Category Archives: France

Old Time Religion in the French Manner


Published: September 5, 2012

Old Time Religion, in the French Manner
frenchclassHulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbi

With the start of the school year, the nation has quite suddenly been pulled into a debate over the role and responsibilities of the public schools. Should they limit themselves to teaching skills and broadcasting knowledge? Or must they also furnish the foundations of morality — the ethical groundwork that will allow students to make sense of the world?

Oddly, the debate has sprung up not in the United States, but in France. Even odder, just as they would be in the United States, the opponents in France are secular humanists and religious conservatives. Oddest of all, it is the secularists who are pushing for the old time religion of moral instruction, while the faithful are more than a bit dubious.

In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Vincent Peillon, the Socialist government’s Minister of National Education, called for the revival of la morale laïque, or secular morality, in primary schools. This concept, Peillon explained, means teaching students to distinguish between justice and injustice, and good and evil.

But he quickly disabused those American observers who wondered if he was channeling William Bennett, secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan. French schools, he declared, must “inculcate the notions of universal morality, founded on the ideas of humanity and reason … . The capacity to reason and criticize, to doubt, must be learned at school. France’s recovery is not only material, but also intellectual and moral.”

Like écoliers bursting out of the school door at recess, politicians and commentators fell over one another in their reactions to Peillon’s remarks. The minister of education under Nicolas Sarkozy, Luc Chatel, viciously tweeted that Peillon had repeated the notorious chestnut from Philippe Pétain, the ruler of Vichy France, who called for a “redressement moral” in 1940. (It happened to be in the same speech in which Pétain announced France’s surrender to Nazi Germany.) Other conservative politicians denounced the proposal as an ideological Trojan Horse, while Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right Front National applauded: “Secular morality is morality that obviously derives from our Christian morality. So much the better if it is taught.”

No less obviously, Le Pen consulted neither French Jews nor French Muslims about “our”— i.e., France’s — Christian morality.

Peillon had scarcely regained his feet when a second herd of critics, issuing from cathedrals and churches, stampeded his way. The Catholic thinker Bertrand Vergely hailed the reintroduction of a single code of morality into the school system, but wondered if the Socialists — “who have devoted the last 40 years to the destruction of the meaning and sense of morality” — were best equipped to undertake the task.

Similarly, the editor of France Catholique welcomed Peillon’s remarks, but asked if a consensus was possible. “Will we teach our children,” he asked, “that the right to be different implies the acceptance of same-sex marriage?”

Some Socialists, in fact, were also leery about a government, even their own, defining one and just one code of moral values for France’s school children. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, expressed misgivings about an “official” set of morals being taught in the schools. His doubts make him and the French Catholic hierarchy strange bedfellows: an openly gay politician who supports same-sex marriage, Delanoë, though he clearly has a different moral compass from the Catholics, shares their concern about the state affirming a single magnetic “north” for one and all.

For the moment, dissension and doubts over Peillon’s defense of secular morality are the only traits that seem to be universal. If nothing more comes of this affair, it will be a pity, for it touches on a vital issue for the future of the French Republic. Among the “republican” values Peillon deemed universal are knowledge, devotion and solidarity. Could they be any more relevant today, he rightly asked, when society is awash in “the values of money, economic competition and selfishness”?

Nevertheless, it is impossible to overlook the great differences between today and the late 19th century when la morale laïque was first proclaimed. When public education became a cornerstone of the fledging Third Republic, France had recovered with dizzying speed from its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Though dramatic economic disparities existed, as did competing interpretations of the nation’s revolutionary heritage, France surged with optimism. Whether reflected in the World Exposition of 1889 (which gave the Eiffel Tower to the world) or the triumph of justice in the Dreyfus Affair a few years later, France was on a roll.

Nothing seems farther from the truth today. With three million unemployed and economic growth near zero, caught between the domestic need to spur demand and a European imperative to cut its deficit, France — now home to some five million Muslims whose place in the nation is endlessly debated — seems largely impotent to inflect its destiny. In a recent poll, nearly two out of three respondents declared they are pessimistic about the future. Indeed, at the very moment Peillon announced his project, his school system was grappling with the cut of 13,000 teaching and staff positions made by the previous government.

Hardly the moment, it seems, to hold a national debate over the teaching of secular morality. Or is it? Clearly, France needs a citizenry armed with the skills, languages and knowledge to compete successfully in a radically changed world from their 19th century ancestors. But as the historian Jean Baubérot argues, these students also need something else. The teachers of the Third Republic helped their students, he notes, to reflect on the balance between rights and duties, as well as the need to respect certain principles essential for a dynamic democracy. Their descendants should expect nothing less of their students or of themselves.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College.

“It’s a culture you can sum up as T’es nul”

British lecturer Peter Gumbel attacks French education culture

A British academic has provoked a storm by claiming that the French education system robs its pupils of their self-esteemPeter G
Peter Gumbel began to reconsider his rosy view of French education when his own children started school in Paris.
A British teacher at one of the leading universities in Paris has produced an extraordinary indictment of France’s admired schools, saying they humiliate pupils and could learn much from other countries, including Britain.

In a book to be published this week, Peter Gumbel, a lecturer at the Institute of Political Science – known as Sciences Po – attacks a classroom culture that brands students “worthless” and that he says is counterproductive and contrary to France’s republican ideals. On achève bien les écoliers? (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They?) has already provoked a storm.

“Why is France the only country in the world that discourages children because of what they cannot do, rather than encouraging them to do what they can?” Gumbel writes. “I believe France is missing a key element of what’s wrong with the school system, an element that is immediately apparent to any foreigner who comes into contact with it: the harshness of the classroom culture.

“It’s a culture you can sum up as T’es nul (You’re worthless). You hear these words all the time in France.”

Gumbel says studies by World Health Organisation groups and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Europe reveal that, in France, more than six out of 10 schoolchildren complain of being anxious, four in 10 have difficulty sleeping, and more than two in 10 have a stomach or headache at least once a week. “These studies show that, while French children score quite highly in European studies on their ability and performance, when asked they rate themselves below countries with low levels of literacy,” he said. “So even when they have the ability, their self-esteem has been knocked out of them.”

Gumbel’s book praises British schools, which may surprise UK parents accustomed to having them compared unfavourably with those across the channel. He told the Observer: “Although the French with their national curriculum have maintained standards and avoided being dumbed down, their system focuses on the transmission of knowledge and doesn’t even remotely address the child or their wellbeing.

“There is more to school than getting good marks, and in Britain schools are not just a about your brain but about sport and arts and finding lots of different ways of excelling. The British system may focus less on results, but it nurtures self-esteem, personality and character, which is something totally missing from the French system and this is tragic.”

Gumbel’s attack has touched a nerve in France. On radio talk shows, his views have had overwhelming support from parents; his book was also given a six-page review in the respected news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

Philippe Meirieu, a professor in education science, admitted: “Our way of testing and evaluating [pupils] discourages creativity and the personal involvement of the pupils. This is the cause of the relative passivity they show and that Peter Gumbel deplores. If pupils hardly ask questions in class it’s because they don’t really feel bothered about what they’re being told or fear being stigmatised by their classmates.”

Patrick Gonthier, secretary- general of France’s second-biggest teaching union, Unsa Education, said: “Our teaching staff could take this as an attack, but they are not being blamed. It’s the whole French school system that is stubborn to change and remains profoundly elitist and dedicated to the grading and the selection of the best. For this to change and other teaching methods to be introduced into classes there has to be a strong consensus among professors, parents and politicians to challenge this elitism and focus on the success of everyone at school, and we are far from having that.”

Gumbel, 52, who also works as a journalist, has lived in Paris since 2002 and was prompted to criticise French schools, colleges and universities after putting his two daughters, now aged 10 and 13, into the education system.

“There are 16,000 new teachers entering French schools this term who are undoubtedly very clever but haven’t the slightest idea about how to teach, and that is scandalous,” he said. “The key to good schools, as other countries have discovered, is having good teachers.”

‘Nobody talks about happiness’

I used to think that French education was the best in the world, writes Peter Gumbel. Perhaps a little old-fashioned, but unlike the British or the Americans the French had resisted the temptation to dumb down their curriculum. That meant children left school at 18 with an admirably comprehensive knowledge of history, geography, maths, science and the liberal arts. And you didn’t need to spend a fortune on private schools, because the state system provided the best education in the country.

Then we moved to Paris and sent our two daughters to school.

The teachers seemed good on the whole, and the programme was as rigorous as anticipated, but something was amiss. There were obvious symptoms: tummy aches and other signs of stress, an unhealthy phobia about making mistakes and flashes of self-doubt. “I’m hopeless at maths,” my eldest daughter declared one day. “No, you’re not, you just need to work at it harder,” was my reply. “No, daddy, you don’t understand anything. I’m hopeless.”

It was only when I started teaching at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris that I figured out the problem. Better known as Sciences Po, it’s part of the “grandes écoles” network that has traditionally trained France’s political and business elite. To get in you need to have done fabulously well at school. The big surprise for me was not how bright these students were – and most are very, very bright – but how low their self-confidence was. Getting them to participate in classroom discussions was like pulling teeth. Exam time was trauma time: every year, several burst into tears during the oral.

That’s when I started wondering whether my experiences were simply anecdotal or part of a bigger, system-wide pattern. It didn’t take long to find a wealth of international comparative studies, conducted by the OECD and other respected institutions.

They show conclusively that French children overall are more anxious and intimidated in school than their peers in Europe or other developed countries. They’re so terrified by the idea of making mistakes and being lambasted for them, that they’d rather keep their mouths shut than put their hands up.

The French education system has focused so narrowly on the transmission of knowledge that it has ignored that other key function of school: to build character and personality. There’s almost no art, sport or music. Teamwork is an alien notion, as are such basic pedagogical concepts as positive reinforcement, and teachers receive only scant or no training in effective classroom techniques.

The French are right to uphold standards, particularly when compared with Britain, but in the classrooms they go about it the wrong way. As one reviewer of my book told me: “You’ve broken a taboo. Nobody ever talks about happiness at school here.”

On achève bien les écoliers (“They Shoot Schoolkids, Don’t They?”), by Peter Gumbel, will be published this week in French by Grasset.


Sarkozy in a moment of calm speaks about education

At this very moment (Saturday, November 17, 2007) Nicholas Sarkozy is in the long awaited fight for his political life. The “syndicats” that in France control the train, bus, and metro transportation sector, and therefore the working lives of millions of French people, are striking, and no one knows when and how it will all end. Will it be with a victory for the unions, or for the new government of Sarkozy, who has promised (as have the leaders of the syndicates that they) that he won’t back down?

But on September 4th of this year Sarkozy had education on his mind. This was just over two months ago, when things were quiet. No strikes yet, although rumblings were felt, and everyone knew that the big troubles were to come. But at this time before the storm the politicians were free and at leisure to make speeches saying pretty much whatever they wanted about whatever subject that interested them, knowing that until they talked about jobs and the economy their opponents were probably not listening anyway.

For his part, Sarkozy, taking advantage of the moment of calm, talked about education and chose to do so in the form of “une lettre aux enseignants,” in which he summarized his “own,” (or those of his advisors) beliefs about education.

For the most part the letter was boiler plate, full of non controversial, well worn clichés about education, probably not even of Sarkozy’s own devising but written for him by a team of educators. What was interesting to me was the fact that what he was saying could with very few changes have been said (and probably is being said) about our own kids, teachers, and schools.

I thought to myself, has the Western world finally reached agreement as to what the education of the young should be about?

Sarkozy’s letter to the teachers is long, some 23 pages and 6000 words, and I won’t attempt to summarize it. If you read French you can read it here. Its length probably means that just a few of the teachers, whose politics are probably well to the left of Sarkozy’s, have even read it.

Instead, I’d like to highlight just one point that Sarkozy makes, a true statement, I believe, about education, one that provides the grounds for the 100 year plus and still going conflict among our own endless line of educational reformers, the conflict between two valid but contradictory impulses in regard to what we should stress in the education of our young.

On the one hand we want to enable each child to find his/her own way, realize his/her potential. On the other hand we want to instill in the child, in the always admirable effort to promote and further our own civilization, our own values, our own ideas of what is just, true and beautiful. And there’s the rub, finding the middle ground between the two. The reformers too often go to one side or the other.

Isn’t it obvious that each child has his/her own way of being, thinking, feeling, and that he/she must be given the opportunity of expressing that way, almost whatever it may be? (“Chaque enfant, chaque adolescent a sa manière à lui d’être, de penser, de sentir. Il doit pouvoir l’exprimer.”) But at the same time the same child must take, and make his/her own, a good amount of the extraordinary repository of skills and knowledge that the past has brought right up into the present. (“Mais il doit aussi apprendre.”)

Still today our educational reformers seem to be on one side or the other, the progressive, child centered, or the conservative academic subject matter centered movements. I think of Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch. (See their “Bridging Differences,” the Blog name implying their finally coming together, which they should, because in fact they’re both right.)

For too long our solutions to the seeming dilemma of what and how we should teach, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, have favored one side (the child) or the other (the subject matter), and as a result have mostly had little positive effect on the school lives of our children.