The national debt as a high school subject

Current high school and early college textbooks don't adequately explain what the federal debt is and why the students should care about it. This is a problem, because they are the ones set to inherit it.

Bebeto Matthews/AP/File
The US National Debt Clock in New York is shown in this October 2008 file photo. Rogers argues that teaching the US national debt should be given more priority in high school and early college curricula.

I have agreed to write a reference book on the U.S. national debt over the next year.  It is a book that would be found in the collections of public community libraries and the libraries of high schools and colleges–intended to be used by ordinary concerned citizens, high school AP government students, and college students in political science and economics courses.  For the students it would likely be a supplement to their main textbook, particularly useful in courses where the teacher wants to get into greater depth about the debt and deficits issue or where students are writing term papers on the topic.  I was motivated to agree to take this project on because I think there are big holes in the literature right now:  while there are some books on the debt that are written from a particular point of view with particular policy recommendations, there seem preciously few books that survey all different points of view and explain the big (economic and philosophical) tradeoffs in choosing among all the different policy options.  I also think (based on my reading of my own kids’ textbooks) that AP government textbooks don’t adequately explain what the federal debt is and why the students should care about it, which really troubles me given that they are the ones that will have to deal with it.

But I haven’t yet poured through the various text and reference books that talk about the national debt out there (but I will–this is a big summer project), so I was hoping you readers could first participate in this informal survey:  How did you first learn about the national debt in school–in high school or college–and what did you learn about it?  Did you learn about it as a simply mechanical and abstract thing that didn’t really pertain to you and your life, or were you made aware of how it might affect you more personally–even if largely through effects on the economy as a whole?  If you are someone who first learned about it as a grownup and by reading the news or books or websites on your own, do you feel you learned about it well, and easily?  What was the first lesson you “got”–as in, were told and understood–about why you should personally care about the debt?

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