Monday, August 3, 2009

Economics and the Great Depression

There's a risk of overdoing this issue, but the combination of the current situation and the approaching 80th anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash make it relevant.

I ran across (somewhat belatedly, I admit) an essay on the History Now website. Historian David Kennedy (author of Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929 - 1945) discusses some of the fundamental problems leading up to the Great Depression, as well as some of the challenges faced by Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt.

Kennedy brings some valuable insights to the discussion for teachers of both economics and American History. Among the insights for economics teachers are the roots of the Depression that extend back to the end of World War I, including the attempt to return to the gold standard after a fundamental change in political priorities and the mainly agricultural structure of the U.S. economy. There are institutional aspects that are tied to all of the economic explanations Kennedy offers. The rules and beliefs that existed shaped how economic problems were viewed and how possible solutions were shaped, both internationally and domestically.

American History teachers should find some new ways to frame the Great Depression and the attempts to correct it. Again, there are early harbingers of hard times in the Dust Bowl years of the 1920s and desire to return to isolationism after the War. Both of these provided a foundation that would entrench the economic downturn, as well as limit the view of those seeking options to counter it. Kennedy even points out that the hurdles Roosevelt faced included the American traditions of self-reliance and individualism. Roosevelt had to overcome these in bringing what had hitherto been limited Federal government to the problem of macroeconomic problem-solving and policy-making: macroeconomics itself is an area of economics that didn't even exist prior to the Great Depression.

Both economics and American History may wish to look at the essay, if not already familiar with it. But I especially recommend it to those who teach both. The possibilities for cross-disciplinary learning are there. And, as we know, that can enhance student learning.

I welcome discussion on the essay.

1 comment:

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