By March Schug and Richard Western.
Imagine a visitor to the United States, touring Wisconsin to examine its public education system in order to learn about the system’s main goals and the institutional arrangements and practices by which it seeks to attain them. What might she expect to find? Among other things, goals and practices reflecting distinctive features of the United States — its political system and its civil society, including the institutions on which Americans rely to handle their personal and public responsibilities. It would not be difficult for our visitor to make this prediction. Wherever public school systems exist, they exist in part to teach young people about the distinctive features of the societies they serve.
Teaching young people about the distinctive features of their own society is generally an uncontroversial goal, but it takes on particular importance today against a background of two disconcerting problems. First, young Americans typically experience basic political and social institutions as prepared for them and handed over, ready-made, across the generations. They make some use of these institutions (it would be impossible not to), but they have not seen the institutions evolve, have had no hand in creating them, and have little basis for imagining them as achievements attained by choice and effort. The institutions are apt, therefore, to seem humdrum or alien, evoking complacency, little curiosity, and a weak sense of attachment.
Second, young Americans typically know little about basic political and social institutions to which they are heirs (see, e.g., Hoff, 1999). Whatever breeds contempt or ennui here, it is not familiarity. The lack of knowledge matters, moreover, and not only for the specter it raises (see, e.g., Damon, 2001) of widespread disengagement on the part of the young from civic and political activities. It is a lack of knowledge that extends also to the private-sector economy, including the economic principles that underlie the economy and the skills by which successful participants in the economy manage their own financial affairs. To be uninformed about this sphere of activity has practical consequences for individuals, especially today when consumers face an increasingly complex array of new financial services and products about which they must try to make wise choices (Greenspan, 2003). There are public consequences as well, since individuals who struggle unsuccessfully to manage their financial affairs may experience debilitating problems that also impose costs on others. Money and financial problems in Wisconsin are the number one cause of divorce, a leading cause of suicide, and a main reason for bankruptcies. Wisconsin experienced a 105 percent increase in personal bankruptcies between 1990 and 2002 (Governor’s Task Force on Financial Education, 2002, p. 4). In the first quarter of 2003, bankruptcy fillings rose by 21 percent, putting the state on pace for a third consecutive year of record bankruptcies (Gores, 2003). According to the Governor’s Task Force on Financial Education (2002, p. 35), ripple effects from bankruptcies cost each Wisconsin consumer more than $500 annually.
For academic, civic, and practical reasons, then, one might expect that our hypothetical visitor to Wisconsin would discover an education system deliberately balanced in its approach to teaching young people about public- and private-sector institutions. Such a balance might imply, regarding the private sector, state-level curricular standards, model instructional programs, and teacher-training requirements focused on academic and practical studies in economics and financial education. More generally it might imply that educators would tend to view the private sector with professional interest — not uncritically but with a measure of attention and respect befitting its central role in American society and its role worldwide as an emblem of modernity.
But our visitor would search in vain for such a curricular emphasis or attitudinal tendency in Wisconsin. Economics and financial education enjoy no pride of place in the state’s system of public education. They are scarcely mentioned in state law, weakly represented in state regulations, overshadowed in local districts by educators’ attachment to the study of government, shunned as fields of study by teachers-in-training, and entrusted for the most part to high school social studies teachers who know little about the private sector and regard it, at best, with ambivalence.
We turn now to an examination of these contentions and the evidence for them, beginning with an elaborated account of the problem.
In the twenty-first century it is an alarming trend that a large percent of Wisconsin students have an almost remedial-level knowledge of American economic and financial institutions
By Mark Schug