Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

President Sarkozy yesterday addressed a letter (long version) to the schoolteachers of France in which he expressed the hope that la culture générale could be restored to a central place in the curriculum. So presumably students will be asked to spend less time studying the semiotics of advertising and more time on classics such as Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. This proposal is particularly à propos, since Dominique de Villepin has just recommended Molière's play as essential to an understanding of the Sarkozy "court": "This is the country of Molière," he said, "let's not be taken in as to what's really going on. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is a play that must be seen and re-seen." All this by way of constructive criticism, mind you: "I was in a government in which Nicolas Sarkozy was constantly saying that what was needed was more spirited debate. He was right, and I'm the one who's now playing the role of gadfly to a majority that mustn't rest on its laurels." This is all the more necessary, he said, because "there is no longer any opposition."

Bold words for a man who may soon be facing trial in a case in which the president of the Republic (a.k.a. le bourgeois gentilhomme) is among les parties civiles against l'aristocrate à particule de Villepin--an interesting conundrum for constitutional lawyers and intertextual literary theorists.


Anonymous said...

The problem with the French concept of culture générale is that it is essentially based on rote learning: on knowing what a specific name relates to, or the capitals of countries, or what happened on a specific date.

What the French need more of is reading; reading their own classics, and those of other countries. My son is in lycée, and the few books they read are relatively banal, unchallenging, and very short. He's never been assigned anything of more than about 200 pages, and hardly any real classical French literature (aside from Candide). Granted, he's not in a literary filière, but that's no excuse.

In my more than two decades living in France, including seven years teaching EFL (English as a foreign language) to executives, I have been astounded by the general vacuousness of French people (and, again, these were well-educated executives). Very few people read (and I don't count those who read Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code), most cultural references that come only from television.

Living in the country now, we have several teachers among our friends, and many of them don't even read. The French are losing touch with their heritage, and it's a shame, because they have a very strong literary culture.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Dear Anonymous,
Thanks for your comment. There is much to be said about the notion of general culture, and I don't think that the struggle to define it is limited to France, even if the term is uniquely French. The conflict between the specialized knowledge of various disciplines and what is supposed to be the defining core of national identity is not a trivial one. I don't think that general culture today can be conflated with literary culture, the term that you introduce at the end of your comment. General culture requires, beyond a passing familiarity with supposed literary classics, knowledge of mathematics, natural science, and social sciences. Finding time to accommodate these competing demands at a suitable level of intensity is a formidable task. French students already spend more hours in school per year than children in other European countries (with the exception of Italy). So while I share your concern with the decline of literary culture, I think it's only part of a much larger puzzle. I find Sarkozy's letter long on generalities and full of contradictions on more specific matters. It is educational theology, not educational policy. But I think his purpose was not so much to make policy as to place yet another presidential imprint on yet another "dossier."

Gregory Brown said...

On behalf of Moliere scholars everywhere, I can only add "tarte a la creme, Nicolas, tarte a la creme!"

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Bien dit, M. le duc de La Feuillade. But seriously, there is the question of Monsieur Sarkozy's culture générale. He doesn't make much of a show of literary taste. Yasmina Reza has some sport with his fawning over bestselling author Marc Lévy. Sarko accuses her of literary snobbery for turning up her nose at Lévy, who sells more books than both of them combined. And I don't think Reza ever catches him with a book in hand. (Yes, dear reader, I confess that I've read the Reza, which has alas contributed little to my culture générale; if one absolutely must have the up-close-and-personal-with-power read, I much prefer Régis Debray's Loués soient nos seigneurs. Reza not the need, as the Bard might say.)