Millions of children are being raised on prejudice and disinformation. Educated in schools that teach a skewed ideology, they are exposed to a dogma that runs counter to core beliefs shared by many other Western countries. They study from textbooks filled with a doctrine of dissent, which they learn to recite as they prepare to attend many of the better universities in the world. Extracting these children from the jaws of bias could mean the difference between world prosperity and menacing global rifts. And doing so will not be easy. But not because these children are found in the madrasas of Pakistan or the state-controlled schools of Saudi Arabia. They are not. Rather, they live in two of the world's great democracies -- France and Germany.
What a country teaches its young people reflects its bedrock national beliefs. Schools hand down a society's historical narrative to the next generation. There has been a great deal of debate over the ways in which this historical ideology is passed on -- over Japanese textbooks that downplay the Nanjing Massacre, Palestinian textbooks that feature maps without Israel, and new Russian guidelines that require teachers to portray Stalinism more favorably. Yet there has been almost no analysis of how countries teach economics, even though the subject is equally crucial in shaping the collective identity that drives foreign and domestic policies.
Just as schools teach a historical narrative, they also pass on "truths" about capitalism, the welfare state, and other economic principles that a society considers self-evident. 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.
It's tempting to dismiss these attitudes as being little more than punch lines to cocktail party jokes. But their impact is sadly and seriously self-destructive. 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. Yet there is near consensus among Germans that, despite this happy outcome, tinkering with the welfare state went far beyond what is permissible. Chancellor Angela Merkel, once heralded as Germany's own Margaret Thatcher, has all but abandoned her plans to continue free-market reforms. She has instead imposed a new "rich people tax," has tightened labor-market rules, and has promised renewed efforts to "regulate" globalization. Meanwhile, two in three Germans say they support at least some of the voodoo-economic, roll-back-the-reforms platform of a noisy new antiglobalization political party called Die Linke (The Left), founded by former East German communists and Western left-wing populists.
Many of these popular attitudes can be traced to state-mandated curricula in schools. It is there that economic lessons are taught that diverge substantially from the market-based principles on which the Western model is based. The phenomenon may hardly be unique to Europe, but in few places is it more obvious than in France and Germany. A biased view of economics feeds into many of the world's most vexing problems, from the growth of populism to the global rise of anti-American, anti-capitalist attitudes.
Economics À La Carte
"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." This agitprop was published in 2005, not in 1972.
When French students are not getting this kind of wildly biased commentary on the destruction wreaked by capitalism, they are learning that economic progress is also the root cause of social ills. 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.