. Investing in American Growth

15. Why Did the Indians of the Great Plains Invite White Americans into Their Land?

16. Andrew Jackson and the Second Bank of the United States

17. Free the Enslaved and Avoid the War

Table of Contents

Unit Five: Civil War and Reconstruction

18. Why Did the South Secede?

19. Economic Analysis of the Civil War

Table of Contents

Unit Six: The Development of the Industrial United States

20. Was Free Land a Good Deal?

21. The Changing U.S. Economy

22. The Demand for Immigrants

23. Bigger Is Better: The Economics of Mass Production

Table of Contents

24. Industrial Entrepreneurs or Robber Barons?

25. The Economic Effects of the 19th Century Monopoly

26. Could the U.S. Economy Have Grown Without the Railroads?

27. Free Silver or a Cross of Gold

Table of Contents

Unit Seven: The Emergence of Modern America

28. Money Panics and the Establishment of the Federal Reserve System

29. Who Should Make the Food Safe?

Table of Contents

Unit Eight: The Great Depression and World War II

30. Whatdunit? The Great Depression Mystery

31. Did the New Deal Help or Harm Recovery?

Table of Contents

32. We Shall Not Be Moved

33. When the Boys Came Marching Home

34. Women in the US Workforce

Table of Contents

Unit Nine: Postwar United States

35. The Economics of Racial Discrimination

36. The No-Good Seventies

Table of Contents

Unit Ten: Contemporary United States

37. The Hispanic Americans

38. The Knowledge- and Technology-Based Economy of Today

39. World Trade after World War II: The EU, NAFTA and the WTO

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