News from France
Did you like school?
What are your memories of school? Did you like school, did it teach you anything that helped you in life? Did it leave you with a feeling of failure or of success, or neither? Were you aware that others went to different schools to you, and how did you feel about that?
Is there a working class defence of education? There should be. In 2005, the French Communist Party produced a detailed but readable booklet analysing the Lisbon Treaty on a Constitution for Europe. Writing that booklet took skill, and a wide knowledge of a huge number of facts and mastery of reading and writing. The 2015 reform of the Labour Code confronted workers with millions of words; a counter proposal would have required powers of analysis and again knowledge of a huge number of facts.
Where are the people equipped with this knowledge? Do we have to wait for a French Ernest Bevin, who hardly attended school and became a Government Minister? Apparently he read the newspaper aloud to illiterate members of his family, and later he became a preacher. Apart from being an exceptional person, he had opportunities; religion provided an occasion to learn; it provided ideas, and a body of knowledge, and for those who became preachers, it provided intensive practice in reading and speaking.
Is there a modern equivalent? There is plenty of knowledge accessible from television and the internet; but where are the role models showing young people how to acquire and use extensive knowledge in an extended way either in speaking or writing?
The acquisition of knowledge has been rubbished in the education world; described as passively filling empty heads, boring and stifling, it had the added fault of profiting the rich more than the rest. So, supposedly as a remedy to these faults, the education system reduced the importance of the acquisition of knowledge. Reducing the importance of the acquisition of knowledge has also reduced proficiency in speaking and writing, since you have to have something to speak and write about.
Public opinion and leftists have been stupid when faced with this demolition. The first question they should have asked the politicians in charge is, are YOUR children going to stop learning a large amount of factual knowledge? The answer in England would have been perfectly clear: No, they are not. Eton will still do traditional subjects. (A few heroic Ministers did send their children to comprehensive schools, but their children did not depend solely on school to acquire school knowledge.)
Stupidity among the population and the left can be explained by a muddled understanding of justice and equality. The reasoning is: “Rich kids do best in education. That means education profits the rich. Therefore we must change education.”
The muddle comes from not asking: are you sure it’s the shape of education that results in the rich doing better than the rest? The reformers should have pondered if the changes would ensure success for the not-privileged by making them acquire knowledge more efficiently, and practise speaking and writing more thoroughly. It was taken on trust that any change would be an improvement. Reading the Plowden report which heralded these changes in England in 1967, you see how vague the philosophy is. Here is a sample, taken from the conclusion of a chapter on Children Learning:
“We endorse the trend towards individual and active learning and ‘learning by acquaintance’, and should like many more schools to be more deeply influenced by it. Yet we certainly do not deny the value of ‘learning by description’ or the need for practice of skills and consolidation of knowledge.”
‘Learning by acquaintance’ is seeing, hearing, touching the thing you are learning about as opposed to ‘Learning by description’ which demands that you use your imagination. You can hear in this paragraph the conflict between partisans of ‘new methods’ (easier, because concrete, more suitable for the non elite) and the partisans of continuing to stretch the mind of pupils with what is not directly in front of them.
The muddle in the text is also in the notion of ‘individual’ learning. You are just as much an ‘individual’ learning when you listen or read, as part of a group of 30 or 40, as you are when the teacher stands by you on your own; you could even argue that you are more yourself when the teacher is not standing over you.
The Plowden report criticized ‘whole class’ teaching; it advocated dividing classes into groups, without addressing the difficulty of organization it raises, or showing that more learning takes place that way.
The various suggestions were taken up unfortunately by the education world, with such poor results that they were eventually abandoned.
The harm has been done nevertheless. The drive to make education easier and more accessible has led for example to the end of modern languages after the age of 14 for most. Now the number of language graduates has dropped dramatically, and languages have become the province of the most privileged students in terms of money, the opposite of the proclaimed aims of reform. The number of universities offering hard subjects has collapsed, and only the most privileged and hardest to access offer them, the exact opposite of what the reforms were supposed to achieve.
The French case.
The French have not studied the English case obviously; they are going down the same destructive road, also in the name of equality.
Teachers went on strike and marched against an education reform bill on Tuesday 19th May; 5 of the 7 teaching unions joined the movement; they represent 80% of the teaching force who voted in professional elections.
Intellectuals joined the fray, or ‘pseudo intellectuals’ according to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Education minister behind the reform.
The same muddled thinking prevails: education is good for the rich so let’s change it. In this case, Latin, Greek and German, as well as ‘European’ classes are taken up by a minority at age 11/12. That is a privilege. Privileges are bad. So no one should be able to do these subjects. Remove the opportunity for ever, in the case of Latin and Greek, and European classes, while in the case of German, that subject can be taken up later, with a reduced time-table. These subjects were not chosen only by the middle classes, but that is not relevant to the zealous minister.
As Plowden said in 1967, young children don’t understand the division of knowledge into subjects, they learn best when a topic is taught across the curriculum, as a ‘project’. With the Vallaud-Belkacem reform 20% of the 11 to 16 school time will be taken with ‘project’ work, on themes such as ‘sustainable development’, ‘health and the body’, etc, at the expense of traditional subjects.
The project will be led by two core subject teachers working together.
The problem is that French teachers tend to be specialists who love their subject and are unhappy not teaching it, unlike in England, the land of flexibility, where teachers are often asked to muck in and teach something they weren’t trained for, mugging it up themselves one jump ahead of their pupils.
French teachers will have to meet with their colleague to prepare the project work, that meeting time being extra unpaid work. The pupils have been brought up with the idea that only work that is marked and leads to an examination result is worth doing. They will not take kindly to work that leads to neither, except indirectly.
This project work is improvisation doomed to failure, and the removal of hard subjects a scandal. This is not the first dumbing down reform; the rot started in the 1960s, with the result that in France 2 to 4% of working class children have places in the top higher education establishments now, as opposed to between 12 and 14% in the sixties (see http://www.comite-valmy.org/spip.php?article5985).
That is not to say that education could not be usefully reformed. Technical and Professional education should be recognized as requiring as much intelligence, imagination and perseverance as ‘mainstream’ education, and become itself mainstream. Unions must provide a counter reform.
Surrogacy is on the way to being made legal in France. Parents of children from surrogate mothers abroad have brought back babies to France and are challenging the courts to deny them French nationality. Nantes is the town in France where the register of births and deaths of French people born abroad is kept. A court case for 5 children born abroad of a surrogate mother was held in that town and in May this year, the names of the babies were ordered to be entered on the Register, as French citizens. There is an appeal.
Legal recognition of children born abroad is likely to succeed. This will make nonsense of France keeping surrogacy illegal.
A campaign is under way to form public opinion. The campaign uses real life cases (‘knowledge by acquaintance’ so to speak). The campaign puts forward cases of surrogate mothers acting from altruistic or near altruistic motives; e.g. on French television in May: a happy couple, man and woman, with two lovely children; the surrogate mother, a white American, was chosen because she was ‘totally fulfilled by maternity’ [comblée par la maternité]; the parents attended the birth, the woman now talks to the child on Skype etc. It cost 100 000 euros, of which 30 000 went to the woman. Even that is an argument for: it’s expensive, glamour is attached to it (in England, the Elton John example). Now the two lovely children are ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘little phantoms of the Republic’, denied legal existence in their parents’ country; how will they go to school?
There is no equivalent organised campaign against. The arguments against require thinking beyond real life cases (‘knowledge by description’?) and ahead to possible consequences which you can’t immediately see. The argument against is that maternity is unique and special and not to be sold, but this is an idea, it’s not tangible and does not appeal to a sentimental or to a pragmatic turn of mind, the modern turn of mind.
There are no acceptable arguments against surrogacy, in a secular society ruled by reason (i.e., which does not acknowledge the sacred, which is a religious notion).
The sentimental argument is that infertile couples want surrogacy to allay their suffering, and it wouldn’t be fair to deny it.
The pragmatic argument is that the women will be paid, and will be doing it of their own free will.
Other arguments mix justice and pragmatism: e.g. Many women from developing countries leave their own children behind to care for bourgeois children in Paris, or to do menial work in England, that is truly terrible, and it would be better if they could earn money staying at home with their children etc etc.
After all, the No argument to the same sex marriage referendum in Ireland was also abstract: it was that marriage is a unique, special and ancient institution, designed to celebrate procreation, the middle point of life, (as in birth, procreation, death). That is an argument from the sacred, and doesn’t hold water to the modern person.
Note that marriage and procreation are the high points of most people’s lives and in particular of women’s lives. It was that that was celebrated as special and unique, and it’s that which is being devalued.
Who is Charlie?
A courageous French author, mentioned by Froggy (May 2013) in connection with his analysis of Catholics and Communists in France, has written a book set against the Charlie Hebdo cult of free expression. The Irish Times reviewed it as follows:
“The official, politically correct version of the jihadist attacks in which 20 people were killed in Paris last January portrays Charlie Hebdo magazine, the gunmen’s first target, as a paragon of free expression. Some four million French people who marched under the slogan “Je suis Charlie” are viewed as champions of tolerance and laicité, or French-style secularism.
Who is Charlie?, an opposing version of events, has just been published by the Cambridge-educated French demographer and historian Emmanuel Todd.
“Millions of French people rushed into the streets to define the right to spit on the religion of the weak as the priority need of their society,” Todd writes. He describes the much-vaunted “spirit of January 11” as sham unity, “emotional, feverish, hysteria,” a “totalitarian flash” and “loss of self control”.
This orgy of conformity seized the French middle and upper middle classes, but further alienated the working class and ethnic minorities, Todd notes.”