“To deny students the important literary texts means depriving them of their identity”

Interview by Alexandre Devecchio, “Le Figaro”, with Barbara Lefebvre*

The demise of the French school is an issue which is a little hackneyed. However, the recently published book by Barbara Lefebvre goes well beyond commonplaces. In the book “Génération ‘j‘ai le droit’ – la faillite de notre éducation” [“Generation ‘I have the right’ – the failure of our school”], the author and high school teacher picks up topics such as the withdrawal of the parents, the multicultural wrong ways of our assimilation model or the political instrumentalisation of the subject history. She provides an impressive analysis of the crisis of authority in our ultra-individualistic society.
When Barbara Lefebvre took up her first year of teaching in a secondary school [grades 7 to 9] in Sarcelles – a region with increased educational needs – she had no idea what to expect. Her passion for transmitting knowledge and her enthusiasm to pass on the joy of history to the students, in order to bring them closer to the world, were soon shattered by reality. She writes: “The daily reality corresponded to what was systematically created by the ‘Uprooters’ day after day by making the local little teachers, like myself, believe that they participate in the great republican work. We were just the small employees of the big uprooting machine, whose goal is to eradicate culture and history out of the hearts and minds of the new generations.”
The book “Génération ‘j’ai le droit’” is the carefully worded angry report of this disillusionment and, at the same time, a further reflection on the failure of a misguided belief in progress that has led to irresponsible individualism.
The author – co-author of “Les territoires perdus de la République” [“The lost territories of the Republic”] and “Une France soumise” [“France in hostage”] – combines with great skill personal experiences and philosophical considerations. “Our unlimited passion for individual freedom, paired with the passion of equality distorted in egalitarianism, has led to the disappearance of the ‘we’ in favor of the almighty ‘I’, only claiming and not tolerating any contradiction”, in the words of the author’s analysis, who now wants to commit herself to the education of disabled children.

Le Figaro: Your book is entitled “Génération ‘j’ai le droit’”. Why this title?

Barbara Lefebvre: This title is the result of what I heard from many parents and colleagues complaining about the children’s and students’ permanent opposition to their authority. The individualistic “I” is overtrumping the “we” of the common good. In this omnipotent individual’s view, the other does not only have the sole role of fulfilling my needs, but apparently there does not exist any authority which has the right to tell me something what to do.

What do you answer to those who, especially in the field of liberty, see progress in this extension of individual rights?

I would like to state that I distinguish between the respect for fundamental human rights, which must comply with the adult to the child and the claims for special rights that contradict the common good. Thus, liberty is not to be equated with the absolute satisfaction of what the individual considers to be his right. Similarly, respect for minorities does not mean to concede special rights to them that separate them from society. The unlimited desire for liberty characterising the western civilization since Renaissance times has led to the individual’s development. But there is an abyss between the recognition of each person’s uniqueness, testified, for example, in Montaigne’s work, and the childish individualism of our time. The child as a king who wants to “live free and to enjoy free from restraints” – to quote a well-known slogan from the 1968s. Liberty always has limits, and it is up to the adults to set and embody them. If the adult abdicates his responsibility, this leads to the child’s lack of understanding towards any social imperative and thus to a constant frustration or even to violence.

This individualistic revolution, which you describe as a change of civilisation, has developed in school. How was this reversal done? Who are the “destroyers of the school”?

It is the ideologues of deconstruction, the destruction of institutional authority in the name of freedom in its libertarian falsification, and equality in its levelling down and dumbing down. Developed at the time of the “Beat Generation” in the American universities of the 1950s, this development became the dominant ideology two decades later in order to result in today’s liberal-libertarian political correctness. This dogma understood itself as revolutionary. However, it has completely adapted to globalised ultra-liberalism and identitarian communitarianism – the two gravediggers of our civilisation model. The “destroyers” have been situated at the switchboard of the French education [Education nationale] since the time of Alain Peyrefitte [Minister of Education under Georges Pompidou during the student riots of 1968, translator’s note] and spread a pedagogical doctrine of salvation nicely packaged with expert opinions. An army of gentlemen of the sort Homais [figure from the novel “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert: Apothecary of the eponymous heroine’s husband, who carries out a risky operation on a patient in his blind belief in the progress of science, which leads to a disaster, translator’s note] who exercise their authorisation to teach in the service of “progress.” They insist that authority is a synonym of authoritarianism and that culture is a dangerous weapon of Western bourgeois dominance.

So in your eyes, it is all about a crisis of authority?

To a large extend, yes. The legitimate authority of the teacher given to a person or an institution by society has been called into question. Once one challenges the representative of that authority, one allows the child or student to disregard it, to disobey it, to believe, it is his right to attribute authority to a third party, who in his eyes is more legitimate, or else to be his own boss. The child, because of his intellectual and emotional immaturity, needs someone to guide him in his search for autonomy and freedom.
You have to let it be felt that the reality of the world is made up of constraints and frustrations and that a truly free adult overcomes them without feeling constantly hurt in his rights! The act of teaching, because of its verticality, has been described by some people as an act of violence against the student. Nevertheless, within school, authority is the opposite of domination: the goal of the teacher is to impart knowledge to the student in order to enable him to become self-sufficient, gradually to break away from that authority. Anyway, it has been possible to convince parents and even teachers that school is a place of cultural arbitrariness and institutional violence. When teachers internalise this ideological rejection of their authority, they do not realise that this jeopardises the very core of their task and destroys the content of the lesson.

At the time of the experiments of the ‘68 generation you were a student and at the end of the nineties you were a teacher …

Most of my teachers were very experienced and practised a thorough lesson. The heresy about the autonomy of the student obviously left them cold. I learned to read according to the syllabic method. During my entire elementary school, I had lessons in spelling and grammar, separate from teaching in reading comprehension or writing. There was homework, conjugations or multiplication tables had to be memorised, classical poems recited, books, and not just excerpts of them, were read! There was no culture of impunity for most of my primary school teachers. Students had to use the formal form to address the teachers today the familiar “Du” is in common use. When I became a teacher, I did not feel tied to the pedagogical hocus-pocus that the IUFM [Instituts universitaires de formation des maîtres = educational colleges] attempted to enforce. For me, the talk of these experts in “educational science” was the living expression of stupidity as described by Flaubert: earnest in the name of the progress of the masses, presumptuous, dogmatic truths proclaiming and pretending to serve the rational mind.

You have gained your first teaching experience in hot spot schools in Sarcelles, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine and Colombes. So you had no ideological prejudices …

I didn’t only have any prejudice, but I really wanted to teach in such schools. Precisely because school has to fulfill its task especially with regard to students from educationally disadvantaged social classes, who have the least access to classical education.
What struck me immediately was the impunity, the missing of consequences concerning the lack of discipline or hand­ling of absences from which students benefited. The administration and some colleagues have lost their role as responsible adults. Everything was negotiable. They bought themselves social peace from ten or twenty leaders who had taken control of the school‘s social life. Suffice a small minority that exerts constant pressure to achieve the subjugation of the majority. I was appalled to hear some colleagues or principals downplaying racist and anti-Semitic insults, sexist or homophobic behavior by referring  these to cultural idiosyncrasies: „That‘s the way they are at home, what should one do against it?“ I never could accept that. I experienced this as a frontal attack on the republican school‘s mission and as a contempt for the whole of the students and their families, who were condemned to live under the yoke of an uneducated and oppressive minority. Today we can see how far in some areas this minority has already enforced their patterns of behavior and their segregative principles. These areas are culturally lost. This was the motive for our book from 2002 entitled “The Lost Territories of the Republic” …
You emphasise the importance of literature for mediating culture. Is it possible to teach the important texts in these “lost areas of the republic”?
It should be possible to teach it, but here as well as in other areas these lessons have been made impossible, except in some specially sponsored public showpiece schools. Since the beginning of my professional career I have realised that the problem was primarily learning French. I describe this in detail in the book because it is, in my opinion, essential. As several studies have shown, mass illiteracy is the result of methods and theories that, under the pretext of “equal opportunities” and autonomy of the student, have exacerbated inequalities. Instead of questioning their teaching methods, these experts prefer to pathologise students struggling with difficulties! The current acculturation is the result of a lack of instruction in the French language, because pedagogism dismissed a thorough teaching of spelling and grammar by flooding the whole with insubstantial theoretical concepts. Gone are the past tenses of the “passé simple” (past historic) and the “plus-que parfait“ (past perfect).  About 600 hours of French lessons have been lost in elementary school since the early 1970s, while at the same time linguistics have transformed school grammar into an incomprehensible jargon. Likewise literature is taught in a technical and cold manner, as if it were natural sciences. Students should be given the pleasure of reading again from the earliest age, but that is impossible if they can not understand the deciphered … France is a literary nation. To prevent students from getting to know the literature, to immerse oneself in the great works, from Rabelais to Flaubert to Racine and Colette, means depriving them of their civic identity. I think you get to know and love your country by getting to know its great authors. This is even a peculiarity of the French identity, that it is completely contained in its literature.

You are a history teacher. According to you, education in this subject has been abused for ideological purposes. What are they?

History and the teaching of history have always been at the centre of important political and civilising issues. However, amongst teachers there is significant discord as far as teaching of history as well as French are concerned. The media mocks those who advocate for the “national novel” as an important national narrative as nostalgic reactionaries. In fact, those “anti-reactionary” historians and activists are hypocrites because they are fully aware that any historic scripture in itself is a report of the past. History always has to be renewed, always has to be rewritten. They only accuse the “national novel” of being but a collection of clichés in order to be able to replace it with another national or – more accurately – another post national novel.
Their statements are intended to reduce history’s complexity to a dualistic point of view: Governing/governed, executioner/victim, victor/defeated. The teleological point of view of history in no way aligns with my own view – it neither serves progress nor an utopian idea. If you teach history, you don’t teach metaphysics but an undogmatic presentation of the past. As far as content is concerned, history education in schools has to be diligent and thorough, but it is not meant to let the students participate in research by going through trial and error. It has to contribute to develop students into future citizens who share a common culture and history. However, the common denominator is excluded and the teaching of history is demoted to being a hostage of identities and memories that all demand their rights and fight in fierce and often radical competition.

What’s your take on Jean Michel Blanquer’s appointment to National Minister of Education? Can one minister win the cultural fight that takes place in schools?

One minister is not almighty. How long will he be in office? But he can achieve a lot with the manner in which he communicates and through the counsellors that he surrounds himself with. We all witnessed the catastrophic effects under his predecessor Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. I think that Mr Blanquer is willing to give school back the meaning of its original purpose: to convey culturally and scientifically challenging knowledge within a safe framework that includes all students. There’s a lot to do, especially in teacher’s education. Xavier Darcos, (Minister of Education from 2007 to 2009) worked toward that goal albeit without the support of the executive branch at the time. I hope that it will be different for Mr Blanquer, if he’s serious and the wrath and resistance of pedagogists is unleashed. Within the national education system there is a lot of people who have zero interest in changing the system! He will have to fight against this kind of conservatism that pretends to be progressive. However, I do think that he is in harmony with a large number of teachers who do their best and with parents who would love to trust in the republic’s school again.

* Barbara Lefebvre is upper school teacher of geography and history. She is co-author of the books “Les territoires perdus de la République” (The lost territories of the Republic) and “Une France soumise” (France in hostage). She regularly publishes columns on these questions and comments undauntedly also in radio and television programs. Her latest book is “Génération ‘j’ai le droit’ – la faillite de notre éducation” (Generation ‘I have the right’ – the failure of our school).

Source: ©Alexandre Devecchio, “Le Figaro” from 19 January 2018

(Translation Current Concerns)