Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Reform of the Collège

To listen to the polemics raging in France these days about the reform of the collège proposed by education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, you'd think the very basis of civilization was at stake. The most contested reforms, involving the teaching of Latin and Greek and dual-language classes in French and German, are really rather minor, as this article makes clear. Clearly, it is not the reforms themselves that have provoked such passion but what they are taken to symbolize: namely, a "downward leveling" of the public educational system and an attack on "elitism." Questions of "national identity" are also involved, especially in the accusation that less time will be devoted to the history of Christianity and the Enlightenment and more to Islam and non-European cultures.

There is no question that the French educational system is elitist, but its elitism remains firmly entrenched at the top of the system, in the Grandes Ecoles. The collèges, or middle schools, are hardly the place to begin an attack on the ills that stem from the rapid narrowing of the educational pyramid. French students need better preparation in (living) foreign languages, and the proposed reform seems intended to extend that better preparation to a larger number of pupils. As for Latin and Greek, those who want to study them--and their number is relatively small--will still be able to do so.

History programs everywhere must face the challenge that "the world" has grown larger in recent decades. It is no longer enough to concentrate on Europe alone, or "the West." Curricular adjustments will have to be made. The proposed middle-school reforms may not strike the optimal balance, but they are not yet set in stone, and the debate inaugurated by the ministry makes a necessary start. Defenders of the status quo should ask themselves if they really believe the status quo leaves out nothing essential.