June 23, 2005,
According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Washington, one definition of Social Studies (we used to call it Civics) goes as follows:
… Social studies comprises the study of relationships among people, and between people and the environment. Social studies recognizes the challenges and benefits of living in a diverse cultural and ideological society. The resulting interactions are contextualized in space and time and have social, political, economic, and geographical dimensions ...
Yikes! Now I know why I never really understood what Civics was all about in the first place.
For my purposes here, I want focus on the political and economic components of Social Studies, and the real-world human interactions that have so much to teach us on these fronts. A teacher might ask: How do I expose my students to the interactions that Social Studies implies, especially when it comes to politics and government? I have the answer, one that will get students deeply involved in the process.
Each quarter, Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, addresses the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. His testimony is required by the Humphrey-Hawkins law and is designed to provide a glimpse of the economy’s health from the chairman’s perspective. Greenspan has been head of the Fed since 1987, so he is well practiced in making these appearances before Congress. The chairman’s testimony occurs during the daytime, so students may not be able to watch the testimony. Yet if a Social Studies classroom is equipped with a television and an appropriate connection to a cable news outlet like CNBC or Fox, there’s every reason to tune in.
Greenspan was the head of his own economic consulting firm before he took the top job at the Fed. He knows what he is talking about and can speak from experience. Certainly, the advantage of economic experience comes in handy during these sessions. But the value in watching in these hearings doesn’t directly stem from the chairman’s testimony his prepared opening salvo once he takes his seat. The real value comes from the subsequent question-and-answer period. Not too long ago the news media would cut out right after Greenspan’s testimony, so very few people got a perspective on what members of the committee were thinking or not thinking. But once the cable stations began to cover the entire proceedings, Americans were given a unique opportunity to enhance their breadth of understanding of the political process.
I watch these hearings all the time and I am constantly shocked by the questions asked by some politicians. Obviously, perspective on the way the world works is widely divergent between Democrats and Republicans, so one can generally anticipate what a politician with a specific label will say. Even though we are fully aware of this dichotomy, these hearings do a great service in revealing just how little many politicians know about how the economy works.
One reason for this might be the fact that politicians don’t have to pass an exam to be elected they just need to grab the majority of the vote. In many elections competency has nothing to do with winning. It’s all about party affiliation or personal relationships. Just think of those cases where the nominee has passed away before the election and, in a strange turn of events, the spouse has stood in and won!
Students studying economics will find these Fed hearings of special interest. They will see politicians spout economic principles that have no basis in the real world, and make their absurd statements over and over again. Here’s but one example, in the form of a “question” posed by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I have two brief points to make, then I have a couple of questions.
Maybe these politicians simply improvise around the questions their interns write for them. But more than likely they have no clue what they’re talking about. Of course, there’s ample entertainment value to all this. Just look at the faces of the legislators after Greenspan has answered their questions: Their expressions of puzzlement are priceless. Then there are the politicians who use 80 percent of their allotted time to campaign for office, not asking one meaningful question of the chairman. What a show!
Most of us embrace democracy as the best form of government in a modern society. However, a shiver runs up one’s spine when one witnesses the powerbrokers behind our system asking such inane questions of the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Books continue to be the preferred medium of communication in our schools today, but technology is playing an ever more important role in accelerating the learning process of our kids. It’s time for more schools to plug in. The Fed hearings before Congress are news events that should be an important part of the social study of our political process. Students, don’t miss them. Teachers, particularly those of you who are responsible for Civics and economics, be sure your classes are hooked to cable television.
These programs should be mandatory viewing for all those who are preparing for life in the real world.
Thomas E. Nugent is executive vice president and chief investment officer of PlanMember Advisors, Inc. and principal of Victoria Capital Management, Inc.