All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1956

High School Economics

Mr. Shelly is a member o/ the stall of the Foundation /or Economic Education.

Student answers to questions concerning business practices, government controls, labor relations, and other aspects of human affairs ought to indicate what they have been taught about economics. Here are the results of a recent poll of 1,443 students in 13 high schools in a typical industrial community:

56%       said owners get too much compared with employees.

56%       favored price controls over competition.

77%       believed that, in many industries, one or two companies are so large as to constitute virtual monopolies.

71%       thought a worker should not produce all that he can.

66%       said that the most practical way for workers to raise their living standards was to “get more of the company’s money”; only 34 per cent chose the answer: produce more.

54%       believed that “the fairest kind of economic system is one that takes from each according to his ability and gives to each according to his needs.”

56%       when asked, “Which has done most to improve living standards in this country?” chose organized labor; 16 per cent said “business management”; 14 per cent, “government”; 14 per cent admitted they didn’t know.

76%       said that owners, not workers, get most of the increased output due to new machinery.

The survey showed that many of the economic opinions of these high school students were socialistic, egalitarian, and quite unrealistic. Apparently most of the students had not been impressively exposed to the ideas of free enterprise or the results it has shown.

That teen-agers give socialistic answers to questions of economics is an indication of serious neglect of homework—by their parents, that is.

Another interpretation of the results of the survey might be that the boys and girls, having nothing else to go by, were influenced by their teacher’s opinions—that their answers reflected indoctrination. Undoubtedly, that sort of thing sometimes happens in our educational institutions, whether done deliberately or simply through the teacher’s own lack of economic understanding.

A further reason why so many high school students know so many wrong answers to economic problems may lie in the poor quality of the textbooks that teachers must use. Evidence to that effect is revealed in an experiment by the Foundation for Economic Education.

During the 1954-1955 school year, the Foundation offered to send the following books, on request, to high school principals and teachers:

•       Understanding Our Free Economy, a textbook by Fairchild and Shelly

•       Economies in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, and Study Guide by Thomas J. Shelly

•       Essays on Liberty, a collection of treatises published by the Foundation, and Study Guide by Thomas J. Shelly

The Fairchild-Shelly text carries its own study questions at the end of each chapter. The other books were supplemented with study guides designed to help the teacher present the ideas. All these books approach the subject of economics in the tradition of competitive private enterprise.

Altogether, 5,079 principals and teachers requested 6,232 copies of the books offered. After several months, the recipients were asked their opinions of the books and what use they were making of them. More than a third of them have replied to date. Of the first 1,300 replies only 14 were negative; those teachers did not like the books. All the others responded more or less enthusiastically.

In some cases, where the principals or teachers were able to do so, the books are being used as classroom texts; this practice is not extensive because the selection of textbooks is often the prerogative of state, county, or district high school boards. But, in practically every case the teachers are recommending the books for collateral reading.

It should be remembered that economics as a separate discipline is not generally included in high school curricula; it is usually merged with other subjects in a course called “social studies.” Hence, books on economics must come into study by the side door, so to speak.

This experiment reveals no general prejudice among high school teachers against the free economy; a number of the letters point rather to an unfamiliarity with it, and to an interest in finding out more about it. It is true that the most widely used textbooks, to which the teachers were exposed in their college days, stress egalitarian ideas and the need of government intervention. But it is not true that all teachers have fully accepted these ideas or the ideology of which they form a part. The minds of a large number of them are open. They are willing to learn. Their greatest need is for more and better tools—a body of literature explaining the superiority of the free market over other so-called economic systems. []


The second definition, rather than contradicting the first, appears only to acknowledge that democracy is now with us.

U. S. Army Definition, 1928:

Democracy. A government of the masses. “Authority derived through mass meeting or any other forms of “direct” expression. Results in mobocracy. Attitude toward property is communistic negating property rights. Attitude toward law is that the will of the majority shall regulate, whether it be based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice, and impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences. Results in demagogism, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy.

United States Army Training Manual, No. 2000-25, 1928, p. 91

U. S. Army Definition, 1952:

Meaning of Democracy. Because the United States is a democracy, the majority of the people decide how our government will be organized and run—and that includes the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The people do this by electing representatives, and these men and women then carry out the wishes of the people.

The Soldier’s Guide, Department of the Army
Field Manual, FM 21-13, June 1952, p. 69