"Class struggle" Une critique des sujets du Bac 2013 (Revue de presse)

The Economist, 6 juillet 2013

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French textbooks Class struggle

Hostility to free markets starts at school Jul 6th 2013 | PARIS |From the print edition

BOTH relief and tears will greet the results of France’s school-leaving baccalauréat exam on July 5th. With breathtaking efficiency, the entire country’s exam papers are corrected and marked within just two weeks. Founded in 1808 by Napoleon, the bac is an entry ticket to university as well as a yearly national ritual, which opens with a gruelling compulsory four-hour philosophy general paper that even scientists have to sit. This year the papers seem particularly revealing of how French youngsters are taught to view the world.

“What do we owe to the state ?” was one essay option in the philosophy exam. In the economics and social science paper, pupils were asked to comment on a wealth-distribution table, showing that 10% of French households owned 48% of the country’s wealth, and then told to “demonstrate that social conflict can be a factor behind social cohesion”. We still have the mentality of the class struggle, says Nicolas Lecaussin, of the Institute of Fiscal and Economic Research (IREF), a think-tank, and author of a report on economics textbooks.

France France excels at producing top-rate academic economists. But high-school teaching of economics is uneven. The IREF study last year showed that, in one tome’s 382 pages, only 18 were devoted to business. “Entrepreneurs and business leaders are almost absent,” noted the report, and “globalisation and free trade are treated with distrust.”

The national syllabus has been somewhat revised since 2011. Basic economic concepts, including supply and demand, have been reinforced. Economics and sociology, the two component parts of the combined paper, have been partly separated. The portrayal of companies has become more neutral. With government backing, Béatrice Couairon of the Institute of Enterprise, a think-tank, runs a programme to bring together business leaders and lycée economics teachers in order, she says, “to close the gap”.

Yet the curriculum remains heavily tilted towards social conflict. The analysis of social structure starts with Marx. One textbook’s subheadings move depressingly from “More and more suicides at work”, to “More and more insecure jobs”. In another textbook, a chapter on “social justice” asks : “Do high revenues threaten fairness ?”, and illustrates it with a 19th-century engraving of a bourgeois couple and a photo of a modern-day French demonstrator with a placard reading “Tax the rich”.

Little wonder, perhaps, that the French are consistently both champion pessimists and hostile to free markets. In 2012, according to a Globescan poll, only 4% of the French agreed that free-market capitalism works well, next to 27% of Americans and 22% of the Chinese.

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Droit de réponse de l’APSES

Erwan Le Nader, vice-president of the Association for teachers in economics and social sciences (APSES) Paris, June 8th 2013 Sir, As a subscriber to the Economist and teacher in economics and social sciences in France, I was more than surprised by your article entitled “French textbooks - Class struggle - Hostility to free markets starts at school”. That the new head of MEDEF, French main employers’ federation and the Institute of Fiscal and Economic Research (IREF), a think-tank, criticized last baccalauréat exam paper in sociology, where students had to “demonstrate that social conflict can be a factor behind social cohesion”, is all but a surprise. However I ingeniously believed that your newspaper would strongly support the idea that struggles against Apartheid in South Africa, for civil rights in the US or for gay and lesbian rights all over the world have been big steps towards equality and social justice. Neither do I understand why you find odd that in French sociological curriculum the analysis of social structure starts with Marx, as this is a fairly accepted academic approach, besides widely used in A Level British Textbooks. What would be surprising would be not to talk about Marx when studying social structure, as long as you confront his theory to history and to alternative theories (and I therefore regret that you failed to mention that the curriculum requires to study Max Weber’s theories, among others) . I was also stunned that you took for granted the IREF’s so-called “study” showing that, in one tome’s 382 pages, only 18 were devoted to business. Partly based on handbooks that were no longer in use at the time of the study, the author “forgot” to add up several chapters dedicated to competitive markets or firm’s decisions as well as making major calculation mistakes concerning the sources of the documents used in the textbooks. And stating that “globalisation and free trade are treated with distrust” is yet another example of bad faith for anyone having a quick look at the economics syllabus (dealing with concepts such as “competitive advantages” or “exchange gains”). As pressure groups, MEDEF or IREF are obviously interested in redefining French curricula in economics and social sciences for their own interests. I would have expected your newspaper to adopt a more informed judgment. I would therefore be pleased to discuss this subject further with you, and so would our teacher’s association be. In the meantime, I would highly appreciate that you published our letter in your next edition.

Apses.org | Association des Professeurs de Sciences Économiques et Sociales