Harry E. Figgie Jr. is concerned not only about the onset of a hyperinflated economy and restructuring his Richmond-based conglomerate, but also about teaching children the basics of capitalism.
Figgie International Inc. has designed a nationwide program to teach elementary, junior high and senior high school teachers how to teach the basics of supply, demand, profit and loss to their pupils.
With the help of an economist, a staff of college professors and a small character named Ump, Figgie's economics have been introduced to 1,300 elementary, junior high and high school classrooms in the United States.
The program is sponsored by the Academy of Economic Education, a nonprofit foundation set up by Figgie to raise funds used to send teachers to Figgie's three-week economics training session, held during the summer.
One of the program's learning tools is "Umps Fwat, an Annual Report for Young People." The story of how a business begins is told without using numbers or percentages but rather with flinks, fwats and fwappers.
In the report, Ump, a caveman, discovers that his fwat (alias baseball-style bat) is in great demand, so he invests some flinks (money) to start producing them and hires Eorg, Uggle and Comah. Before long, his company is turning a profit and paying a dividend of 20 cents.
Figgie explains his motivations to his young audience in the forward to his annual report. "As you grow older, you will make choices about voting, earning a living and saving to buy the things that you want and need. Some of you will choose to operate your own businesses while others will choose to work for someone else. But all of you will have the chance to choose to be owners in any number of companies by investing your savings and becoming stockholders."
Mark Murphy, Figgie International's director of public affairs, defends the program, saying it fits in well with the back-to-basics movement in education.
"Economics is perfect for the fourth of the three 'Rs,' and that's reasoning," he says. "You can teach a kindergartner the fact that they must make choices. . . . If the future adults of this world are going to make choices about what form of economic system we have, at least if they know about the free enterprise system and capitalism, intelligent choices will be made."
And, he says, teachers encourage students who show flair in such fields as art, so why not foster entrepreneurship?
The University of Virginia this year became the eighth school to offer Figgie's summer course for teachers, through its McIntire School of Commerce and departments of economics and education. Other schools teaching the program, begun in 1975, include the University of California at Los Angeles, Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Mo., the University of Arizona, Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio and the University of Cincinnati.
The academy hopes to expand the program to one new school a year, and wants to add Chicago and Boston schools to its roster next.
Teachers provide their own transportation to the schools and pay a nominal fee, usually $150, for the three-week session. They are required to develop an economics lesson plan, which subsequently is stored in the academy's central office. "There is a massive bank of potential lesson plans" that teachers are welcome to borrow, Murphy said.
"They're given guidelines on how to develop the plans , but the key is creativity," he said. "There are geography, social studies, home economics teachers, you name it. . . . Rarely does anybody go back to the classroom and not start the program."
Besides certificates, teachers who complete the course are accorded another distinction: membership in the Royal Order of TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch).
The graduates are invited back to their respective schools each spring for a reunion and economic update.
Harry Figgie himself occasionally visits classrooms in which the program is being taught; Murphy contends the chairman "has been amazed that some of the elementary school teachers are teaching fairly sophisticated economics programs right down to the kindergarten level. He [Figgie] can spot a natural entrepreneur in the fourth grade."
In that spirit, one alumnus of Figgie's program has gone beyond spotting youthful entrepreneurs -- he has gone into business with them.
Paul Theiss of Hudson, Ohio, one of the first graduates of Figgie's course, is running Mr. T's A-Plus Pizza with his class of seventh graders.
The business has been so profitable that it already has bought an Apple computer to keep its books and illustrate its annual report. At an A-Plus board meeting recently, the 12-year-old chairman stood in front of his 100 stockholders in his pin-striped suit and sneakers and talked profits and bottom line.
And, as Jan Allen, the education program coordinator, said, he knew about the business of making pizzas right down to how much a single piece of pepperoni cost the company.