Monday, June 16, 2008

Desire and Suffering

"Can one desire without suffering?" This was one of the questions on this year's bac in philosophy. France for a long time made philosophy the center of its educational curriculum. The history, from the Napoleonic era to the present, is briefly recounted here, although the extremely important influence of Victor Cousin is omitted entirely (for that story, see Jan Goldstein's book). Lately, however, the bac en philo has come under increasing attack. For some, it makes no sense in the era of massification, as Le Monde puts it. Of course la massification de l'éducation is just another name for democratization, and I think that equating democratization with degradation and falling standards is a rather loaded way of putting the problem.

To be sure, if one watches the video of students at the Lycée Condorcet emerging from the test (scroll to bottom for video), it's hard to imagine any of these young people having much of interest to say on the question of desire and suffering. But the real story is not whether the "massified" student is more or less mature than those who sat for the bac in the 19th century. It was (I think) Tolstoy who wrote that "the aristocrat takes gratis from life what the commoner must spend his first thirty years acquiring." These young students may know more about desire and suffering in 10 years' time than they know now. But already the educational system is sending them the message that they need not bother their heads with such fluff: the "coefficient" of the philo grade may be 7 on the literary bac, but it is only 4 on the econ-soc bac and 3 on the scientific bac. The clear implication is that philosophy is a purely decorative subject, fit to be an ornament of the literary mind but no longer the "queen of sciences," ethical guide, beacon to the citizen, or any of a myriad other justificatory appellations that used to be bestowed on it. Students, not being fools even if their appreciation of the relation between desire and suffering, however existentially acute, may fail to pass philosophical muster, adjust their investment of time accordingly. Perhaps the schools need at last to admit that Victor Cousin is not much of a mentor to the 21st century.


MYOS said...

I am having trouble with your last point.
7 is a MASSIVE coefficient. It pretty much insures that if a L student fails philosophy, s/he will be hard-pressed passing the bac. Essentially, every point lost there is multiplied by 7. Knowing that the mean grade is 7, it means that a student in the medium range will have 21 points to catch up through English (4) or History (4), ie., even if they get a mention-worthy grade of 12 points they're still behind by 5 points right off the bat.
(Humanities students are, of course, grader 'harder' in humanities subjects.)
As for the ES students, all their main subjects get points multiplied by 4, which is supposed to indicate that philosophy is an essential part of any social scientist's background.
Even 3 for the sciences is fairly high - the same as English and more than Spanish or other languages.
(I thought Harvard, for creadit-transer purpose, considered a coef. 4 equivalent to 1 semester at the 1st-year level)?

This does not mean the exam is perfect, though. The fact the mean grade is only 7 should make those who've designed the curriculum pause and reflect. How does the current curriculum articulate critical thinking and knowledge, for example? What does it try to obtain and what does it test?
(I personally think the IB has a better system.)

Unknown said...

If I may provide a teensy bit of personal perspective on this, I would love to point out that while the philosophy exam was a PAIN IN THE BOOTY, that the three weekly hours spent on it felt like a tremendous waste on all of us, that we hated the subject matter and were annoyed we had to start by that, in hindsight, the critical thinking techniques it forced on us have proved extremely useful to me in my regular life - much more then geometry or equations.
It certainly look like a dainted too-hard waste of time from an American perspective but I have to say it is one of the courses which ended up having the most influence on me on the long run. Not necessarily "desire and suffering" per se but the way to approach this type of question (As in if you can't desire without suffering, then do we really need to desire?) Questioning the assumptions behind a question is the way to succeed in philosophy essays and that is a tremendously useful skill to acquire. Add on top of that the way it forces us to gather up all kinds of cultural references of all kinds to try to think hard on broad questions about life and you got the recipe for a very efficient mind-forming exercise.

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