Philosophizing in senior year?

I met an interesting professor in Aix earlier this spring, Joëlle Zask, who has worked on Dewey and early 20th century culture theory (she suggested the Sapir article I mentioned earlier this spring). Here I want to translate a short interview she did in 2007 with a monthly culture magazine in Marseille called Zibeline. Philosophy, as foreign readers may or may not know, is taught to all French high school (lycée) seniors, has a long political history in French education, and periodically causes controversy. Some of these stakes are apparent here.

Philosophizing in senior year???

1) The 2003 “official instructions” for the philosophy teaching program in senior year say: “Philosophy teaching in senior year… contributes to forming autonomous minds, warned of reality’s complexities and capable of putting to work a critical consciousness of the contemporary world.” What do you think of this?

These formulations pose two major problems.

First, it strikes me as shocking that a philosophy textbook should begin with a series of “official instructions.” An instruction, in the sense of a directive, is entirely contrary to the “autonomous minds” that we are told to “form.” Are we told to “force our students to be free”? Moreover, in the context of schools, “instruction” has a second dimension: we still talk about “public, obligatory, civic instruction” [in connection with public education]. But instructing is not educating. Instructing basically means shaping someone’s mind to fit the competences that the institution judges socially useful. Educating on the other hand means communicating a potential to a mind which, one day, will allow it to help define what is or isn’t valuable for its society. Yet according to the “official” declarations, we’re still on the model of instructing, in both senses of the term.

Second, the goal proclaimed for high school philosophy teaching is completely exorbitant. I know that many people subscribe to it. But we should be astonished by the excessive disproportion between the end and the means: they have groups of thirty pupils, a very limited range of practical exercises, lecture courses, etc. And above all, it’s impossible for philosophy teachers to “form autonomous and critical minds” if the pupils haven’t been invited to be autonomous or critical since the day they arrived in the schoolhouse. Not to mention that the art of thinking isn’t reserved for philosophy. Would one be exempted from “thinking for oneself” in history, literature or physics? It must be said that the goal [of our philosophy teaching] is, in our present circumstances, pretty disconnected from these realities; and we might therefore give up on grading students’ homework against an ideal that very few people can claim to have attained. We could, at least for starters, propose simpler exercises that would be better adapted to our students’ competences (the ones “formed” by our instruction) and to our own. At the university we do all this readily enough.

2) What should be at stake in philosophy teaching? What should be its goals?

Well, I don’t want to say that there’s nothing special to expect from philosophy teaching. To my eyes, philosophy is in essence a critique of our values and an effort to demonstrate, by one method or another, the legitimacy or pertinence of the values we hold. The philosophers who we’ve read and reread over the centuries have all undertaken an examination of the values of their times. That said, these philosophers don’t play the moral purity card [la carte de bonne conscience]. They direct their critical examination at themselves, working with their own keen perceptions of the possibilities and blockages of their epoch. Today, as in the past, many people, including our official instructors, defend some values without examination and try to impose them on others. Wondering where our values come from, going over them with a fine-toothed comb and sorting them out, creating new ones, scrutinizing the motives for our adherence to them and the mechanisms that inculcate them — that’s what a reading of the philosophers can invite us to do. And that’s a truly priceless service.

Like Zask, I’ve been struck by the official rhetoric in France about teaching people to have free and critical minds, which always seems to entail, as Zask points out, the contradictory project of “making” people free, and to presuppose the unlikely premise that educational institutions know what freedom or criticality are. But I’m most interested, here, in the part of the interview that proposes a definition of what’s essential about philosophy: a critique of values.

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La Manifestation: a fictitious political collectivity

Une manifestation is the French term for a protest march in the street. It’s a pretty standard local political ritual, mocked and memorialized by local jokes and international stereotypes alike. “Don’t bother going today if you don’t feel like it,” an  American grad student tells me one day when I feel lazy, “there will always be another one.”

The “manif,” as it’s called, strikes me as a paradoxical social form: imagined as a massively, even paradigmatically collective event, its collectivity nonetheless has a somewhat fictive quality. Most marchers stick to little groups of their friends, paying attention mainly to the people immediately around them. Phenomenologically, a manif is fractured and disorganized, with people leaving and showing up, wandering back and forth, stopping perhaps to take a leaflet or a snapshot. For a marcher, the crowd is a visual jumble of strangers’ bodies crisscrossing. As if to make sense of the constant random motion, a curiously quantitative consciousness descends at times even on the defenders of the most radical causes. The march’s success gets perceived as proportional to the apparent size of the crowd; it can become almost actuarial. People take note of who shows up and of who didn’t make it.

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Student strikebreaking in early 20th-century America

Via John K. Wilson, I came across a fascinating 1994 article by historian Stephen Norwood, “The Student as Strikebreaker: College Youth and the Crisis of Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century.” It’s published at JSTOR but the full text is also available at findarticles. (Norwood was in the news last year for more controversial research on the 1930s Nazi-friendly attitudes of various universities like Columbia, but I haven’t read that yet.)

Basically, the article tells a disturbing story about the labor politics of early 20th-century American college students. In essence, college students from such places as Columbia, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Berkeley, Univ. of Minnesota, Univ. of Chicago, Tufts, Brown, Univ. of Michigan, Stanford, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Univ. of Southern California, and various engineering schools volunteered to serve as strikebreakers in a large number of labor disputes. It’s not news that college students of that era were elite and conservative, but their extreme hostility towards organized labor is nonetheless striking. Some 9 of 10 of Yale students, we’re told, “subscribed ‘to anti-labor attitudes with fervor'” as of 1910 (334); but the heart of their anti-labor sentiment was expressed less in political statements — as they were apparently too frivolous on the whole to articulate any clear political philosophy — than in the sheer violence of their physical confrontation with striking workers.

Norwood explains that not only did elite college students (a redundant expression, by the way, given the times) replace striking workers at their posts, they also relished the brawls that often broke out as they crossed picket lines. In New York in 1905, “Stories circulated around Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute that ‘Poly’ students working on subways had ‘bested roughs [ie, workers] a dozen times’ ” (331). Two years earlier, “hundreds [of students] answered the Minneapolis flour millers’ call for strikebreakers. Among the first to volunteer were varsity athletes from the University of Minnesota, who with a ‘lusty Shi-U-Mah’ (the Minnesota cheer) formed a wedge, and blasted through the picket line” (338). In 1912, students “joined the militia companies sent in to quell the Lawrence [Mass.] textile strike… students enjoyed the opportunity to precipitate violence, as they enthusiastically disrupted picketing and strike parades” (339). A few years later, in 1919, students were themselves victims of retributive violence. “In riots in the streets of Boston, Cambridge, Providence, and Malden, which were sparked by the strikebreaking of students from Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and Brown, the working class took its revenge on the collegians, badly mauling several. In Boston, for example, some student strikebreakers were beaten unconscious and one had his teeth knocked out” (339).

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