Teaching Students About Smoot-Hawley

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act is considered one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the history of American trade policy. It was enacted in 1930 and raised tariffs on a wide range of goods imported into the United States. The Act is named after its co-sponsors, Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley, who believed that it would help protect American jobs and businesses during the Great Depression.

However, the Act is widely criticized for its negative impact on the global economy and for exacerbating the Great Depression. As a result, many economists and policymakers today use the Act as a cautionary tale of the dangers of protectionism and the importance of free trade.

Despite its historical significance, Smoot-Hawley is often overlooked in classrooms and textbooks, particularly at the high school level. This is unfortunate, as understanding the Act and its consequences is crucial for students studying economics, international relations, and American history.

To teach students about Smoot-Hawley, instructors can start by explaining the historical context in which the Act was passed. The Great Depression had taken a severe toll on the American economy, with unemployment rates skyrocketing and businesses struggling to survive. Many Americans believed that protecting domestic industries from foreign competition through high tariffs was the solution to these economic woes.

Instructors can then delve into the details of the Act itself, explaining the specific tariffs it imposed, and its impact on American trade and international relations. It’s important to cover the backlash the Act received from other countries, who retaliated with their own tariffs and trade restrictions, exacerbating the effects of the Great Depression and ultimately deepening its economic damage. Students should also be exposed to the debates and arguments that surrounded the Act at the time, and the ways in which it was rationalized or opposed.

To help students understand the contemporary relevance of Smoot-Hawley, instructors can connect the Act to current events and policies. Topics such as the ongoing US-China trade war or the Trans-Pacific Partnership can be used to illustrate the importance of free and fair trade, and how protectionist policies can harm both domestic and global economies.

Smoot-Hawley is an essential piece of American history and teaches vital lessons about trade policies, the global economy, and the consequences of protectionism. Including it in high school curriculums can help students develop a more nuanced and perspective-rich understanding of economics, politics, and international relations.

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