01-01-2006 - Traces, n.1
Alain Finkielkraut

At School with
a Terminal Realist

Against the materialist transformation of education, the French philosopher speaks about the theme of education, the situation of school today, the role of reason, the risks of purely pragmatic instruction, appreciation for the relationship between pupil and master, and the habit of mind that forms judgements

edited by Rodolfo Casadei and Flora Crescini

Alain Finkielkraut, the French intellectual recently in a whirlwind of controversy in the international press over some of his opinions on the Parisian banlieu (suburbs), participated in the meeting of Milan’s Cultural Center on November 29, 2005, entitled, “We, the moderns.” On this occasion, Traces interviewed him.

In your book, We, the moderns, you trace the parabola of the modern world that leads to post-modern relativism and individualism. What of education, in our world that is both modern and post-modern? Is education still possible in the sense understood by Hannah Arendt, that is, integration of newborns into the world that was already there before them, and transmission of knowledge?
This question shouldn’t be given too categorical an answer, but let’s admit it: school no longer feels at home in today’s world.
School seems increasingly more like an exception, an eccentric notion, and an anachronism.
Modernity gave great importance to school, but today school seems anti-modern. A chasm has opened up between it and society; school and society no longer speak the same language. School talks about patience and anamnesis; society speaks of instantaneousness and immediate gratification. There is a great temptation to abandon the preservation or the reinforcement of the scholastic exception, to end it, to regulate school according to the regime of society–a totally profane school that functions with the same rhythms and obeys the same values as society. The remnants of liberal education succumb to the useful and the immediate; what remains of transmission succumbs to communication.
What most disturbs me is the resignation of the institution itself. After all, one can understand that school would have difficulties, that it would have difficult relationships with the rest of the world; this is explainable. The problem is that the institution itself refuses to defend itself; all the reforms conceived in these years, prepared in collusion with the school itself, aim at an increasing de-scholasticization of the school, to replace the scholastic culture with a common culture modelled on adaptation, adaptation to the market, to the social climate, to the dominant values of the immediate and the useful; adaptation, finally, to the needs of the pupil–who is no longer called “pupil” in modern jargon, but “young person.” I find this lexical innovation very revealing. In an institution there are pupils, because the pupil is the partner in the institutional “game.” There are pupils because there are masters. Pupils are “elevated” within the perimeter of a school; they are not led anywhere else. “Young person” is a generic term used in all situations of life, and therefore it contributes to dissolving the scholastic institution into the social. And if there are no longer pupils, but young people, then there are no longer masters, but animators and instructors. Albert Thibaudet, writing about the Third Republic, spoke of “a republic of professors;” the twenty-first century in France is seeing the birth of the “republic of instructors.”

Today, when we read the recommendations on education that the European Union submits to the member nations, we see a great deal about mathematical skills, study of sociology, and “learning to learn.” What is behind this materialist change in education?
The goal of teaching used to be knowledge. Culture had to be an end in itself. One does not go to school in order to be hired; one goes to school to be “cultivated.” Today this meaning is falling into oblivion, especially in the heart of the great worldwide bureaucracy, of which UNESCO is the crown jewel.
Math skills and sociology: we are dealing here with a pragmatic vision of school and of intelligence. For that matter, the ascent of sociology is one of the numerous manifestations of the advent of the reign of the immediate. Sociology looks at society as it is right now; it develops to the detriment of history. The first and greatest of the sociologists, Auguste Comte, said that society is composed more of the dead than of the living; contemporary sociology is composed and develops around the living alone. Once, culture was deep down a kind of veneration of the great dead; now, we are getting rid of this religion to the benefit of a common feeling, a kind of existence in which only the living are considered alive. We tend to forget the dead and what we owe them; school used to be the battle against this oblivion; now school does not battle any more, but participates in the generalized forgetfulness of the dead.

At the academic year inauguration for Catholic University in Italy, Benedict XVI said that reason has been reduced to experiment, and in this way the fundamental questions of the life of man, life and death, have been cast outside the space of reason. What do you think?
I would say that, in effect, modernity developed most of all as a space of experimentation. In other words, one of the effects of the Enlightenment was to substitute expertise for experience. On the other hand, modernity finds itself entrapped: with Descartes it wanted to submit reason to method, but method built a world that, for many aspects, eludes it. It is a world where technology produces, where one is immersed in uncertainty, and where risks proceed from technology itself, much more than from external nature. Hence, man’s need for method, to rediscover the virtues of prudence; the world of method has become uncontrollable and uncertain, demanding of us what the Greeks called fronesis, that is, practical wisdom adapted to the particularity of the cases, to resolve the problems man finds himself facing.

Whether dealing with physical education or intellectual education, it seems that the problem is the same: the pragmatic habit of mind. Today, is it possible to think of an education that is not purely pragmatic, that is open to reality and lets it speak?
It is possible, because in any case tradition proposes it to us. But it requires masters and pupils who can understand it.
The problem is: does today’s world have a place for passion and ascesis? I would like to add something else: one of the difficulties that school encounters today has to do with the development and the self-absorption of the passion for equality. This is the passion that dominates us all; but school represents an exception to the case. In order for the transmission of knowledge to take place, an asymmetry must be acknowledged–between the pupil and the master, and also between the pupil and the works. A capacity to admire must be developed, not simply that of respecting the dignity of each person. There is need for the capacity to admire the superiority of someone else. Few realize that the democratic respect we hear continually invoked is killing admiration. And if there is no longer a place for admiration, then humanistic teaching, liberal teaching is no longer possible. Today, the prevailing tendency is to consider as humiliating not only the bad grades one can receive, but the pupils’ comparison, in their imperfection, with the crushing beauty of the great works of humanity. The current tendency is toward levelling, in the name of equality. Evidently, this levelling is fatal for school, or for culture at school, at any rate.

During your conference in Milan on November 29th, you said that today’s school gives pupils leave to speak before giving them language. Why this defeat of language in today’s world?
In effect, I believe that all of modern pedagogy is founded on the principle of expression. Its imperative is to overcome the inhibitions of which the pupils are victims, and put them in the condition to be able to express themselves. It’s the terminal stage of subjectivism: we are all capable of thinking autonomously; this is the beautiful fundamental principle of the Enlightenment. Today, however, this principle has run amuck; while the Enlightenment distinguished between adults and children, currently the principle of autonomy is applied to everyone immediately, children included. So with an idiotic generosity, school claims to give pupils leave to speak, before giving them language, forgetting that nobody thinks by himself about himself, but only within a world that precedes and transcends us and, above all, within a verbal world. It is of crucial importance that all men be able to inhabit this verbal world. Because the more you have someone speak, the more you help that person see; the quality of our gaze depends on the quality of our syntax. One must give a name to what one sees in order to be able to see it. It is necessary to process and deconstruct sensations in order to have sensations; the quality of our receptivity depends on the quality of our language. Instead, the logic of expressiveness above all else leads to giving leave to speak to those who do not have a language. This tragedy is especially felt in France, where the French language is being lost; ever fewer French can speak their own language–television, that is, the tele-reality of talk shows, shows it. It is a national catastrophe.

Thought, language, gaze: everything leads to judgment. For you, what is judgment?
Here, we must turn to Hannah Arendt: thought must lead to judgment. That is, one cannot judge in just any way; judgment must be illuminated. In short, it is necessary to be able to distinguish, oppose, and order hierarchically. One of the goals of education should be that of developing attention to scrupulous judgment, and thus also developing this habit of mind, as Simone Weil said. But in reality, culture today draws on banalized Christianity to say “do not judge.” And “do not judge” becomes the catchword of tolerance. This is the challenge we live today: the frightening antagonism between judgment and tolerance, because judging is discriminating.
What are we incessantly invited and exhorted to do? To reject all discrimination. And thus to set up death as a model, in the name of tolerance, because death makes everyone equal, and it is the great equalizer. Nobody can equal it in egalitarianism. In order to be faithful to its principle of openness and tolerance, our era advances ever closer to death. And it is the end.

Life and works
edited by Anna Leonardi

Alain Finkielkraut was born in Paris in 1949, the only child of a Jewish-Polish merchant, who was deported to Auschwitz. Finkielkraut earned a degree in philosophy, aligning himself with the thought of Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt. Currently, he teaches at the Polytechnic School in Paris as Professor of the History of Ideas, in the Human and Social Sciences Department.
At the end of the 1970s, he began writing with Pascal Bruckner some brief essays on the failure of the apparent emancipation of morality: Le Nouveau Désordre amoureux (1977) and Au Coin de la rue l’aventure (1979). Subsequently, breaking this collaboration, he concentrated on the loss of collective memory and the indifference in the face of events that involve society. This reflection led him to deal with the issue of Jewish identity after the Holocaust, Le Juif imaginair (1983). Anxious to defend the importance of memory, he published Avenir d’une négation: réflexion sur la question du génocide (1982) and then a commentary on the trial of the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, La Mémoire vaine.
La Sagesse de l’amour is a tribute to the phenomenology philosopher Emmanuel Levinas; Finkielkraut viewed himself as Levinas’s disciple, having revised some of his foundational works. In 2001, he published Internet, l’inquiétante extase, in which he commented on the risks of the age of telecommunication. His reflections on the intellectual’s role and the mirages of modernity gave rise to numerous publications, including La Défaite de la pensée (1987) and Ingratitude: conversation sur notre temps (1999). Profoundly engaged, he vehemently denounced contemporary society’s barbarities and passive abandonment to events, touching upon the great questions of the international scene, such as the Balkan crisis and the terrorist attacks of September 11th in L’Imparfait du présent (2002). In November 2005, he was the center of controversy for publishing in Haaretz, the prestigious daily newspaper of the Israeli left, an interview on the riots in the French suburbs, which he attributed to the protesters’ ethnic and religious differences–opinions that, according to Fienkielkraut’s critics, underlie a dangerous racism.