Education Crisis: Symptom and Crucible of Societal Malaise

Education Crisis: Symptom and Crucible of Societal Malaise

After years of suppression, people are beginning to talk about violence at school again. This problem had undoubtedly become too obvious to continue to evade it and to act as though everything were “for the best in the best of all worlds” within our schools. These are no longer the sanctuaries people once spoke of. Quite the opposite, they have become display windows for an “overall” societal malaise, a malaise to which the school is partially victim and for which it is partially responsible to the extent it no longer fulfills its role of educating for thought and for citizenship. By putting “the student” rather than “knowledge” at the center of educational concerns, the artisans of pedagogical reforms had thought to resolve the problem by a play on words, as though the issue were a semantic one only. The student, or rather, the “learner,” has never formally been taken more into consideration and yet, he has never felt so abandoned in fact.

By giving economic precedence over every other value, by allowing ugliness (advertising, concreting, public housing …) to move in to cities and the countryside, by allowing children to grow up in front of screens where violence, mediocrity, cynicism, and pornography vie with one another, the “decision-makers” have contributed to the accentuation of this state of moral dereliction and devastation that youth currently experience. What may our youth hope from a society the dream of which coincides with that of a complete commoditization of bodies and minds, the sole project of which is the infinite renewal of material needs and in which the economic instrumentalization of knowledge leads to the evacuation of literature, history, ancient languages and poetry? What hopes, what dreams do we bestow on this youth that does not recognize itself in the world we are building through shots of growth, GDP, exclusively quantitative aims? As the May-68 slogan goes, “a person does not fall in love with a growth rate …”

Hannah Arendt, in a famous text – “The Crisis in Culture,” which retains all its pertinence – reflects upon what the crisis in education reveals about our society. Far from being an isolated, local symptom, it translates the disorientation of a world turned exclusively toward commercial goals, individualist (to the detriment of the collective) values, towards know-how rather than knowledge. Families’ primary concern, therefore, is that their children “make it,” through whatever means: “Star Ac” [a French reality TV show], “Nouvelle Star” [a French TV series based on “Pop Idol”], soccer, whatever works! Children understand the utilitarian dogma that governs our society perfectly. A primary school graffiti that conveys their fury testifies to that understanding: “We don’t give a fuck for your school; we want the dough!” as does the supposedly critical leitmotiv countering teachers of philosophy: “We don’t give a damn for philosophy; it’s useless!” Cell and iPhones are swapped in playgrounds and classrooms; students outdo one another for who has the most expensive jacket or the “trendiest” cap; the latest fashion – all the rage – being to leave the price tag out so the cost is immediately visible. In some classes, it’s impossible to teach a course of philosophy on art without analyzing Zidane’s panenka at the end of the World Cup, the figure of the artist having become permanently circumscribed in the eyes of certain social classes to soccer players and show business stars.

The fashion for participative debate has made the relationship to knowledge difficult: everyone has the right to give his view (“everyone has his own opinions”) and some don’t see why they should be obliged to read such and such an author who contradicts theirs: why read Victor Hugo’s “Last Day of a Condemned Man” or Robert Badinter’s speech to the National Assembly, when one is resolutely in favor of the death penalty? This is the inevitable result of a relativization of the sources of knowledge and of the reduction of the teacher’s function to that of “pedagogical disc jockey.” An educational success, some will cry! The student has finally freed himself from the tutelage of the teacher to think for himself. Except that – exactly like freedom – thought is not an “instant datum,” but requires mediation, work and apprenticeship.

Autonomy, as its etymology (auto-nomos) indicates, is not the ability to do or to think whatever comes into our heads, but, quite the opposite, to give oneself laws or constraints to become a major being in the Kantian sense. The path to autonomy is tortuous and difficult. Neither is knowledge to be confused with know-how. The cult, or rather, as Arendt called it, the pathos, of novelty has today won over all spheres of society: one must covet an object because it is new, a toy, the latest thing in the order of technical objects – whatever its purpose or its ends may be. It matters little what it brings our society in terms of true progress or well-being. Since “no one stops progress,” with respect to technology, the question of ends has been evacuated once and for all. All protest will be systematically characterized as “reactionary,” a repellent term that has the advantage of a priori invalidating any possibility of challenge. Therefore, progress in education will consist of turning toward new technical objects and substituting technical know-how for knowledge, that is, for the education of thought. Once a simple means, technology has become an unchallengeable end.

Education, on the contrary, has the peculiarity of being turned toward the past. Can it truly be progressivist? It seems to us, that, on the contrary, the myth of “progress” with the economic, social, anthropological and environmental consequences that it covers, must be challenged. The true question is the one Jean-Paul Besset poses in his eponymous book: “How to Stop Being Progressivist … Without Becoming Reactionary …” The adult, in fact, has a major responsibility with respect to children and teenagers: that of taking responsibility for the world he offers them. According to Arendt, that responsibility is called “authority.” The authority of parents is not that of the teacher: education is neither training nor direction. These tasks are not to be confused, as is so commonly done.

Today, we ask too much of the school: to educate, to teach, to furnish diplomas and to serve as a social guardrail, even as a social day-care center … Without a preliminary educational foundation assured by the adult world in its totality – and not solely by the parent, but also by the neighbor, the fellow on the subway or on the suburban train – without a collective destiny, the school will not long be able to serve as a social safety net. It is undoubtedly necessary to bring to mind that, in the republican imagination, democratization does not mean dumbing down requirements, but, on the contrary, transmitting the meaning of effort to the largest number. It is equally necessary to remember that the market by itself does not constitute a social project. It is even the site where the inequalities that will persist throughout social existence are born: it is, in its essence, the very site itself of the alienation that is opposed to the emancipative project of the school.

Today, the school is commanded to adapt itself to the market, to create future “operational” agents. We should wish instead, at the hour of an unprecedented environmental crisis, to invite it to once more take up the threads of beauty, of the free transmission of a knowledge that would allow people to truly orient themselves in the world, of what was once called the “humanities.” Otherwise, we risk having to ask ourselves (following the example of Pierre Rhabi) not only what earth we are going to leave to our children, but also “what children we are going to leave this earth” …

Anne Frémaux is an associate in philosophy.

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.