Europe's school books demonise enterprise
By Stefan Theil
Published: January 8 2008 02:00
-There has been much debate over the ways in which historical ideology is passed on to the next generation - over Japanese textbooks that downplay the Nanjing massacre, Palestinian textbooks that feature maps without Israel and new Russian guidelines that require teachers to acclaim Stalinism. Yet there has been almost no analysis of how countries teach economics.
In France and Germany, schools have helped ingrain a serious aversion to the market economy. In a 2005 poll, just 36 per cent of French citizens said they supported the free enterprise system. In Germany, support for socialist ideals is running at all-time highs: 47 per cent in 2007 versus 36 per cent in 1991. In both countries, attempts at economic reform have been routinely blocked by a consensus against policies considered "pro-market". Might some of this be traced to the ideas instilled at school? In a project for the German Marshall Fund, I analysed French, German and US high-school curricula and textbooks for their coverage of the economy, the welfare state, entrepreneurship and globalisation.
"Economic growth imposes a hectic form of life, producing overwork, stress, nervous depression, cardiovascular disease and, according to some, even the development of cancer," asserts Histoire du XXe siècle , a text memorised by French high-school students as they prepare for entrance exams to prestigious universities. Start-ups, the book tells students, are "audacious enterprises" with "ill-defined prospects". Then it links entrepreneurs with the technology bubble, the Nasdaq crash and massive redundancies across the economy. Think "creative destruction" without the "creative".
In another widely used text, a section on innovation does not mention any entrepreneur or company. Instead, students read a treatise on whether technological progress destroys jobs. Another briefly mentions an entrepreneur - a Frenchman who invented a new tool to open oysters - only to follow with an abstract discussion of whether the modern workplace is organised along post-Fordist or neo-Taylorist lines. In several texts, students are taught that globalisation leads to violence and armed resistance, requiring a new system of world governance. "Capitalism" is described as "brutal", "savage" and "American". French students do not learn economics so much as a highly biased discourse about economics.
German textbooks emphasise corporatist and collectivist traditions and the minutiae of employer-employee relations - a zero-sum world where one loses what the other gains. People who run companies are caricatured as idle, cigar-smoking plutocrats. They are linked to child labour, internet fraud, mobile phone addiction, alcoholism and redundancies. Germany's rich entrepreneurial history is all but ignored.
A typical social studies text titled FAKT has a chapter on "What to do against unemployment". Instead of describing how companies create jobs, it explains how the jobless can join self-help groups and anti-reform protests "in the tradition of the East German Monday demonstrations" (which in 1989 helped topple the communist dictatorship). The text concludes with a long excerpt from the platform of the German Union Federation, including the 30-hour working week, retirement at 60 and redistribution of work by splitting full-time into part-time jobs. No market alternative is taught. FAKT blames unemployment on computers and robots - a recurring theme in the German books.
Describing globalisation, another text has sections headed "Revival of Manchester Capitalism", "Brazilianisation of Europe" and "Return of the Dark Ages". India and China are successful, the book explains, because they practise state ownership and protectionism, while the freest markets are in impoverished sub-Saharan Africa. Like many French and German books, it suggests students learn more by contacting the anti-globalisation group Attac.
It is no surprise that the continent's schools teach through a left-of-centre lens. The surprise is the intensity of the anti-market bias. Students learn that companies destroy jobs, while government policy creates them. Globalisation is destructive, if not catastrophic. Business is a zero-sum game. If this is the belief system within which most students develop intellectually, is it any wonder French and German reformers are so easily shouted down?
The writer is Newsweek's European economics editor. Reproduced with permission from Foreign Policy #164 (January/February 2008) www.foreignpolicy.com. Copyright 2008, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace