Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Political Economy in France and Germany

. Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Apparently, economics education in at least two European countries is political economy, with a heavy emphasis on the political and substantially less on the economics. So says a current piece in Foreign Policy. According to the author, Stefan Theil, "In both France and Germany, for instance, schools have helped ingrain a serious aversion to capitalism. 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."

Theil suggests that anti-capitalist, pro-socialist views are a consequence of how economics is taught in primary and secondary school. Drawing on a sample of French and German textbooks, he suggests that the emphasis is on explaining why capitalism is bad with little attention to economic theory or what might be viewed as positive consequences of economic competition.

One example: “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 the three-volume Histoire du XXe siècle, a set of texts memorized by countless French high school students as they prepare for entrance exams to Sciences Po and other prestigious French universities. The past 20 years have “doubled wealth, doubled unemployment, poverty, and exclusion, whose ill effects constitute the background for a profound social malaise,” the text continues. Because the 21st century begins with “an awareness of the limits to growth and the risks posed to humanity [by economic growth],” any future prosperity “depends on the regulation of capitalism on a planetary scale.” Capitalism itself is described at various points in the text as “brutal,” “savage,” “neoliberal,” and “American.”

My favorite example, taken from what Theil says is a German math workbook for 4th graders in Berlin: "In 2004, the cost of a bread roll was 40 cents. From the wheat that went into it, the farmer received only 2 cents. What do you think about this?"

I would have done much better in math if my word problems had taken this form...

I did not go to school in France or Germany, so I do not know how to evaluate the claims Theil makes about the content of standard textbooks used to teach "economics" in France and Germany. Are the books he cites typical examples, or is he sampling from the from the extremes of the distribution?

Moreover, is he right to connect European skepticism about global markets to the content of primary and secondary textbooks?

2 comments:

Sensemania said...

I obviously have never analyzed a German primary or secondary text book as an adult, I just went to school in Berlin. But I can say for myself that my economics education wasn't as portrayed here because I simply never took a course on it. Not one, and as far as I know that is true for most other people and schools (in Berlin at least). Having said that, there is an anti-capitalism bias amongst teachers (who are mostly idealistic and left-leaning), yet the examples he employs I find very suspicious, I never came across (or at least saw) something like that and I did do 13 years of schooling in Germany after all.

Additionally, he does to some extent misrepresent developments about German Economics and politics (his explanation of Hartz IV is just wrong and while the current government discussed a Vermögenssteuer (rich people tax if you want), they never actually passed one)) making me wary of the whole article.

The popularity of socialist ideas and the distaste for globalization (and capitalism) 'American'-style surely has other reasons (high unemployment, mass-influx of low-paying jobs, mass-media coverage of firms moving to China for example)

Maarten said...

Another question is: ARE Europeans anti-capitalism and pro-socialism? Which question have they asked in the poll? The formulation of the question has a crucial impact on the outcome of the poll.
Moreover: socialism isn't the same as communism. Socialist parties in Europe are not anti-capitalism, they just want to fight the negative externalities capitalism brings along: better social security, health insurence, pensions, etc.
Text books make pupils aware of the fact that capitalism has some downsides and that there is more in the world than money e.g. quality of living. That is one of the values that schools are supposed to teach the children. But that does not mean that a generation of anti-capitalists will emerge that votes on communist parties. It only means that some of them will vote for Royal instead of Sarkozy.

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