Sunday, 11 May 2008

What should general education be about? The case of philosophy

What do you think of these as questions for the final school exams at 18?

Can the question ‘Who am I?’ be answered clearly?
Can the value of a culture be judged objectively?
What do we gain by working?
Can desire be satisfied by reality?
Does truth depend on us?
Can liberty be defined as the power to say no?
Do we desire only things we consider good?
Are works of art like other realities?

They’re all from le bac philo.

OK. In Paris the other day I saw this on a newsstand

and bought it. I already knew that the French school-leaving exam was the baccalauréat or bac and had a vague idea that philosophy was a main subject in France, part of general education, and not, as here, a recent minority one.

How could philosophy work as a mass subject, equivalent, perhaps, to English here? Wouldn’t it be far too difficult? Too abstract and cerebral? Perhaps this would tell me.

Well, it did, to an extent, taken with various other things found on the internet. Le bac philo is the final exam in philosophy, taken at A level/A2 stage. (I worked out that hors-série was ‘outside the series’, or a special issue of the magazine.)

In the lycée (the last three years of secondary) students specialise in arts and science (L – for Littéraire, I think), in science (S), or in social and economic science (ES). But they all take philosophy, though not for the same number of hours. (For students specialising in hôtellerie et danse, ‘la philo n’est pas souvent un priorité’. That I can believe.)

Why am I interested?
English is more my thing. What’s the issue?

The issue is, do I approve? Is this an idea we should copy? Or—since this sort of thing hasn’t been our style—are we right to prefer our style?

I'll say a bit more about the course before offering my thoughts.

Since I'm most interested in the arts/humanities side I looked at what the ‘L’ students do – which is eight hours of philosophy a week! (This from a good little New York Times article: LINK) ( A-level students taking only three subjects don’t get that amount of time for any of them.)

The exam
In the exam at the end of the final year candidates have four hours to write either an essay (dissertation) or an explication de texte, a commentary on a provided passage (my magazine has less about this option). For the dissertation there’s a choice of three topics, of which I put a sample at the top of this.

Here’s a fuller list of dissertation subjects set in recent years: LINK

The topics
The topics are great. The magazine groups them into five themes; the websites of different lycées have different arrangement, but the content is essentially the same, prescribed as it is by the government: LINK

This school site has schemes of work, lesson plans – the lot: LINK

It’s not clear to me how much the students are expected to read, but here, from the same lycée, is the prescribed list of authors, about whom the student should presumably know something and from whom they will have considered extracts:

Platon, Aristote, Épicure, Lucrèce, Sénèque, Cicéron, Épictète, Marc Aurèle, Plotin, Augustin, Averroès, Thomas d’Aquin, Ockham. Machiavel, Montaigne, Hobbes, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, Locke, Malebranche, Leibniz, Vico, Berkeley, Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant. Hegel, Schopenhauer, Tocqueville, Comte, Cournot, Stuart Mill, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Husserl, Bergson, Alain, Russel, Bachelard, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Popper, Sartre, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty.

(Those who know about these things will note a relative absence of recent Anglo-Saxon philosophers, and the inclusion of French writers who’d be unlikely to make it onto a UK curriculum.)

So what do I think?
My initial reaction was, and largely still is, what a great course: it’s about interesting ideas, it’s intellectually demanding and doesn’t underestimate what older adolescents are capable of; adolescence is the stage when, if all goes well, thinking is transformed by the capacity to handle abstraction – this gives that capability full rein. It demands an ability to write expository or argumentative prose; it takes seriously the idea that education is about reason. The topics are capable of being handled not just through the study of philosophical texts but through the sort of discussion that should be accessible to most students. In terms of humanities education, it involves the history of ideas from the Greeks to Sartre. The course seems capable of providing a broad cultural initiation, broader perhaps than anything our students get.

There can be no accusation here of the dumbing-down or anti-intellectualism that is so often attributed to English education. In France it’s unambiguously fine to be clever; and cleverness is what the philosophy bac is about.

In Britain we’re less sure what we feel about cleverness; and what it is we’re unsure about is well illustrated by what gets the high marks in the bac philo. (Samples from essays are included at the end of this entry.) Consider what’s involved in the essay or *dissertation.

Writing the Dissertation
Here’s (if your French is up to it) how you’re advised to use the four hours you get for your dissertation:

And here’s how you begin to tackle your chosen subject. You imagine you’re a little man [sic] and you literally get inside your subject: ‘With your little arms you join the terms that go together with a green rope, and you stretch a red rope between those that seem incompatible. With your little feet you give the different terms a kick to see how they react when they bump against their neighbours.’

Suppose your subject is, “Must we respect all cultures?” Then this is how you proceed:

(Note your little bonhomme at the bottom.) You tease out the contradictions and tensions until you get two alternative answers to the question: that’s your problématique. That gives you your first two main parts, which you then have to somehow resolve. Then, as you write the essay you’ll fill out the basic argument with arguments, facts, anecdotes, sayings of the philosophers etc.

What it amounts to then, so it seems to me, is performing operations on words and concepts. Given the discourse (the words and concepts from the question and from the course), you don’t need to go outside it, to experience, to common sense or indeed to your own actual reflections.

It’s as if arguments are purely structures (of words and definable ideas) that exist in their own special space and don’t have any necessary connection to your actual puzzling, agonising, living, experience and wondering.

This is to say, then, that the dissertation seems a purely rhetorical exercise, a business, in the old distinction, of dealing with words, not things (or reality). Doing well is a matter of being good with words and ideas. The advice above reminds me of nothing so much as the old rhetoric handbooks that taught you a vast array of clever ways to, well, chop logic, producing discourse by sheer manipulation of the language of the topic.

In this respect the bac philo seems a suitable preparation rather for lawyers and diplomats than the rest of us. What makes us particularly uneasy as English onlookers is perhaps that you could write a perfectly good argument and not believe a word of it. Hardly a democratic education for good citizens. Yet all citizens have to take the course.

The bac essay has this detached, disembodied character even though the topics of the course include ones that some students actually experience in their own lives as urgent and personal, ones about identity, freedom, work and relationships, for instance. For students who are struggling to find meaning in the universe, does not the bac essay seem offputtingly arid? Is this not an esoteric and artificial genre that has no existence outside the exam room? If they resemble anything at all, the model essays remind me of encyclopedia entries or textbook sections: is that what students are best learning to write? Or, if students are grappling with issues that are in part philosophical, and education is there to provide ways by which they can grapple to better effect, is this particular essay genre really the best medium we can find for them to work things out?

Not that I know what the right medium would be; though if it’s some sort of essay we have in mind, wouldn’t Hazlitt be a better model than, say, Russell (from the list of prescribed authors above)? I'm not sure what they should write, but what strikes me most forcibly is the huge gap between two sorts of student engagement: the student tackling a bac essay (pulling the terms apart, seeking contradictions etc), and the adolescent reading Camus’s L’Etranger (The Stranger or The Outsider); and I think how English teachers work to present literature not as an isolated self-contained world but as dealing, implicitly, with us and our lives.

I've recently seen Control (twice) about Ian Curtis and his late 70s Manchester group Joy Division. Curtis was a troubled, clever adolescent who read (see Jon Savage on him in yesterday’s Guardian: ‘Controlled Chaos’ – can’t find it on the website). In so far as the help he needed could have been had from education (if he’d stayed on), would the *bac philo have done the job? Well, there’s no knowing – he had intellectual tastes as well as powerful emotional thirsts – but I suspect he would have found most of it dryly academic and irrelevant.

That’s not quite true. He read Nietzsche and would probably have got a lot out of Sartre and some of the moderns, in terms of relevance to his own situation. But would the form of the bac essay given him the possibility of working through what these books and ideas meant to him? Or just of using them as the material from which to construct a judicious, elegant argument?

I'm genuinely not sure about this. Curtis might well have engaged in a serious and academically valid way with, say, Kant; and who knows how many kids in Britain might not be thirsting for an educational experience that’s so thrillingly cerebral and so little demanding of self-expression, sincerity and personal response.

I certainly have a lot more time for an education in rhetoric than I ever did as an English teacher, and I think there’s much to be said for including courses that are, precisely, detached and impersonal. (I'm very much in favour, too, of everyone who can benefit having an introduction to philosophy.) Education isn’t only, or perhaps primarily, for the sake of making personal sense of the world; it’s also about the knowledge and intellectual skills needed for functioning in the world, and ones that a person might choose to inhabit as a satisfying domain having little to do with the rest of one’s ‘real life’.

I'd like to know the bac philo works in reality, across the range of students. Can it really be a central element in a broad education for all 17-18-year-olds?

Examples of student dissertations
The magazine prints some model answers and some actual student essays, with comments. I think the approach both of the students and the markers reflects how I've characterised this exercise.

First, two pages (not sequential) from a model essay
Then an actual, less praised essay – again, not the whole thing:

Student videos about the bac philo

Google ‘bac philo’ and you’ll come up with any amount of stuff, including course guides and videos made by students. For instance, some at LINK, e.g. LINK

Other links
Some of this basic stuff about the French education system comes from a site on classics teaching: LINK

Link to

No comments: