Friday, April 13, 2007

What's wrong with the school system?

The title of this post sounds like a headline you might read in an American newspaper or magazine, perhaps even a new book title. It might surprise you to learn that a debate continues apace here in France on this very subject. One in five kids comes to sixth grade with reading difficulties. Schools have become increasingly beset by the problems of the surrounding culture, drugs, violence, apathy. The gap between the educational haves and have nots seems to be widening. The correlation between getting a diploma embarking on a satisfactory career/life path seems less and less evident... it would seem that globalization involves more than the pervasive spread cheap clothes or computer chips, included on the list of world exports might be societal malaise.
Hamed, one of my colleagues, sent me recently an editorial from Le Monde. His purpose in sending it to me was to correct any impression I might have about there being a lack of debate on the subject of how to best educate French children. Reading that essay sort of led to another essay by the same writer, Phillipe Meirieu.
Part of Meireiu's critique is that French schools and pedagogical practices have become inhospitable to the apsirations and needs of French youth, that teachers and administrators are mired in practices still premised on outmoded notions of economic stratification and authoritative models.
He argues for something he calls a "lycee unique", a concept that has more than a little in common with the American notion of high school in that it's main conceit is one school, one diploma, one social class...for Meirieu school is the place where socialization is as important as scholarization, where students are given more opportunities to explore and develop interests and are not pushed prematurely into irrevocable educational choices. School is where the many and varied elements of society learn, work and strive together in a way that prepares them to live harmoniously and respectfully together later on as full fledged citizens of the republic, instead of being sorted and separated into different social categories at the age of 13 or 14.
He is, not surprisingly, also a trenchant critic of consumer society values which he claims, if I read him correctly, subvert the values of egalitarian democracy.
In this same essay, buried at the end of a paragraph was a little barb directed at a specific someone Meirieu accused of having "caricatured" his (Meirieu's) work. Nowhere else in the essay did the name of another writer or thinker appear. I thought to myself, hmm...these guys don't like each other very much. Maybe he's the other side of this public debate. The other guy's name was Luc Ferry.
So I looked up Luc Ferry and discovered that he had served as Minister of Education in France between 2002-2004. The entry in Wikipedia also cryptically refers to him as a prominent proponent of Secular Humanism. A magazine article calls him one of the new generation of philosophers who is both media savvy and aiming at a larger audience. It turns out that while Minister of Education he wrote his own critique of the crisis in education in France, titled " A letter to those who care about our schools"(don't be misled by the title, it's actually a book). Ferry lays the blame for the current crisis in France's schools squarely on the phenonemon of what he calls " indvidualism". This trend, which he traces back to the 1960's has subverted the classical values that in his opinion undergird any legitimate attempt to educate the young, namely the twin notions of the transmission of knowledge and the hierarchy of values (chief among them work and respect).
Ferry seems fond of a kind of tough love approach to education. Don't coddle kids by putting their needs at the center of the universe. Their needs must be squared off with the need society has of them in order to perpetuate itself. Students don't need to blossom into who they are, they need to become someone else, namely an educated adult.
So there you have it - a radical proposal (for the French at least) that amounts to recycling an American style idea of a single comprehensive high school under the progressive banner of individual expression, social harmony and egalitarian democracy, and, on the other hand, a clarion call to restore traditional educational values of discipline, work and civility by a secular humanist (and anti-deconstructionist) philosopher darling of the emerging liberal right wing in France.
Are these contradictions or merely complexities?
If any of my readers, French or American, feel like helping me with any this, please don't hesitate to chime in.
In case you're more interested in who the Red Sox are playing right now...I understand, of course.


Anonymous erin said...

Wow- I have my own conflicts with this one. I enjoy my own individuality, but I see the cultivation of individuality getting out of hand. However, I'm willing to bet that each of your readers (I know many of them!) have managed to become "well-educated individuals" without sacrificing either end of that spectrum. A tough question of how to structure an education system to achieve what has begun to slide. Contradictions AND complexities.

1:34 PM  

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