Culture, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation: French Edition

6 July 2013 at 11:36 pm 2 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

2 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.

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