Ronald Reagan maintained that “Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction.” This could easily be extended to the existence of the nation itself, for if men are born, citizens are made. They are the product of an art: the quintessential human art of education, by which each generation seeks to impart to the next certain knowledge, certain fundamental opinions, and certain morals—always with uncertain results.
This education is carried out by a multitude of institutions and structures, starting of course with the family. But in modern nations, school has come to occupy a central place. And among modern nations, France is perhaps the one that has invested the most in its schools. It has invested in every sense of the word: in no other Western country, as far as I can tell, does the school—or, to put it more precisely, the education system set up and administered by the public authorities—occupy such a central place in the nation’s self-awareness.
In France, the Republic and what would become our current Éducation nationale were products of the same era. In fact, the Third Republic (which formally began in 1875), the first lasting democratic regime in France after the revolution of 1789, developed public education precisely with the idea of making every little Frenchman a good republican, and every little republican a good Frenchman. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the “School of the Republic” has been at the heart of France’s idea of itself as a democratic, modern, and secular nation.
The great novelist Marcel Pagnol, whose father was a schoolteacher at the dawn of the twentieth century, tells us in his Souvenirs (first published in the 1950s) how the écoles normales primaires, in which schoolteachers were trained, were at that time seminaries where the study of theology was replaced by courses in anti-clericalism. The sacred mission of these “hussars,” whose uniforms were black like those of priests, was to
fight against ignorance, glorify the Republic, and keep their hats on at the passage of religious processions. . . . “Like the priests,” said my father, “we work for the future life: but we work for that of others.”
This “Republican school” was naturally far from flawless, and Pagnol reminds us of its defects with the sense of the absurd that made him famous. But it is fair to say that, at its best, it was also a great and beautiful thing in which French people as a whole ended up having legitimate pride, even those who were not strongly republican.
The public school was both a crucible, in which future citizens were forged and inculcated with the principles of the republic, and a temple of knowledge, where pupils were initiated into the mysteries of science and beauty as well as the greatness of France. Those who graduated from the lycée (a tiny minority of the population, of course) had a solid and broad culture in both science and the humanities and, needless to say, a perfect command of the French language. They were also used to strenuous intellectual effort. To quote Pagnol again:
All in all, we stayed at the lycée for eleven hours a day, except for Thursday, on whose morning there was a four-hour class: such was the sixty-hour week, which could be further extended by a half-consigne [detention] on Thursday or a full-consigne on Sunday.
But all this now belongs to a bygone era, which sometimes seems as distant as the Jurassic Age. In less than two generations, this glory of our fathers (to adapt the title of Pagnol’s most famous novel) has been almost completely destroyed.
For a while, the ideologues who took control of the ministry of education tried to deny the reality, claiming that warnings of the collapse in the academic level of French children were malicious lies. In reality, they said, the level was rising: never had the children of France been so well instructed in everything they needed to know. Le Niveau monte (The level is rising) was even the title of a famous book published in 1989 by two sociologists, Christian Baudot and Roger Establet, who sought to refute the “declinist discourse” about French schooling. Today the book is an almost universal object of derision.
But little by little the irrefutable evidence has accumulated, and today nobody seriously denies that there is something rotten in the state of the Éducation nationale.
As far as teachers are concerned, the profession is no longer attractive.
France has been falling steadily in the pisa rankings of educational achievement since 2000, from fifteenth and eleventh in reading and mathematics respectively to twenty-third and twenty-fifth. More than 40 percent of students in the sixième (the first year of middle school in the United States) have no mastery of reading, writing, or arithmetic. As far as teachers are concerned, the profession is no longer attractive: resignations are multiplying and the level of hiring for certain categories of teachers has become dramatically low thanks to a lack of candidates. Regularly, the reports of the juries of competitive examinations demonstrate that it is now possible to become a teacher with marks well below the average, sometimes scoring only four or five out of twenty.
Every teacher who is over the age of fifty will be able to give eloquent testimony to this academic failure. A few years ago, a professor of mathematics in his sixties told me that, by chance, he had found the exams that he had had to take in order to enter the sixième: he assured me that today’s first-year university students of mathematics (whom he taught) would be unable to pass an exam of this kind.
As a university lecturer in law and political science for more than twenty-five years, I have been able to witness firsthand the students arriving each year with a little less knowledge and a little less ability to work than those of the previous year. Their knowledge of general culture is nonexistent, their spelling deplorable, their syntax atrocious, and their ability to understand and use simple reasoning minimal—to say nothing of their inability to concentrate. It is not good will, or even kindness and decency, that they lack; rather, the foundations of a serious education have never been laid. By the time they arrive, it is far too late to remedy this, except for the most gifted.
The French educational disaster is not due to a lack of resources, since the budget this year amounts to €60.2 billion for twelve million schoolchildren. In total, France spends 5.2 percent of its gdp on school education, which is above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average (4.9 percent).
Despite this huge amount of money, the standard of living of teachers has been falling steadily, which is a major reason why it is so difficult to recruit them: in the early 1980s, a teacher starting out in secondary school earned a little more than two times the minimum wage, whereas today that same teacher earns only 1.3 times the minimum wage.
What has happened in French education as a whole? Broadly speaking, the ruination of the Éducation nationale is down to two factors.
The first phenomenon is what might be called radical egalitarianism, which, from the equality in natural rights of all human beings, falsely deduces the equality of all human beings in all important dimensions of existence, and in particular the equality of intelligence.
In 1964 a landmark book was published: Les Héritiers (The Inheritors) by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron. The thesis of the two authors was that success at school depended to a large extent on a “cultural capital” acquired within the family. Consequently schooling, far from correcting social inequalities, tended to perpetuate them: the sons of the bourgeoisie would always succeed better than the sons of workers because school valued the type of cultural capital that the children of the bourgeoisie possessed.
Taken by itself, the idea that the family plays a decisive role in school success is both indisputable and trivial. But the underlying thesis of Bourdieu and Passeron’s book was that the cultural capital supposedly possessed by the bourgeoisie had no intrinsic value: it was unrelated to intellectual excellence and served only to perpetuate the privileges of the bourgeoisie by keeping the common people at bay. In other words, the notion of academic merit was arbitrary, and what passed for it was simply an instrument of the domination of one social class by another. That was why Bourdieu and Passeron called those who possessed the culture valued by the school “the inheritors,” implying that they were a kind of hereditary aristocracy, which, like that of the ancien régime, occupied the upper stratum without having taken any other trouble than to be born.
A century and a half before Les Héritiers, Tocqueville wrote that democratic communities have for equality a passion
ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.
By equating good students with aristocrats, Bourdieu and Passeron gave the kiss of death to educational meritocracy in France. Of course, even though their book was a resounding commercial success, the authors of Les Héritiers cannot be held solely responsible for the educational revolution that followed. Their book was part of a fundamental movement in favor of radical egalitarianism, perceptible in all modern democracies. But in France it contributed powerfully to the acceleration of the destruction of all intellectual hierarchies.
From the 1970s onwards, the French education system began to drift ever more rapidly towards the enchanted shores of “success for all.” And to ensure that everyone succeeded at school, there was in fact only one solution: to stop seriously assessing pupils and to ask them only to do what even the most mediocre intelligences were capable of doing, while at the same time relaxing school discipline to the utmost so as not to “exclude” any pupil, even the least willing to learn.
In 1985, the socialist minister of national education Jean-Pierre Chevènement set the objective that 80 percent of pupils should pass the baccalaureate (the exam and school certificate that permits entry to university). That year, only 30 percent passed. The target of 80 percent was reached in the early 2000s. Today, the success rate for the baccalaureate exam is close to 95 percent in the written papers. And those who, despite all the goodwill of the examiners, do not succeed in passing the written papers almost all pass by virtue of the oral exams.
In other words, for a long time now, the Éducation nationale has become a vast Potemkin village. The statistics of success in official exams are the equivalent of the statistics of industrial production in the ussr.
Certainly there are still some more or less preserved islands of quality: schools in which work is still a satisfying activity for the teachers and from which the pupils emerge, perhaps not more cultured and alert, but at least not more ignorant or stupid. Obviously in a radically egalitarian age these shelters of sanity cannot be left standing.
Thus the former minister of national education Pap Ndiaye—whose own children attended one of these preserved islands, the highly selective École alsacienne in Paris—spent his year in office working to force private schools to accept as much “social diversity” as public schools, i.e., to open their doors wide to pupils lacking any academic skills and/or appetite for learning, thus making the Potemkin village universal and realizing the equality of barbarism of which Tocqueville spoke. Tocqueville added prophetically: “if there be some nations which allow civilization to be torn from their grasp, there are others who trample it themselves under their feet.”
The other phenomenon that consummated the destruction of the French school was mass immigration, which began in the early 1970s.
For a long time, as with the decline in educational standards, the reality was denied, thanks in particular to the refusal of the French authorities to gather so-called ethnic statistics. Eventually the reality became impossible to deny without covering oneself in ridicule. In the space of two generations, France has undergone the greatest demographic upheaval in its history, with the arrival on its territory of an enormous mass of immigrants, particularly from Africa. Today, in some municipalities, particularly around major cities such as Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, the proportion of children born to non-European immigrants exceeds 50 percent and sometimes even reaches 75 percent.
Such a demographic shift makes its effects felt in all areas of public life. Some people, more and more numerous, are prophesying that it will lead either to open civil war or to a situation like that of Lebanon or South Africa: a juxtaposition of ethnic and religious communities that are indifferent or hostile to one another, instead of a single and indivisible nation.
For the Éducation nationale, this mass immigration has meant the arrival at school of a growing number of children who have neither the French language nor morals nor culture, and some of whom—especially those from the former Maghreb colonies—are openly hostile to France.
It would have taken an iron will and conviction to maintain school requirements in the face of these newcomers. But it was precisely at this time, as we have seen, that the French school began to doubt the legitimacy of its demands and the soundness of its mode of operation.
As a result, mass immigration accelerated the school debacle: in order to avoid the widespread failure of all these “diverse” children, it was necessary to hasten the relaxation of the requirements of knowledge and discipline. Moreover, the transmission of anything resembling a national culture, particularly through history and literature, was promptly diluted into a vast “inclusive” mishmash, which certainly did not make schoolchildren any more knowledgeable about foreign cultures but did make them remarkably ignorant of and even hostile to French history and culture.
Venez comme vous êtes (come as you are): the famous McDonald’s slogan in France has become the school slogan, with a corollary to leave as you were. As you are, that is, with your ethnic and religious identities slung over your shoulder, your smartphone in your hand, and your gender badge on your chest. School has become a place where learning to read, write, and count is often the least of the activities of schoolchildren, who are now too busy learning about “sustainable development” and combating “racial prejudice” and “gender stereotypes.”
This collapse of the school system is not unique to France, and an Englishman or an American, for example, will certainly recognize a familiar phenomenon. But in France it is felt more painfully than elsewhere and, consequently, it contributes more than elsewhere to the feeling of decline and resentment against successive governments that have produced this decline. The French have long been proud of their schools, not without reason, and they continued to be so after this pride ceased to be justified. But today this pride has been replaced by dismay, anger, and self-contempt.
Yet there is no sign of any improvement. The fact that the French are, on the whole, very dissatisfied with their school system does not mean that there exists in the country the will necessary to restore at least some of its former glory. The forces of disintegration are too powerful, and all that can reasonably be hoped for today is that it will be possible to preserve for some time those spaces of freedom in which, in spite of everything, curious young minds eager to learn are awakened and formed. But even that is not assured.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 3, on page 77
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