Indoctrination

by Henry on January 8, 2008

This “piece”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/3f03314e-bd3e-11dc-b7e6-0000779fd2ac.html by Stefan Theil in the _FT_ today on the biases of French and German high school economics textbooks is pretty bad, but it turns out to consist of edited extracts from an “even worse essay”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4095 that he’s published in _Foreign Policy._

For example, a one-year high school course on the inner workings of an economy developed by the French Education Ministry called Sciences Economiques et Sociales, spends two thirds of its time discussing the sociopolitical fallout of economic activity. Chapter and section headings include “Social Cleavages and Inequality,” “Social Mobilization and Conflict,” “Poverty and Exclusion,” and “Globalization and Regulation.” The ministry mandates that students learn “worldwide regulation as a response” to globalization. Only one third of the course is about companies and markets, and even those bits include extensive sections on unions, government economic policy, the limits of markets, and the dangers of growth. The overall message is that economic activity has countless undesirable effects from which citizens must be protected. No wonder, then, that the French default attitude is to be suspicious of market forces and private entrepreneurship, not to mention any policies that would strengthen them.

… This is a world apart from what American high school students learn. In the United States, where fewer than half of high school students take an economics course, most classes are based on straightforward, classical economics. In Texas, the state-prescribed curriculum requires that the positive contribution of entrepreneurs to the local economy be taught. The state of New York, meanwhile, has coordinated its curriculum with entrepreneurship-promoting youth groups such as Junior Achievement, as well as with economists at the Federal Reserve. Do American schools encourage students to follow in the footsteps of Bill Gates or become ardent fans of globalization? Not really. But they certainly aren’t filling students with negative preconceptions and suspicions about businesses and the people who run them.

I don’t have any experience whatsoever in the French educational system. It may quite possibly be that ‘countless’ French students who want to get into Sciences-Po ‘memorize’ a set of texts describing capitalism as “brutal,” “savage,” “neoliberal,” and “American.” It equally may be that Mr. Thiel is engaging in a bit of cherry-picking. The precise relationship between the particular texts that Mr. Thiel dwells on in most loving detail, and the actual official curricula in France and Germany is sometimes rather harder to discern from the piece than it should be (I’d be interested to hear more about whether these, or similar texts do enjoy official status from French and German readers, who obviously know much more than I). When you suggest that an ‘Economic and Social Theory’ course is _ipso facto_ biased because it discusses inequality, conflict and poverty, and only spends one third of the time talking about companies and markets, you may very possibly be subject to a few biases of your own. My personal suspicion is that there are some biases in French educational materials – see “Arthur Goldhammer”:http://artgoldhammer.blogspot.com/2008/01/teaching-economics.html for more on this, and on the suggestion that the solution is to get businessmen to write the textbooks instead of econ professors – but I also suspect that these biases aren’t nearly as dramatic and all-pervasive as Thiel appears to suggest.

But regardless of the specific merits of Thiel’s attack on French and German education, his broader argument is bad Marxism in reverse. Even if we pass over the claim that classical economics, as taught in US high schools and elsewhere, is ‘straightforward,’ Thiel seems to be suggesting that the entire populations of France and Germany are subject to a particularly crude form of false consciousness. The only _possible_ reason why French and German people might want to oppose swingeing reforms of their welfare states is that they have been duped by their educational overlords into believing that capitalism is the enemy. That people might actually _prefer_ to have stronger welfare states, and even might choose to make _tradeoffs_ between economic growth and economic equality doesn’t enter his argument even as a possibility (nor, for that matter, does the possibility that many Americans might want the same, despite their gobs of entrepreneurship-promoting school curricula &c&c&c).

Update: Detlef in comments “finds”:https://crookedtimber.org/2008/01/08/indoctrination/#comment-223976 what would appear to be _prima-facie_ evidence of cherrypicking.

That leads me to his use of statistics. That seems to be a bit “biased” to say it politely.

In one 2005 poll, just 36 percent of French citizens said they supported the free-enterprise system, the only one of 22 countries polled that showed minority support for this cornerstone of global commerce. In Germany, meanwhile, support for socialist ideals is running at all-time highs—47 percent in 2007 versus 36 percent in 1991.

He probably means this poll. Did you notice how he mentions the French numbers but not the German ones? (Probably because they´re similar to Great Britain and Canada and so wouldn´t support his overarching theme.) Instead he jumps to a totally unrelated poll about German support for “socialist ideals”. What´s that supposed to mean? How are these “ideals” defined?
(Just look at the primaries in the USA right now. For some, even Clinton and Obama are socialists.)

As Detlef also notes, Thiel’s assertion that recent improvements in Germany’s economy are the result of economic reforms is pretty far fetched (the putative benefits of these reforms are highly unlikely to have shown up in the relevant statistics so quickly)

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01.17.08 at 1:09 pm

{ 37 comments }

1

Kieran Healy 01.08.08 at 10:41 pm

Do American schools encourage students to follow in the footsteps of Bill Gates or become ardent fans of globalization?

Shouldn’t that be “noted quasi-monopolist Bill Gates”?

2

lemuel pitkin 01.08.08 at 10:59 pm

My personal suspicion is that there are some biases in French educational materials

What’s the relevant definition of bias here — not Thiel’s definition, but yours?

3

dsquared 01.08.08 at 11:08 pm

A lot of this may be simple mistranslation – the fact that “brute” is a false friend in French reliably catches out the FT or WSJ at least once a quarter. “Produit brut d’exploitation” appears in the audited accounts of every French company in existence, but it doesn’t mean “brutal product of exploitation”, it means “operating profit before tax”.

4

Rob 01.08.08 at 11:20 pm

I mean just look how much that social welfare state is killing the French!

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/07/another-jobs-picture-europe-vs-us/

5

notsneaky 01.08.08 at 11:29 pm

“Thiel seems to be suggesting that the entire populations of France and Germany are subject to a particularly crude form of false consciousness”

So… creationism in schools? Not a problem?

6

Matt Stevens 01.08.08 at 11:35 pm

In Texas, the state-prescribed curriculum requires that the positive contribution of entrepreneurs to the local economy be taught.

So why is this not considered “biased” in its own way? Or is it just not the right kind of bias?

7

MattF 01.08.08 at 11:35 pm

More to the point, it’s not news that continental Europeans are ambivalent towards capitalism. History, culture, politics, etc. & so forth are all going to have some effect, right? One would expect French and German textbooks to reflect French and German beliefs, rather than conservative ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economic beliefs.

8

PHB 01.08.08 at 11:43 pm

Taking pot shots about bias in foreign textbooks is something of a fringe crank sport. Lies my teacher told me shows plenty of problems with the US history texts, yet the principal complaints of bias in the US tend to be directed against Japan.

9

alexandre delaigue 01.09.08 at 12:04 am

You can find the curriculum here (sorry, in french) for last year of high school in “economics and social sciences” :

http://www.ac-versailles.fr/PEDAGOGI/ses/vie-ses/regles/Terprog.htm

In fact, this curriculum is followed by very few high school students : most french students never get any course in economics.

It is an old polemic in France, between a few think-tanks, some left-wing, some right-wing, who both want to have an influence in programs.

10

Bob B 01.09.08 at 1:09 am

Little wonder then that that in 1996, Phillippe Maystadt, the Belgian Finance Minister at the time and now president of the European Investment Bank, said that: “The purpose of the single currency [the Euro] is to prevent the encroachment of Anglo-Saxon values in Europe.”
http://www.brugesgroup.com/news.live?article=18&keyword=14

11

John Emerson 01.09.08 at 1:36 am

“‘Produit brut d’exploitation’ appears in the audited accounts of every French company in existence, but it doesn’t mean ‘brutal product of exploitation’, it means ‘operating profit before tax’.”

But those are two different ways of saying more or less the same thing, Dsquared, aren’t they? Really?

12

notsneaky 01.09.08 at 2:08 am

“most french students never get any course in economics”

Same is true of most American high school students. And usually when they do take economics, unless it’s an honors or AP course, it’s more stuff like “what is a credit rating”, “what’s the difference between a flexible and fixed interest rates”, “what is the connection between the Brouwer fixed point theorem and the existence of general equilibrium”, “how to balance your checkbook”, you know, stuff like that.

13

terence 01.09.08 at 2:29 am

Speaking of biased economics texts, has anyone here read N Gregory Mankiw’s effort?

14

terence 01.09.08 at 2:31 am

Oh, and: Clinton ahead by 2 with 42% of precincts reporting – Obama’s closing…

15

terence 01.09.08 at 2:39 am

oup, nope, Clinton pulling ahead again:
http://tinyurl.com/2ytemv

16

Rob 01.09.08 at 4:32 am

Mankiw’s text is much more honest than Mankiw’s blog.

17

Ingrid Robeyns 01.09.08 at 11:23 am

That people might actually prefer to have stronger welfare states, and even might choose to make tradeoffs between economic growth and economic equality doesn’t enter his argument even as a possibility

Exactly. Here’s an illustration of this: the Dutch governments have introduced many pro-market reforms in the welfare state in the last decades, generally based on (often hypothetical and theoretical!) arguments of more freedom of choice for consumers and more overall efficiency; yet the quality opinion polls keep showing that most Dutch prefer solidarity/limited social inequality, and a good social security safety net above more choice and alledged more efficiency.

18

Hidari 01.09.08 at 11:26 am

The key problem here is, yet again, economics’ claim to be a ‘hard’ science in the same way as physics, chemistry or biology are. If this is the case, then the analogy by Matt Stevens is correct: not teaching ‘classical’ economics really is as bad as not teaching natural selection.

On the other hand, if ‘classical’ economics is, to a far greater extent than biology, an ideological construction, unfalsifiable in Popper’s sense (or worse, something that does indeed makes predictions, but predictions which have been falsified many times), then the analogy breaks down.

19

Bob B 01.09.08 at 12:32 pm

Message #17 relates:

Distrust in western Europe of market mechanisms for allocating resources goes deep and wide. Famously, Edouard Balladur, the former French [Gaullist] prime minister, memorably remarked in an interview with the FT: “What is the market? It is the law of the jungle, the law of nature. And what is civilisation? It is the struggle against nature.”

An important insight is that there isn’t a uniform alternative to the Anglo-Saxon model across Europe. Try this influential paper on: Globalisation and the reform of the European social models, prepared by André Sapir for the think-tank Bruegel, and presented at the ECOFIN Informal Meeting in Manchester in September 2005. It argued that there is not one European social model, but rather four – the Nordic, Anglo-Saxon, Mediterranean and the Continental:

• The Nordic model (welfare state, high level of social protection, high level of taxation, extensive intervention in the labour market, mostly in the form of job-seeking incentives)
• The Anglo-Saxon system (more limited collective provision of social protection merely to cushion the impact of events that would lead to poverty)
• The continental model (provision of social assistance through public insurance-based systems; limited role of the market in the provision of social assistance)
• The Mediterranean social welfare system (high legal employment protection; lower levels of unemployment benefits; spending concentrated on pensions)

http://www.euractiv.com/Article?tcmuri=tcm:29-146338-16&type=News

Andre Sapir’s paper on: Globalisation and the Reform of European Social Models (November 2005), is here:
http://www.bruegel.org/Public/fileDownload.php?target=/Files/media/PDF/Publications/Policy%20Briefs/PB200501_SocialModels.pdf

20

Barry 01.09.08 at 1:28 pm

hidari: “The key problem here is, yet again, economics’ claim to be a ‘hard’ science in the same way as physics, chemistry or biology are. If this is the case, then the analogy by Matt Stevens is correct: not teaching ‘classical’ economics really is as bad as not teaching natural selection.”

It’s worse (analogy borrowed from another blogger, and modified): If I were a GOP politician, and I wanted a biologist who’d support creationism, I’d be advised to stay away from elite biology departments, and go to Diploma Mill U (or GOPgelical U). If I were a GOP politician, and I wanted a engineer/physicist who’d support getting energy from perpetual motion machines, same thing.

However, If I were a GOP politician, and I wanted an economist who’d support supply-side economics and other incredibly dishonest and ill-advised policies, I’d be advised to go *to* an elite economics departments, because there’d be liars lined up on each side of the hallway, begging for the opportunity to lie in public. And not the sort of ‘think tank’ propagandists who couldn’t hack it in academia, but actual elite economists, who don’t have to lie to keep a roof over their childs’ heads. And when those liars were through, they could go right back to their departments and resume their academic careers, because any honest colleagues would (apparently) be heavily outnumbered by the dishonest ones.

In the end, economics has been corrupted by the wealthy and powerful. It’s not surprising; the study of economics touches so closely on questions of wealth and power that the wealthy and powerful could not afford to leave it be.

21

Tom 01.09.08 at 2:33 pm

Here in the United States of America, we’ve been telling kids that revenues are gross.

22

Grand Moff Texan 01.09.08 at 2:50 pm

In Texas, the state-prescribed curriculum requires that the positive contribution of entrepreneurs to the local economy be taught.

In Texas, ecology textbooks describing ecological disasters were attacked in the Texas State Textbook Committee for being “anti-Christian.”

Yep.

Talk about your false consciousness!
.

23

stostosto 01.09.08 at 3:20 pm

Shorter Henry:

“Reports of anti-market bias in French and German text books are biased. I suspect.

And even if there is an actual bias, it’s not a problem. I suspect.”

24

Detlef 01.09.08 at 3:30 pm

I´ve got some real problems with that article.

I´m a bit too old to need current German text books :) but I did find websites of German school book publishers. Economics isn´t a course on its own, it´s part of “Gemeinschaftskunde” (social studies?). I looked at some summaries and they include for example:

Chapter for business/economy:
– new trends (using Porsche as an example)
– “just-in-time production” – Advantages and disadvantages
– Lean production – Principles and main focuses
– Explore a company
– Franchising
– Self employment using a “Ich AG”
– Creation of a business plan

Job related chapter
– how to choose a career
interests, talent etc.
– education, qualification
– how-to: job application
– unions and employer associations
– employee participation in Germany
– living and working in other cultures

Doesn´t sound that unfriendly to entrepreneurship, I´d say. With the caveat of course that I don´t know how it´s been taught.

But it seems like the author looked for “bad” examples to prove his thesis. If that math 4. grade example is real, it´s totally stupid.

That leads me to his use of statistics. That seems to be a bit “biased” to say it politely.

In one 2005 poll, just 36 percent of French citizens said they supported the free-enterprise system, the only one of 22 countries polled that showed minority support for this cornerstone of global commerce. In Germany, meanwhile, support for socialist ideals is running at all-time highs—47 percent in 2007 versus 36 percent in 1991.

He probably means this poll. Did you notice how he mentions the French numbers but not the German ones? (Probably because they´re similar to Great Britain and Canada and so wouldn´t support his overarching theme.) Instead he jumps to a totally unrelated poll about German support for “socialist ideals”. What´s that supposed to mean? How are these “ideals” defined?
(Just look at the primaries in the USA right now. For some, even Clinton and Obama are socialists.)

In Germany, unemployment is finally falling after years at Depression-era levels, thanks in no small part to welfare reforms that in 2005 pressured Germans on the public dole to take up jobs.

That´s disputed to say the least.
From what I´ve read, most economists say that these reforms might have been one reason but not the major reason. Simply because it´s unlikely that these reforms showed results in such a short time.
It´s much more likely that the German (export) economy finally overcame the problems of reunification and the over-valuation of the Deutschmark when it entered the Euro.

Not to mention which country has a large trade and current account surplus?
Can we at least say that the economy of such a country maybe isn´t quite as bad as described?

According to the European Union’s internal polling, just two in five Germans and French would like to be their own boss, compared to three in five Americans. Whereas 8 percent of Americans say they are currently involved in starting a business, that’s true of only 2 percent of Germans and 1 percent of the French. Another 28 percent of Americans are considering starting a business, compared to just 11 percent of the French and 18 percent of Germans.

At last we can test his thesis.
We can look at the latest available OECD numbers.
“Self employment rates as a percentage of total civilian employment”
USA: 2000 – 7,4% 2005 – 7,5%
France: 2000 – 9,2% 2005 – 9%
Germany: 2000 – 11% 2005 – 12,4%

Maybe the numbers aren´t directly comparable. But I certainly can´t detect any bias in Germany against self employment?

“Number of enterprises in manufacturing with less than 20 employees”
(as a percentage of total number of enterprises in manufacturing)

USA: 2002 – 73,2%
Germany: 2002 – 80,5%

Not that different either.

25

stostosto 01.09.08 at 4:52 pm

Well, judging from this German textbook for secondary school students (the Abitur) with actual exam problems in economics, it does indeed look like Mr Theil is full of it. This is just about as “straightforward”, classical economics as anyone could ask for.

Seems Henry’s call was right.

Of course Theil’s editorialising on the relative economic performance of the American, German and French economies is obviously sloppy and ignorant. I just assumed his declared “study” had at least some substance. Indications seem to suggest otherwise.

26

stostosto 01.09.08 at 4:55 pm

27

humanliberty 01.09.08 at 7:24 pm

In Europe social problems are seen to be created by private greed and anti-social attitudes, to be solved by a benevolent and powerful state. This attitude is found everywhere throughout the entire educational system, as well as in public debates. The individual should be highly distrusted, since he is led by dangerous emotions, selfishness and greed. Ironically it is precisely the wrong solution to limit market activity, as Adam Smith’s butcher example explained. Not only in economics, but also in social issues Europeans believe that the state should determine the rules and control the individual, otherwise another Hitler might pop up. The individual should be protected from himself and from damaging others.
I don’t remember ever encountering pro-market individualist arguments during my education in The Netherlands. Ironically, a free market doesn’t exist to begin with, nor has there ever been an enlightened form of individualism, so anti-capitalist and anti-individualist criticism is easily justified by the existence of corporatist government-regulated behemoths that disfavor minorities and low-skilled workers as they are forced into capital intensive activities. High structural unemployment and cultures that inhibit mobility and flexibility in the labor market tragically reinforce and validate the anti-market bias, aggravating the problems.

It is hard to convey the enormity of the difference if you haven’t yourself experienced it for years and years, and generalizing about culture will always lead to some form of cherry-picking to back up your arguments. Perhaps a more helpful way to analyze anti-market sentiments is to listen what successful European politicians have to say about it, indeed the products of elite socialist schools.

28

DC 01.09.08 at 8:45 pm

Key point of that French curriculum linked to earlier:

“L’approche pluridisciplinaire caractéristique de l’enseignement des sciences économiques et sociales est prise en compte de deux façons :

– complémentarité des analyses économiques et sociologiques”

In other words this isn’t an economics course, it’s economics AND sociology. Sounds like a good idea!

29

stostosto 01.09.08 at 10:15 pm

In Europe social problems are seen to be created by private greed and anti-social attitudes, to be solved by a benevolent and powerful state.

In America social problems are seen to be created by a benevolent and powerful state, to be solved by private greed and anti-social attitudes.

30

James 01.09.08 at 10:57 pm

@human liberty

Thanks for providing some actual experience with European education. Funny how it seems to conflict with some “experts” on the thread.

31

snuh 01.10.08 at 1:15 am

Taught that the free market is a dangerous wilderness, twice as many Germans as Americans tell pollsters that you should not start a business if you think it might fail. According to the European Union’s internal polling, just two in five Germans and French would like to be their own boss, compared to three in five Americans.

why isn’t this evidence that german and french employees generally have more rights and stronger unions, and are therefore treated better than their american counterparts, leading fewer to want the independence of being their own boss? i don’t see why this is a worse explanation than theil’s.

also, apparently it reflects well on economic education in america that americans are more willing to start businesses they think will fail.

32

Ingrid Robeyns 01.10.08 at 7:10 am

To human liberty (@27) : Where did you study???? I did my undergraduate and MScE in economics in Belgium (Leuven), and I have a *very* different experience than you – I am putting this mildly. In the economics educatino that I got, we learnt that the government is only there to solve market failures, which make up one or two chapters in a textbook with about 30 chapters. So I recognise very little of what you say in my experience, both as being educated in Belgium, as well as living in the Netherlands.

Perhaps you left Europe in the 70ties, or you are seeing things through a peculiar libertarian prism, or you are trying to troll — I don’t know how otherwise to explain the gap between what you write and what I see/experience.

33

praisegod barebones 01.10.08 at 7:26 am

‘One would expect French and German textbooks to reflect French and German beliefs, rather than conservative ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economic beliefs.’

See: they’re biassed. Point proven.

34

Hooverism 01.10.08 at 1:28 pm

I studied economics for 6 months at Poitiers University as part of a business course. I also have direct experience of working in a small and a very large French company.

That qualifies me to comment in a limited way.

The economics course talked about supply and demand, prices, and really all the usual stuff one might expect in an economics course. So Theil’s claim that “When they graduate, they may not know much about supply and demand” seems inaccurate, for France.

He also says students will not know about “the workings of a corporation”. I would argue this is probably untrue in France, given the ubiquity of the “stage”. At one time or another most university students follow a stage in a corporation or other organisation. This doesn’t happen so much in anglo saxon countries, although many students have a gap year or go on a placement.

However, Theil’s claims shouldn’t all be dismissed. The textbooks do reflect France’s status as a “social market economy”. They do give greater emphasis to the importance of government spending than the anglo textbooks, to collective bargaining, and the importance of “le social”.

This is reinforced by a distinctive set of assumptions expressed in the media, where Theil’s accusations would probably be easier to justify using hard facts.

Henry, your claim about “bad Marxism in reverse” is problematic too. I take it we shouldn’t understand you as believing that the general tone of a country’s education has no effect on that society’s general assumptions? But what should we understand you to believe instead?

35

humanliberty 01.11.08 at 1:02 am

@Ingrid Robeyns,

A “very” different experience and “putting it mildly” seems to suggest you weren’t too happy with the non-market-failure arguments. Economics or business higher education is probably the only field not blatantly biased against the market all the time, if only because most textbooks used are American. The professors however often still cling to their left-wing beliefs, and the focus is upon market failure.

Academia is otherwise extremely anti-market, but that’s not much different in the USA. Luckily , Americans spend less time in higher education since it isn’t “free”. Since young people enter the unencumbered job market faster they hopefully learn to forget the nonsense they learned in their liberal arts degrees.

If you pick well you can surely find pro-market education in Europe. Most people will not encounter it though, you must seek it out. These studies are so vague, because culture is vague. Are you implying that Europe is as pro-market as the USA? Surely not. Again, I think that the best way to find out what people think is to examine politics and debates of “public intellectuals”. And there it is “social democracy” either steeped in multi-culturalist rhetoric or anti-immigrant rhetoric, with a consistent anti-market attitude across the spectrum. Even the so-called pro-market parties are happy with 50+% of GDP government expenditures.

Finally, even if a “MScE in economics” (notice the English) isn’t anti-market, high-school education is surely extremely socialist, staffed by left-wing government employees who preach the anti-American anti-market pro-EU message of happy multiculturalism day in day out.

36

Barbar 01.11.08 at 1:59 pm

anti-American anti-market pro-EU message of happy multiculturalism

Whoever educated you about France and multiculturalism did not do a very good job.

37

Will 01.13.08 at 12:36 pm

A blog with intelligent comments? Now I have seen everything.

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