La vie active and French right-wing vocationalism

The always useful website of Sauvons L’Université has just published the text of a curious proposal in the French Senate for a new law that would require all French students pursuing a traditional high school or university degree to also study for a vocational diploma. The proposal has some interesting remarks on what a university is:

Outre les qualités intellectuelles qu’elle amène à développer, l’université, par la diversité de ses étudiants et de son corps enseignant apporte des qualités humaines à celui qui y étudie. L’université est le lieu transitoire entre la vie d’un adolescent et la vie d’un homme, qui devient autonome, assume ses choix, ses études et par là même, ses résultats.

Cette formation est un des piliers qui permet à chacun de se construire.

Un deuxième pilier est cependant indispensable pour aborder efficacement le monde du travail, je veux parler de la formation professionnelle.

Beyond the intellectual qualities that it helps to develop, the university, by the diversity of its students and its teaching staff, brings human qualities to those who study there. The university is a transitory place between the life of an adolescent and the life of a man, who is becoming autonomous, accepting responsibility for his choices, his studies, and thus also for his results.

This education is one of the foundations that allow each of us to construct ourselves.

A second pillar is nevertheless indispensable for efficiently entering the work world, I mean professional training…

The proposed law would thus require that university students spend five hours weekly on getting a BEP or CAP, which are both secondary-level education certificates, on the level of American vocational-technical diplomas. Typical specializations for the BEP or CAP are things like carpentry, retail sales, automobile maintenance, graphic design, secretarial work, and restaurant work: they are degrees that, in essence, aim to produce the specialized “technicians” who make up the French working classes in an increasingly post-industrial era. Given widespread complaints about out-of-work university graduates, it isn’t surprising that this proposed law hopes to enhance job placement prospects, while also (in a charming moment of humanist pragmatism) allowing students to “balance their knowledge” between pure theory and pure technique.

Let’s be clear: this is a proposition that comes from a specific political position, that of the French center-right. Five of the six senators who propose it are from UMP, the party of Sarkozy; one additional senator (Marcel Deneux) is from the centrist MoDems. Given the UMP’s well-known affinity for the business sector, it isn’t very surprising to see this proposal to shift higher education in a vocational direction; there have been plenty of more subtle versions of the same proposal over the years. To be sure, given the current left majority in the French Senate, it isn’t remotely likely to become law, and no doubt there are some internal French politics here that I don’t follow. Sauvons L’Université describes it sarcastically as “the UMP’s generous contribution to the debate,” which suggests that it’s a purely symbolic proposition.

There is, however, an interesting expression in the proposed law that merits commentary: la vie active. It translates simply as “active life,” which probably will strike an Anglophone reader as pretty vague. In French this is a conventional expression that denotes what in English would be called “working life.” It’s used in expressions like this one (in the proposed law):

Le baccalauréat professionnel permet l’insertion dans la vie active…
The vocational diploma allows entrance into active life…

It’s one of those expressions that always puzzled me in French: why should “work” be glossed so poorly as “activity” in general? Surely, I always thought to myself, “activity” encompasses a much broader range of things than just paid labor? Finally I thought to look it up in a French scholarly dictionary:

14. RELIG.  Vie active. Mode de vie des personnes vivant dans le monde, par opposition à la vie contemplative des religieux ou religieuses cloîtrés.

Étymol. ET HIST.
I. Adj. 1. 1160 « (en parlant d’une pers.) qui est dans la vie active, laïc, par oppos. à contemplatif »; vie active « vie séculière, p. oppos. à vie contemplative » (BENOIT DE STE MAURE, Chron. ducs de Norm., éd. Fahlin, 13 355 : Soz icez [chanoine e clerc] vit li ordres lais, E cist en sostiennent le fais. Actif sunt qui si faitement Vivvent au siècle activement, E vie active est apelee); 2. 1360 « qui déploie de l’énergie, travailleur » (ORESME, Éthique, Table ds GDF. Compl. : Actif est de action, et selon ce l’en dit que ung homme est actif, qui est praticien et bien besognant);

In short, this tells us that in the medieval period (or at least around 1160 A.D.), the phrase “active life” was used to distinguish those who were living secularly from those who were in the “contemplative life” of the religious orders. By 1360 the expression was also used to describe a person who “deploys energy, a worker.” Curiously, then, when we read about current French debates over job placement, we find ourselves in the presence of distinctions between action and contemplation that derive rather directly from the culture of medieval Christianity. One might even go so far as to say that this very distinction between “action” and “contemplation” is something that encourages today’s right-wing senators to view a university education as entirely theoretical, the utter opposite of a practical education.

It’s a bit curious, because French university curricula have increasingly shifted towards professional topics like business and economics over the past forty years. But no anthropologist should be surprised to find that symbolic systems of classification work to conceal as well as to reveal.

One Response to “La vie active and French right-wing vocationalism”

  1. eric Says:

    Vita Activa is also one of Hannah Arendt’s categories. This perhaps is only evidence that to insist on the distinction indeed is politically ambiguous. On the other hand, it seems to me that in the contemporary world, when academic leftists argue that we should reject the distinction between action and theory, this is *usually*, although not always, so that they can count writing as action. which is *usually* self-serving.