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.