The Quest for Educational Mediocrity

Alain Finkielkraut is a writer, philosopher, and member of the Académie Française. This interview with Finkielkraut appeared in Le Figaro on 21st August, 2015. [Note: Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is the French Minister of Education.]

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Vincent Tremolet de Villers | Liberal teaching is giving way to brain-washing in the schools | 2015-08-21

LE FIGARO: On the subject of school reform, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has stated in Le Point that, “there is a stark difference between the progressives and the conservatives. The former battle inequality, while the latter theorize about its necessity”. Do you think that her proposed reforms are conservative or progressive?

Alain FINKIELKRAUT: It is not up to state schools to fight every inequality, but to offer, as far as it may be possible, equality of opportunity in order to give everyone his or her just place according to aptitude and merit. But it’s no longer about that: it’s the ethical scandal of a one-sided debate, that has eroded national education over several decades. Confusing the demands of the mind, where the strictest hierarchy prevails, with the demands of charity, where universal love reigns, she [NVB] promises success for all while continually lowering standards in order to avoid breaking her oath. Besides, the sociologues, having brought to her attention that the “heirs” had access by right of birth to the culture, which it was the mission of the schools to transmit to the greatest number, the institution took the bull by the horns and decided to throw the essentials of that culture onto the scrapheap. The school has become a permanent ‘night of the 4th of August*’ for what Malraux called, “the heritage of the nobility of the world”.

*[1789] A reference to the ‘voluntary’ surrender of class privileges by members of the National Assembly, under threat of revolution.

With this heritage liquidated, this is now the list of objectives assigned to 4th and 3rd year French classes: “search for, and develop yourself”; “live in society, participate in society”; “look at the world, invent worlds”; “act on the world”.

The general culture is deposed by a common culture of everything a young person needs to orientate himself in his environment. And François Dubet, one of the instigators of this substitution, warns: “You can well imagine that some students would have more of common culture than of others”. The reform proposed by Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, which accelerates a process already well under way before her arrival, is neither conservative, alas—why teach, if not to transmit what merits preservation?—nor progressive, but destructive. Her anti-elitist fury chases out the Republic, once and for all, from the schools that still carry its name.

On the subject of Latin, our minister assures us that the reform will “democratize its teaching”.

“Democratizing” is on its way to becoming a synonym for “annihilating”. As Cécilia Suzzoni writes, to integrate “the teaching of ancient languages into practical interdisciplinary education on the pretext of familiarizing students with Greek or Latin expressions, is a sad caricature”. Dead languages and the humanities in general are a useless burden for our stratified digital hypermodernity. All the same, one is not going to make our “digital natives”—so wonderfully equal before their smart-phones and computer screens—gulp down the last remains of a high-class education.

The purpose of interdisciplinary studies is to teach students how to “manage projects together”. Do individual disciplines belong to the past?

It is not the disciplines that belong to the past, but the past that belongs to the disciplines. It is the responsibility of history, of literature, of philosophy, of scientific matters to give flesh to this fundamental human right emphasized by Ortega y Gasset: the right to continuity. Inter-disciplinarity does the very opposite. It neglects the vital need for the past and takes the easy option: topics of immediate concern. Instead of inculcating a taste for beautiful things, it follows meekly the taste of the day. Television has given the example of two professors, of history and Spanish, inviting their class to draft a pamphlet together, on the virtues of sustainable development. There, where there were once works, there are now leaflets. But one would be wrong to be concerned: it’s for a good cause.

This reform is criticized for its ‘jargonese’ .What do you think it reveals, this new-speak that one finds in administrative reports, schools, politics and the media?

“The more erudite, the stupider”, said Gombrowicz of the ultrasophisticated formalism of literary theory. For myself, I will say of ‘pedagogism’: “The more it creates the void, the more it dons the robe of knowledge”. Nullity lives in jargon. The scourge of culture gives himself, through the appearance of scientific rigour, the illusion of being a researcher.

Is it necessary to keep bilingual classes?

Charles Renouvier, the philosopher of the Republic, took exception to the bourgeois, “few of them friends of equality”, who sought to push their offspring into positions that they would not be able to hold indefinitely. That is why, he said in effect, the state should install, without favour or faltering, a form of selection. With neither weakness nor relaxation, the post-republican state combats discrimination as a particularly vicious hangover from the former régime. It therefore erases the last bastions of excellence that were the bilingual classes.

The history curricula preserve the compulsory study of Islam, while that of mediaeval Christianity and The Enlightenment will become optional. How do you feel about this?

It’s not simply a matter of imposing Islamic studies, but of fighting against “Islamophobia” through an embellished presentation of muslim religion and civilization. Convinced, with Emmanuel Todd, that Mohammed is “the central figure of a weak and outcaste group”, and that the vivre-ensemble passes for a rebalancing of the image of this group in the minds of other French people, our political masters propose, under the guise of training, to indoctrinate students as early as possible. One no longer wishes to instruct them, but to build them into something better. The rest—the rise of the cities, the Middle Ages, or humanist thought—is optional.

Emphasis is also put on the darker periods in French history. How to love and render lovable a country burdened with guilt?

The new curricula are not totally preoccupied with making France lovable. They apply to the letter the dogma of social criticism: the ills of the world result from oppression; it is inequality that is the source of all violence. Put another way, Islamic fanaticism is the result of colonial wrongdoing and its continuation in the post-colonial era. If one approaches the history of the 18th and 19th centuries from the perspective of “a world dominated by Europe, colonial empires, commerce, the slave trade”, then the new public school system will rediscover its “self-esteem”, the former will lose its arrogance, and all problems will be straightened out. And so the school of knowledge gives way to the school of brain-washing.

Manuel Valls, in the monthly L’Œil, judges that the culture and the Left are of the same cloth. He recommends the schools offer a course in improvisation, in the manner of Jamel Debbouze. Is it necessary to adapt the culture to the tastes and desires of youth?

“What is desirable”, said Hegel, “is inversely proportional to the proximity in which it stands and which connects it to us. Youth presents itself as an opportunity to leave home, and to inhabit, with Robinson, a distant island”. The contemporary school system denies it that chance. The very people who ostentatiously vaunt the cult of The Other fight against this salutary change of scene, which is access to the masterworks of the past. For them, humanism is dead: there is no need, in finding oneself, to make a detour through the evidence of humanity laid down in works of culture; one knows oneself by immediate intuition. Rather than visiting the dead in order to discover the content of life, students are asked to stage their own lives.

What can Racine, Baudelaire or Mauriac still say to our era? When knowledge comes via mouse-clicks, does the idea of transmission not belong to the past?

What Racine, Baudelaire or Mauriac can say to our time is that something other has gone before: other words, other forms, other faces. Our time, which considers itself so open, wants to know nothing. Allergic to otherness, it instructs teachers to choose ‘issues’ that lie close to the students.

“To be young”, as François Mauriac justly wrote, “is to be spied upon, to hear about one the cracking of twigs”. Today’s youth is spied upon ceaselessly. We look out for their least itch. We’re out in front of their every desire. In earlier times there was a place where they could escape this destiny, leave, and to use Hegel’s formula, “seek out depth of feeling in the context of distance”. That school no longer exists.

Many professors oppose this reform. How to explain the gap between those who teach in the classes, and educational theoreticians who are often described as ‘pedagogists’?

The de-intellectualization of the job of professor, for which the evidence is, inter alia, the progressive abandonment of face-to-face teaching, wounds most deeply those of them who still think of themselves as the representatives of “poets and artists, philosophers and scholars, men who have made and who maintain humanity”. This formula, borrowed from Péguy, is emphatic, but the situation is critical and calls for moral indignation.