Sunday, June 19, 2016


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NAFTA, The TPP, and the “”Why Do We Have to Learn This?” Question!

It’s hard to think of anything more yawn-inducing for a social studies lesson than having to learn about a treaty.     The textbook formula for “treaty” has a sentence or two about the reason (the war ended, new trade routes were established, territorial disputes ended), the signers (the countries or warring parties, or maybe a president who made it happen, or two infamous enemies), and (if the paragraph is more than a few lines long), what happened afterwards.    The sterile textbook prose gives little indication of the fraught conditions and deeply held conflicts that led to the treaty, and even less hint that this “good” and maybe even “inevitable” treaty led to even greater negative consequences.  It’s signed, it’s done – on to the next “fact.”

Not so with NAFTA. And definitely not so with the TPP.    NAFTA, a treaty to reduce tariffs and other trade barriers between the US, Canada and Mexico, took effect in 1994, with claims of creating more jobs, reducing consumer prices, and dramatically improving the economy throughout Mexico.    Did “free trade” deliver on its promises?   Opponents of the TPP look at jobs in the US, poverty in Mexico, and say “No!”   NAFTA is one reason the TPP is being hotly debated by the current presidential candidates in the US and by environmental, labor and corporate groups in the countries involved.

Why spend some time this summer planning lessons about trade treaties?  Because, according to critics of the TPP, if it goes into effect, it could shift more US jobs to other countries, exempt corporations from a country’s laws protecting the environment and insuring the rights of workers, and put corporations “above the law” – beyond the financial regulations and tax policies of any country not favorable to that corporation’s profits.    A treaty for the 1%.

How to make sense of the proposed TransPacificPartnership  without a Ph.D. in economics, a law degree,  fluency in several Asian languages, and access to the documents produced in great secrecy and not yet released to the publics who will be affected by the treaty’s provisions?  Just because something’s important to know about doesn’t mean it will be easy – or even practical – to try to teach it.

Once again, Rethinking Schools comes to the rescue! The Line Between Us, their exciting collection of curriculum resources on the US-Mexico border, takes NAFTA as the touchstone for a comprehensive study of the ways individual lives on both sides of the border are shaped by a treaty that is anything but a dry fact in a history book.  NAFTA, designed in theory to transcend national borders, has instead been a creator of barriers, a source of new conflicts, and enforcer of new obstacles to economic development and personal mobility.

The resources and activities that enable students to step into NAFTA, its claims and provisions, and into the lives of workers and communities transformed by this trade agreement, are powerful for understanding the “border” from multiple points of view. And these lessons give us a template for helping kids – especially those who’ll be old enough to vote this fall – feel informed enough to ask serious questions about the still-pending TPP.

About the curriculum resources:  The NAFTA section of The Line Between Us includes a summary of NAFTA’s provisions, analyses by the Institute for Policy Studies (an invaluable resource), Bill Moyers’ powerful video Trading Democracy on the ways corporations, not workers, are empowered by NAFTA.   Necessary background. But what students will connect with are the personal stories of Mexican farm laborers, stories that then make an explanation of neo-liberalism by an immigration and refugee rights group worth understanding.  And the statement of “How We See the World,” the voice of Zapatistas in Chiapas on the degradation of work and workers’ conditions under NAFTA , a powerful motivator not only to pay attention to “trade agreements,” but to take all of their claims as questions to be investigated.  Questions like “who will profit from this?” and “who will be harmed?”
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But just reading these compelling sources is not the same as stepping into the world according to NAFTA:  for that, this curriculum provides role play activities in which students can step into the persona of a US worker whose job was taken by his company to low-wage Mexico, a Mexican farm laborer whose pay has decreased when US produce is dumped on international markets, a young maquiladora worker who risks kidnapping and murder to work in a US-owned factory along the border, or a US capitalist who may have wished to keep jobs in his home state but can’t resist the profits NAFTA makes so attractive if he moves his factory across that national border.  Students research their character’s lives before and after the treaty, examine what reasoning might have prompted the treaty’s provisions and promises, and explore first-hand accounts of post-NAFTA life. “Border,” “immigration,” “free trade” become not facts in a textbook or slogans in a campaign but realities in people’s lives.     

What is “free” about “free trade”?  Did NAFTA make economies stronger and lives better for people in three North American countries? Or is it an agreement “designed by and for transnational corporations and investors?”  Can workers move freely across borders? Or are borders “open” only to the movement of capital, of wealth?  

The Line Between Us was published in 2004.  Yet its lessons could not be more timely. The wage scales debated in the role play are those being debated today.  The questions of who has power, who decides, who bears the costs and who profits are not test questions: they are the questions about the TPP that students can learn to analyze – and maybe answer – if they step into the world according to NAFTA.

See my next posts for compelling novels and some non-fiction titles that are fine literature on their own and sure to bring the “border” to life for your students.

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