Public schools like to say that they teach the skills necessary for a new generation of entrepreneurs, prepared to build a new economy that serves both public and private interests. They offer courses in computer programming and biotechnology, for the schools are sure that’s where opportunity resides. They even offer classes in entrepreneurship per se. I would know. In fact, is one of the classes that I teach at a public high school.
The administrators with whom I work love having my entrepreneurship class in their course catalogs. It is good marketing. It signals to the civic community that we are serious about career education. Most of the administrators actually believe that we do a good job of teaching youth how to succeed as entrepreneurs.
But we don’t. We can’t. It is contrary to the very nature of our institution.
It isn’t that we don’t try to teach entrepreneurship. We do try. I like to think that I try even harder than most. We read Adam Smith and talk about the idea of gains from mutually-beneficial trade. I introduce my students to the work of Israel Kirzner and the entrepreneurial process of profit discovery. Thanks to the work of several fantastic organizations, I am able to introduce my students to some of the most influential economists currently writing.
We even engage in realistic projects where students start a business with their classmates and sell products to their school peers during their lunch period. Students in my course can earn real profits as a result of their project. It can’t get any more entrepreneurial than that, can it?
The problem does not lie in the instructional portion of class, but rather in the fact that the project is done within the academic setting of an institution for public education. Public institutions such as schools have one major flaw that prevents them from even allowing the existence of real entrepreneurial activity: fear. They fear success. They fear failure. They fear the very existence of both, and balk at the idea that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Entrepreneurs do not merely accept the inherent existence of risk within their actions; they thrive on it and acknowledge that risk as the very source of their prospective gains. Public institutions and those who act on their behalf fear risk to the point that many of their actions are geared towards externalizing as much risk as possible on the population at large. What little risk they cannot externalize, they bury under layers and layers of bureaucratic regulation.
Surely, this is the antithesis of entrepreneurship.
Local municipal codes actually specify that students engaged in class projects are not subject to many of the same regulations as other businesses, but that does not stop district and campus level administrators from imposing even more burdensome rules upon them. Not too long ago, a cafeteria worker called the county health inspector to shut down a student project. They came and the project was promptly shut down. And with that, the private food service company was able to successfully shut out their competition. Assisted by a helpful hand from the friendly neighborhood regulator, they were able to protect their government-sanctioned monopoly on the school’s food court. In order to prevent further confrontations, additional regulations were placed on the students.
This fear trickles its way into my classroom, and I hate it. After teaching my students how to identify opportunity, I tell them to brainstorm potential business ideas. They do, and many of them are excellent ideas given their target market. And then I crush their ideas under my fear.
No, you cannot sell condoms two days before prom.
No, you cannot sell any food to students during their lunch hour.
No, you cannot use sex appeal to market your products to teenagers.
No, you cannot engage in any business practice which might undermine the legitimacy of this institution.
What I fear is not that different from the institution as a whole. I fear scrutiny from the public eye. My rule of thumb for students is this: I will not approve any project that might potentially land my name in the local newspaper.
This might seem like inverted logic from someone who wishes there were better public access to the detailed actions of public-sector employees, but let me explain myself a little bit. As a public school teacher who generally opposes the idea of public education, I view myself as somewhat of a subversive player within the machine. I do not fear losing my job as much as I fear the idea of my students being taught bad economics by someone else. I fear that some concerned citizen will not appreciate the minimal amount of risk taken by students in my class, and the project will be shut down. I fear that my administration will come to recognize that same risk, and simply stop offering the course.
I pass that fear on to my students, and I hate it.
Surely this is the antithesis of entrepreneurship.