Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Anti-business bias in European text books

High school text books in Germany and France take a dim view of business enterprise, says Stephen Theil, Newsweek's European economics correspondent in an article in a Foreign Policy article reproduced in FT. This, the writer says, must explains the profound mistrust towards the free enterprise economy in those countries- in France, only 36% of the people supported free enterprise in a 2005 poll and in Germany support for socialist ideals was running at a high of 47% in 2007.

Theil cites intances:

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 si├Ęcle, 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.

I do not know how far the material in textbooks can influence and explain popular attitudes. After all, there is the mass media as well. Are the media too hostile to business enterprise in Germany and France? I doubt that would be the case because they would not be able to survive commercially if that were so. US text books, one would imagine, are not ill disposed, yet popular distrust of at least big business is widespread there.

I don't know that Indian text books have much to say either way but celebration of business is common today among the intelligentsia- so much say that many want government to vacate even education and health.

The Indian electorate has been either indifferent or negatively disposed towards a big chunk of economic reforms even though most of the media is pro-reform. People cannot be brainwashed through school text books, certainly not beyond a point. They can think for themselves. It is somewhat facile to ascribe popular attitudes in France and Germany to biases in school text books.

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