Magazine article Radical Teacher

Hunting for the Market Economy: Using Historiographical Debates to Critique the Evolution of the Market Economy and Capitalism

Magazine article Radical Teacher

Hunting for the Market Economy: Using Historiographical Debates to Critique the Evolution of the Market Economy and Capitalism

Article excerpt

"Capitalism ... ROCKS!" was the first thing I saw written on my chalkboard as I came into class. My eleventh grade United States History classes were beginning a unit titled "Nationalism, Expansion, and the Market Economy, 1815-1845" and I had written "Capitalism?" on the board before we left for lunch. Someone had rewritten it, and although the goal was that they question capitalism, I was excited to see that someone was thinking critically, even if they were critiquing the questions I was raising.

In each class I begin by writing "Capitalism?" on the chalkboard and asking students to explain what they know about it. Invariably words like "markets," "supply and demand," "competition," "profit, and "labor" are written on the board in each class. We talk about what these words might mean and use a dictionary to clarify those we still have questions about. I then ask, "Where did capitalism come from, and how long have we had it?" Michael, eagerly raising his hand, succinctly summarized the mindset this lesson aims to challenge when he replied, "This is America. Our country was founded on the principles of capitalism!"

In order to deepen their understandings beyond dictionary definitions and problematize capitalism we analyze various historical interpretations of how the market economy and capitalism evolved in the United States. The general purpose of the lesson is to utilize a process of critique by taking a subject like "capitalism" or the market economy and creating a genealogy of the present. In this case we take a branch in capitalism's family tree, so to speak, and follow it back to where it came from to more fully understand it, critique it, and apply our new understandings to capitalism's development in the current century.

According to McLaren and Farahmandpur (1), "we need to identify alternative subject positions that we might assume or counternarratives and countermemories that we might make available to our students to contest existing regimes of representation and social practice"(p. 180). Capitalism is one of those existing regimes of representation for most of my students, in many ways like water to a fish; it's everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Conversely, I want my students to recognize that capitalism in the United States has a history, and looking at that history can give them a better understanding of the present as a part of a process and not something that's fixed. Therefore, this lesson works to construct a narrative that contradicts the hegemony of capitalism. Utilizing dialogue from the movie Good Will Hunting as a springboard, I attempt to make this unit more meaningful and practical by linking my students' twenty-first century perceptions of social class to the historical debate on the evolution of the market economy in the United States.


Encouraging students to think critically about capitalism, to seriously consider its failings, and to organize for collective action has been perhaps the most challenging aspect of my twelve years of teaching. Furthermore, the school I teach in is quite a paradox. It is the largest Catholic or private school in Iowa. Students are required to take a social justice course reflecting the Catholic Church's teachings that advocate helping the poor. Conversely, the school prides itself on its cutting edge college preparatory curriculum, is located in a suburb where the median household income is more than $60,000, and has a student body that is 89% white; only 5.3% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Therefore, while the curriculum advocates for social justice, supporting teachers who challenge students to become actively involved in fighting injustice, most of the 1200 students come from affluent families and the standards and benchmarks, unfortunately, do not question their affluence. Recently matters have become even more intense as the entire faculty read Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat; this was to impress upon us the importance of preparing our students to compete in the changing global economy. …

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