Updated: Sep 28, 2018
Last week I spent a couple of days in Belleville, Illinois. Belleville (pop. 43,000) is 25 miles east of St. Louis. One reason I'd stopped there is because I have a family connection: my father's father was born and is buried in Belleville (within the city there is even a Stookey Township, one of the only places I've ever been where there are Stookeys I don't know).
I was able to talk about capitalism with students at Belleville West, one of the two large high schools that serve the area. I'm particularly grateful to the Principal, Richard A. Mertens and to Social Studies teacher, Stacey Perkinson-Posey for making my visit possible. During the morning I met with about 50 seniors who are studying sociology. We met in the school library, a large, light-filled space.
For the first time I had students answer the question, "What did you know about capitalism before this talk?". Here are some of their responses:
"Nothing at all"
"I knew it had to do with citizens + money"
"I knew that capitalism played a big part of our economy"
"It has something to do with money"
"That we live in it"
"I knew that I lived in a capitalist society"
"It's an economic system which replaced the mercantile economies of most Western countries in the early 19th century. It's the system we use and have forcibly advocated for across the world"
"Something dealing with money"
"That it involved the government"
I didn't know anything but how to say it'
"I knew that it was a thing"
These are not surprising responses; they're generally the same that I would get from seniors majoring in business at Central CT State University. They're not much different than I would have answered at their age.
These are smart students in what is clearly a good school, with dedicated teachers and administration. But teaching students about our economic system is not an explicit part of the curriculum, here or in most schools. Talking about capitalism shouldn't be limited to economics classes - but while Belleville West offers a class on aspects of personal finance class it doesn't offer an economics class. This isn't unusual and is likely a reflection of school budget limitations, not educational priorities. But the lack of attention to fostering a basic understanding about the economic system is problematic. Students (and faculty, families, etc.) pretty much all know they "That we live in it", as one student wrote on her sheet. They have a general and vague sense that it is a desirable way for society to operate. But not having a sense of the different components involved in capitalism (groups of people with interests), forms of interaction and assumptions (presumptions) about interests makes it almost impossible to ground opinions - for example about public policy - in reality.
Before the morning session began I happened to see a copy of a recent edition of the school newspaper (above). Encouraged by Ms. Perkinson-Posey I talked with the students about the issues behind the three headlines: taxes and government decisions about how much to invest in what aspects of public education. Many students were surprised that their teachers spent their own money for classroom supplies. We also talked about how government spending on education helps business to create value by educating future workers, by providing legal infrastructure such as a court system and property rights but also physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges. On this last point we could refer to reports of the significant need for repairs and improvements of such things in Illinois (see, Chicago Tribune, 2/12/18).
In discussing where tax revenues come from I have found it useful to ask students to guess the amount of federal taxes Amazon paid in 2017 and then to look up the actual amount on their phones.
The sophomores from the civics class who I met with in the afternoon were equally engaging. One of the points that both groups of students were most interested in discussing (as many people are) was the differences in pay for different professions. The fact that for large firms, the ratio of average CEO pay to average worker pay had gone from approximately 35:1 in the 1970s to approximately 270:1 today was a useful point of departure for the discussion of how we value work. When asked what determines how much someone gets paid, many students will answer, "position". Deconstructing what that means (authority, credentials, contribution, etc.) is a useful discussion.
It was wonderful to talk capitalism with Ms. Perkinson-Posey's students at Belleville West. Thank you again for letting me visit!