Culture, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation: French Edition

6 July 2013 at 11:36 pm 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

Quote of the day, from Peter Gumbel’s France’s Got Talent: The Woeful Consequences of French Elitism, an interesting first-person account of the French educational system:

[T]he patterns of behavior established at [French] school appear to continue in later life, reproducing themselves most obviously in the workplace. If you learn from an early age that volunteering answers at school may prompt humiliating put-downs from your teachers, how active a participant will you be in office strategy discussions in the presence of an authoritarian boss? If working together in groups was discouraged as a child, how good a team player will you be as a grown-up? If you are made to believe as a 10-year-old that it’s worse to give a wrong answer than to give no answer at all, how will that influence your inclination to take risks?

I won’t repeat the apocryphal George W. Bush quote that “the problem with France’s economy is that the French have no word for entrepreneur,” but I will say that I have found French university students to be less aggressive than their US or Scandinavian equivalents. To be fair, when I’ve taught in France it has been in English, and I initially attributed the students’ reluctance to speak up, to answer questions, and to challenge the instructor to worries about English proficiency. But talking to French colleagues, and reading accounts like Gumbel’s (based on his experiences teaching at Sciences Po), I think the problem is largely cultural. The French system tends to favor conformity and memorization over creativity and spontaneity, which may or may not have a harmful effect on the performance of French organizations and French attitudes toward entrepreneurship and innovation.

I’m curious to know what our French readers think (but don’t hammer me with Bourdieu or Crozier references, please).

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Cultural Conservatism, Education, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Institutions, Teaching.

Mokyr on Cultural Entrepreneurship Sampling on the Dependent Variable, Robert Putnam Edition

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Thomas  |  7 July 2013 at 8:06 am

    “…which may or may not have a harmful effect…”

    My resistance to the kind of thinking in the quote can be summarized by modifying a couple of sentences:

    If working independently by yourself was discouraged as a child, how good an original thinker will you be as a grown-up? If you are made to believe as a 10-year-old that it’s better to give a wrong answer than to give no answer at all, how will that influence your inclination to take risks?

    (I thought I’d have to do more to that last, actually, to make my point. But I think it works well like that. Consider the role of “any old map will do” in finance, example.)

    Obviously, you don’t want a school system that humiliates people for the sake of humiliating them. But the danger isn’t that people are discouraged from providing wrong answers, it’s that teachers respond to whatever answers the students provide through the filter of a pedagogical theory, rather than their own immediate intellectual reaction to what the students says.

    Instead of worrying about “conformity” or “creativity” we should worry about knowing what you’re talking about. If teachers limited themselves to teaching stuff they actually understood, and then worried less about how the students will feel after they are told whether their answer was right or wrong, and more about whether the answer actually was right or wrong, all would be as well as it can be (given the basic inefficiencies of mass education). Some wrong answers are ignorant and others are stupid and students should simply be discouraged from speaking when they are likely to offer one like that.

  • 2. Mathieu Bédard  |  11 July 2013 at 4:09 pm

    I completely agree with your interpretation. There is an incredible reverence to the formal magisterial class and to the status of the professor. You do not engage him, at best you ask him for clarifications. A place it especially visible is in the difficulty some French PhD students have in acquiring a seminar culture and the intellectual generosity vital to research.

  • 3. Daniel Jackson  |  12 April 2017 at 10:17 am

    Okay; I’m a bit late to the conversation; sorry; I’ve been setting up a photography small business in France.

    Entrepreneur is the title for the owner of a small business as well as a grand chef d’entreprise. It is a highly loaded term especially with the Left. To them, it reeks of capitalism. It takes forever to go through the paperwork and all expenses for the business are paid up-front. The tariff for small businesses are very high (RSI is taken off the top rather than the net) and reporting requirements make an accountant mandatory. There are serious limits on the total chiffres des affairs that seriously limit productivity let alone any incentives to be successful.

    But, this is the intention of the system–a small inefficient business is what is wanted. They open and close like Feynman’s theory of a vacuum.

    As a former sociologist turned visual sociologist/photographer, I am amazed at the French system of business. My participant observations have led me to conclude that the Royaume de France still exists (with a bureaucracy instead of the King) that still extracts its wealth by taxing a truly peasant/artisan class beyond belief as it has for the last 1500 years. The modern rendition of the Kingdom creates a caste system (excuse me, Meritocracy) that stifles initiative, innovation, and class mobility. This is facilitated by easy unemployment, entitlements, and an early retirement system that pays bupkis.

    It starts early. I have given English classes in an elementary school to squiggly eight and nine year olds watching in horror as the “professor” yanks a child out to the hall and screams drill sergeant amplitude. This continues throughout the school system up through the lycee. The goal is to discourage actively students from attempting to enter the university system; but, to elect a “formation” in the trades (said sneeringly by the prof).

    Students are muted throughout school to promote the ideal of Fraternité, a euphemism for Conformity. The French have enshrined in their liberal culture the idea that what other people think of you is the most important reflection of one’s self worth. If you step out of line, it is your neighbors will make you toe the line. If not, you are “rejected” or, in truth, excommunicated. It is no wonder that one of the first publications in sociology is Suicide by Emile Durkheim.

    While it is true that the US has rate busting, the French notion of conformity is in a class by itself. Not to speak of this lightly, but it is very clear why the second and third generation immigrants from the Middle East are reacting the way they do.

    One of the many reasons I came to France in 2012 was to do (at long last) a visual ethnography of “village” life. Years ago, in gradual school, I wanted to write an ethnography in India. Changing the language and the mode of production a small amount, I find that the south of France has offered me the same experience and opportunity.

    Once I get the photography business running, I will finally finish the first volume.

    Your insight is much appreciated.

    Daniel Jackson

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