What a Greek teacher can do for his students

A look at France

by Rita Müller-Hill

There are a multitude of assumptions and attempted explanations that work towards an understanding of the unrest in France. They range from complete failure of the state to drug trafficking on a large scale. There have been problems in the suburbs for 40 years, all governments have always talked a lot but done nothing.
  However, one aspect is mentioned in almost all comments: the social injustice and inequality that has intensified in the last decades and has become visible in the yellow vest movement and the long protest movement against the pension reform. And school plays a central role among the multiple causes. It is obviously failing as an “ascenseur social” (social lift – opportunity for social advancement), since the many “school failures” without prospects can be manipulated and instrumentalised by all kinds of manipulators, especially the drug dealers who apparently make the “laws” in the suburbs. And there are also the hate preachers of the jihad.

What is going wrong with the schools?

Shortly after the attacks of January 2015 (Bataclan, Charlie Hebdo), teachers of a lycée1 from Aubervilliers published a text that ended with the sentence: “We are the parents of three murderers.”2
  Augustin d’Humières, for 20 years a Latin and Greek teacher at a “lycée” (a grammar school) in a suburban town in the Seine and Marne department, said in an interview with “Le Figaro”3 that reading this text made him think that these young radicalised Frenchmen had spent ten times more time on the school benches of the republic than in any other place. He wondered what tools the school had given these young Frenchmen to defend themselves against the powers that instrumentalise them and use them for criminal purposes. Do they have a language at their disposal? Have they come into contact with texts that might have been able to teach them values? Have they had to prove themselves in arguments and debates? Do they know some pertinent dates? What about their vocabulary? For so many young French people to become receptive to these violent, hopeless, primitive speeches, they must have been completely defenceless before. What benchmarks do students have when they leave school?
  For d’Humières, the breeding ground of fundamentalism is first of all the ignorance of thousands of students who have nothing up their sleeves to resist manipulators. In his opinion, this failure is due to the schools by way of the curricula, the regulations and instructions, timetables, through the way teachers are recruited, through the reduction of hours for basic subjects and the multiplication of new subjects, through the amount of time and importance given to just any projects and the completely arbitrary experimentation left to chance.
  All this has resulted in a system that aims to teach nothing precise, that only makes the hatred and anger worse through the distance between what it pretends to be and what it actually is. “For this school system was designed, structured, organised so that the student would learn as little as possible.”4
  Teaching seems to d’Humières like a martial art, not directed against the students, who in his opinion and experience have an unbroken hunger for learning, but against ministry orders, pedagogical experiments, illogical decisions made by the respective minister, such as the quasi-prohibition of letting a student repeat a class, because in this way the costs per student can be reduced.5 The proposal to ban homework because it is supposedly a reason for unequal opportunities, is also counterproductive. If parents cannot afford supervision, and that is no small part of social inequality, a remedy must be found.
  This is why after-school homework support was organised, at Augustin d’Humière’s suggestion, and this is attended by 300 students (primary, secondary and grammar school students).
  D’Humières himself continues to teach Homer and Villon, Seneca and Proust – “texts that are our treasure, our ‘mineral oil’”. His two books are impressive in their intrepidity and courage. They point to a viable, realistic path with a chance of success. They are books from the practice of a teacher who cares about his students, who understands the importance of his subject and who assesses school policies with common sense. In his first book, “Homère et Shakespeare en banlieue” (Homer and Shakespeare in the Suburbs), Augustin d’Humières describes his experiences as a teacher of “lettres classiques” (Greek, Latin and French).6 In 2017, in “Un petit fonctionnaire” (A Lowly Civil Servant), he deals with the teachers’ responsibility, the sensitivities of the college, the situation of a teacher who “steps out of line”.
  In “Homère et Shakespeare en banlieue”, Augustin d‘Humières describes how, “contre vents et marées” (storm tides), he revives the teaching of Greek in a lycée in a so-called “banlieue” in the Seine et Marne department. The most violent storms and floods the author faces come less from the students than from the school bureaucracy, the headmaster, the teachers’ unions, the colleagues. He has the parents on his side and, once they have decided in favour of Greek, the students. D’Humières is convinced that students want to learn if you let them, if you give them the framework.
  The difficulties he encounters are the following: His Greek classes are confined to the last lesson on Fridays, colleagues leave the teachers’ room when he enters it, the director forbids him to advertise Greek during enrolment in his school.
  In general, there is a laisser-faire pedagogical attitude. The students are basically unpunctual. The number of absences is gigantic.
  Parents who want their children to learn something and who understand the connection between school and social success try to find another school as soon as possible. Teachers change all the time. Young teachers who have just come from the academy are assigned to the most difficult classes.
  When Augustin d’Humières begins to promote his Greek classes, he is repeatedly asked the question of “usefulness”. Why should students who have already failed to learn to read and write properly in primary school now learn Greek? They will, if they are lucky, be sitting at the checkout in a supermarket or be found in sales somewhere, so what is the point of Greek?
  He has two of the most important French Graecists on his side. Time and again, they publicly advocate the teaching of ancient languages and of what these languages convey in terms of culture and philosophy: Jacqueline de Romilly and Jean-Pierre Vernant, coming from opposite political directions. D’Humières is convinced of his cause. He knows what he can convey to the students by teaching the ancient languages. He counters the argument that “students leave school without knowing French properly” by stating that the old languages remind us of the history of words, of the background of their orthography, of how their meaning changes over time. To the objection that “students have problems with foreign languages”, he counters: “The old languages remind us of the common etymology of the various modern languages.” And: “The ancient languages allow us to approach at a distance and in peace important topics, like religion and life as a citizen.” They are what it all began with: the birth of philosophy and tragedy. The ancient texts encourage us to think about life, death, happiness, time, power, democracy, the republic, religions.
  And: in Greek lessons, every student starts at the same point.
  This is very important for those students who are otherwise always behind linguistically. Here, everyone is at the same level: they start from scratch.
  Augustin d’Humières’ judgement of the school is scathing. He sees that it no longer fulfils its most fundamental tasks: To educate citizens, to impart knowledge, to prepare students for professional life. Students leave school completely defenceless, with an approximate command of French, a foreign language babble, a virtually non-existent education in history, science, literature and philosophy.
  So how to deal with the curricula when the prerequisites for their implementation do not exist? Put them aside. First of all, find out where the students stand, where they have their gaps, which they have often brought with them from primary school?
  The huge gap between the few good schools, even primary schools, and all the others becomes clear here. As an example of the inequality of schools and the respect shown to the student as a learner, the author describes the following.7 Augustin d’Humières, who himself spent his school years at the prestigious Henri IV grammar school in Paris, imagines how the following incident would have been handled there: A student informs him in the corridor that the class cannot come to Greek lessons because they are going on an excursion with their CPE8. The students are allowed to be present at the filming of a cooking programme. What would happen at the Henri IV or Louis Le Grand9? A CPE who came up with this idea two months before the baccalaureate would be dismissed immediately.10 In the suburban grammar school, the CPE is congratulated by his superior: “We have projects, we are teeming with ideas, something is moving, we are open to the world ... This teeming grammar school becomes the one that offers the fewest lessons but shines on the surface. There are grammar schools where the producer of the cooking show is trained, those where the cook is trained and finally those where the audience of the show is trained. And that is us. This is then called the social differentiation of teaching. Isn’t that brilliant?”11

“For this school was intended, structured,
organised so that students would
learn as little as possible”12

The discussion of the books could end here, if it were not for Mêtis13, the clever ruse.
  Augustin d’Humières succeeded in making Greek and Latin popular subjects14 at his school again. It is a pleasure to read the dialogues with his students rendered in the book.
  He wins over former students who go to the collèges with him and advertise the teaching of Greek and Latin. (He is not allowed to show up at his own school for enrolments). So he makes round trips with his troupe in the catchment area of the lycée.
  He founds the association “Mêtis”, students and pensioners help students. Homework supervision, theatre performances, excursions and trips are on the programme.15
  With the help of former friends from the theatre world in Paris, he succeeds in performing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The rehearsals are an ordeal, but a week before the premiere, all the students are there. No one is missing, they are all on time, they know their lines, they reflect on their roles, they are happy.
  These students can express what this class, what Greek means to them. They are successful in their studies and careers. Yet they are children of the suburbs who had no other perspective than to loiter at the foot of their apartment towers, take on odd jobs, be abused as errand boys for dealers and run into the arms of the jihad.

Student voices

Sikem Hamdaoui: After three years of Greek, I was not disappointed. It helped me to open my mind, to educate myself, to travel in history, as well as in the other subjects and to make the many trips that were organised. These three years were memorable. You learn an infinite amount in just two lessons a week.

Morad Saouti: At the beginning, it didn’t seem very attractive to me; I had prejudices against Greek. But then I realised that the lessons were very enriching, especially in terms of culture. Studying philosophers like Plato or Socrates brings knowledge that is also useful for other subjects.

Sajo Drame: I am in the first year of my medical studies. There is not a single lesson that does not contain Greek words. Clearly, it becomes much easier for the person who has learnt Greek when you have to remember key words.  •

1 The lycée comprises grades ten to twelve. There are two basic types, the general education lycée and the vocational lycée.
2 Le Monde, 13 January 2015
3 Le Figaro, 7 April 2017
4 Augustin d’Humières, Un petit fonctionnaire, ed. Grasset 2017, p. 24
5 Un petit fonctionnaire, p. 81
6 Editions Grasset 2009
7 Un petit fonctionnaire, p. 104
8 Conseiller Principal d’éducation: the CPE is responsible for the practical running of school life, maintains contact with pupils and teachers.
9 Parisian elite school
10 Un petit fonctionnaire, p. 104
11 see above, p. 105
12 see above, p. 24
13 Mêtis is the first wife of Zeus, father of the gods. Since she was his rival because of her cunning cleverness and farsightedness, he wanted to internalise these attributes instead of simply getting rid of her. So he consumed her.
14 In 2015, Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, tried to deal a death blow to the old languages with her reform of the Collège. Latin and Greek lessons were reduced to one and two hours per week respectively.
15 Internet address of Mêtis: www.operationmetis.com. Here you can see the programme and the students’ comments.

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