Saturday, February 05, 2005

Authority and school in France: from philosophy, to politics to reality TV

Charles Taylor begins the second chapter of his book The ethics of authenticity by pointing out the popular success of one of Allan Bloom’s books. He then goes on to explaining why that type of political philosophy – a refined conservative approach I would say – touched a chord. A. Bloom was reacting to moral relativism, characteristic of the state of mind of today’s educated youth, which he saw as a sort degenerated offshoot of individualism. According to Charles Taylor, if such a point of view did struck a chord it is because of the malaises of modernity (“this features of our contemporary culture and society that people experience as a loss or a decline, even as our civilization develops”).

Throughout the entire book Charles Taylor points out the reciprocal influence of philosophy, society and politic. He doesn’t go explicitly into the causal links between theses 3 spheres but he shows that today’s return to a conservative culture is a reaction to the disoriented progressivism of the past generation.

The validity of Charles Taylor’s understanding of the conservative turn in society, in politics as well as in philosophy, is confirmed by the situation in many countries. France is a good example and the topic of education and its relationship with authority is particularly telling.

Until recently, the main conceptions on education were greatly influenced by the events of 1968 and the philosophical doctrines that accompanied them. Thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Althusser, Lacan and Bourdieu are unquestionably the theorists of that period and in terms of influence on the academic sphere’s, the media, the public opinion and the political parties their ideas were quite dominant until the mid eighties. The recent death of Bourdieu and Derrida symbolizes the turnover that has been taking place since then. The new generation of influential philosophers is composed of moderate social democrats (such as P. Rosanvallon and M. Gauchet) on one side, conservative Kantians (L. Ferry and A. Renaut) and Straussians (P. Manent) on the other. None of these authors have a Marxist background and none claim the liberal heritage of 68. On the contrary: L. Ferry and A. Renaut are the authors of a book entitled La pensée 68 which is precisely a critique of the conception’s of the previous generation of philosophers[1]. They denounce a potentially fascist individualistic relativism that, according to them, has left the next generations without moral convictions, and society without order. The remedy is a return to values and to authority based on those values.

Since they wrote this book in 1988, A. Renaut and L. Ferry have gradually reached positions of political power. The former was the President of a group of experts that wrote the programs in Philosophy, taught in undergraduate schools while the latter was the previous Minister of Education. Before he was thrown out of Government, for lack of political skill, L. Ferry tried to reform the French educational system in order to bring back authority in school[2]. The professional politician that replaced him has been asked to continue in his footsteps.

The conservative ideas regarding education first reached the domain of philosophy, and then they entered the political spheres, today they are spreading through society. I am no sociologist to identify precisely the ideas on education that are now popular in French society but there are strong hints of a conservative turn there too. Not least of all the policy of the French government on the subject. The popularity of a particular TV show was however the latest indication of the reality of the phenomenon. And it was, appropriately, a reality show. Le pensionnat de Chavagnes was supposed to be a school of the fifties in which young girls and boys in uniforms learned the disciplined ways of the pre-68 schools of their grandparents. The authority of the professors in this fake establishment was based on discipline through threat, sanction and humiliation. This reality TV show was the second most popular one all year, as it regularly attracted 1/3 of the audience. A real performance for an entertainment which consisted in showing children learning to keep quiet in class while some teacher from the past was trying to force grammar rules into their modern heads. Soon, serious TV shows and newspaper articles followed in which the question of Authority in school was debated by politicians, teachers, sociologist, researchers etc. Thus the debate had reached all ramifications of society.

I am sure that this is only an example of a much wider phenomenon that can be witnessed in very many countries. In France we are so far fortunate enough that only vaguely neo-kantian philosophers have reached positions of power, in other parts of the world the philosophers in charge are the students of L. Strauss.

[1] Luc Ferry, Alain Renaut, La pensée 68, Essai sur l’anti humanisme contemporain, Folio, 1988.

[2] During a Press Conference given in May 2002, the newly appointed Minister of Education, Luc Ferry, listed the priorities of his policy designed to remedy the problems encountered by the French educational system. In position number three came dealing with authority, security and violence.

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