Focus: Understanding Economics in U.S. History is the most comprehensive set of instructional activities ever published to teach U.S. economic history in high school. Focus: Understanding Economics in U.S. History helps U.S. History teachers and students gain a better understanding of events in our history by using basic economic reasoning. That reasoning - which means applying principles reflected in the Guide to Economic Reasoning - is used throughout the lessons to illuminate our past. The Guide to Economic Reasoning stresses six key principles of 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.
New insights emerge as students apply economic analysis to the events covered in traditional high school history courses. For example, students use economic reasoning to understand the first Americans, exploration and settlement, the road to revolution, the constitutional period, the founding of a new nation, the booms and busts of the early and late 1800s, the trauma of the Civil War, the homesteading period, the Industrial Revolution, racial segregation, the Great Depression, the New Deal and recent events in our history, including the knowledge economy and immigration.
Mysteries abound in U.S. history. Students, acting like detectives, solve these mysteries by searching for clues and sifting through evidence in an effort to gain new insights into familiar subjects. For example:
- American Indians are widely supposed to have favored common ownership rather than private property. Like people everywhere, however, American Indians distinguished between private and public ownership. Why did they decide to use private property in some cases but public ownership in others?
- The 13 colonies along the northeast coast of North America had little to offer the British. There was no gold or silver or spices to trade. The colonies in the New World that appeared to hold the most wealth were already claimed by other European powers. Why, then, did the 13 American colonies prosper?
- Indentured servants cut trees, moved boulders, built barns, plowed fields, planted tobacco, baled hay, milked cows, sheared sheep, cooked, cleaned, did laundry and cared for children. Their indentures, labor contracts specifying terms of service, had the force of law. But from about 1650 to 1780, many young men and women from England eagerly committed themselves to terms of indentured servitude in the North American colonies. Why would they sell themselves into bondage?
- In light of the economic advantages of the North over the South, it seems in retrospect almost irrational for the South to have engaged the North militarily. Why did the South secede? Why fight a war you know you will lose?
- During the late nineteenth century, industrialization proceeded rapidly in the United States. Men like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and the Vanderbilt father and son team pioneered the way. Were these men ?robber barons? or industrial entrepreneurs?
- In the 1920s, jobs were plentiful and the economy was growing. At the end of the 1920s, twice as many families owned homes as compared to the beginning of the decade. Many more homes had electricity and indoor toilets. Sixty percent of all households had cars, up from 26 percent. School attendance was increasing. By 1933, 25 percent of the labor force was unemployed. Families were losing their homes. Adolescents were looking for jobs. What happened? The United States had the same productive resources in the 1930s that it had in the 1920s. What caused the Great Depression?
- People feared that the end of World War II would be followed by a return to depression. Instead, the years that followed the war brought rising prosperity and an unprecedented expansion of the American middle class. Why did the economy expand after World War II rather than falling into a new depression?
I thank especially Mark Schug, who served as the project director and co-author of this project, and his highly capable co-authors, Jean Caldwell and Tawni Hunt Ferrarini. I wish to thank Gerald Gunderson, a respected economic historian, who carefully reviewed these lessons, and the field-test teachers, who gave generously of their time and expertise. Special thanks go to the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation, Inc., for its encouragement in undertaking this project and generous financial support.
Robert F. Duvall, Ph.D.
President and Chief Executive Officer