Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lecture: The Future of French Culture

Several of you asked that I post the text of the lecture I gave yesterday at Harvard on "The Future of French Culture." Here is the text, and here are the accompanying PowerPoint slides. Warning: the slides file is over 15 megabytes and is in .pptx format (PowerPoint2007). If you have an earlier version of PowerPoint, you'll need a converter to open it. The lecture can be read without the slides.


MYOS said...


Steven Rendall said...

Yes, thanks very much. This is a lucid, stimulating analysis that I've already recommended to several of my friends.

Two quibbles: (1) I think you underestimate a bit the level of cultural education that was until fairly recently provided by the French elementary schools. Older people who have no more than a "certificat d' études often show a surprising knowledge of and interest in so-called "high culture." (2) Your calculation of the percentage of current lycee graduates who have been exposed to high culture seems to assume that because the Option S is the most highly considered, even by students who plan to pursue literary careers, only those students have access to high culture. This appears to overlook the fact that students choosing the Option L are given a very thorough grounding in culture as well (far in excess, I think, of that typically given in American high schools). If these students are added into your percentages, the total rises to nearly 40 percent rather than 30 percent. But perhaps you mean that in general only students who choose the S option get into the Hautes Écoles and can have a major impact on culture and cultural policy. That may be true, but there are certainly many exceptions. Or maybe I just didn't understand your calculations (a distinct possibility).

One question: To what extent is the development you sketch peculiar to France? It looks to me like much the same could be said about the US, and probably the UK as well.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comments. Your last question came up after the lecture as well, and my answer is that I explicitly state early in the paper that this is not a peculiarly French story. Much the same case could be made about the US and the reforms initiated by James Conant after 1945: see Nicholas Lemann's excellent history of the SAT for example. The difference is that high school education expanded much earlier in the US (see Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin's book on the race between technology and education). Nor did "high literary culture" ever occupy the same place of reverence in America. But in many ways the evolutions are comparable.

Your point about the figures for access to high culture is well taken, but I'm actually paraphrasing a point made by Richard Descoings in his report to the president on the state of the lycées. Descoings uses the 20 to 30 percent figures that I use and does not include the ES and L sections. Now, it's true that he has an agenda, which is to redress what he sees as an imbalance between S and the other two sections, and perhaps I'm unduly influence by the way in which he presents the case. I don't have a good "insider" feel for the perceptions of present-day students and parents. So I may well have overstated the case, and I will add a caveat in the published version to that effect.

Thanks again for the feedback.

kirkmc said...

My son did the S track in lycée (he finished last year), and had hardly any exposure to "culture", especially reading hardly anything at all that was longer than a novella. I was very disappointed that they were not expected to read even one "great" French novel.

MYOS said...

Right now, apparently, teachers of French literature only expect the L and ES students to have any interest in reading whatsoever. The S students (most of them) see the subject as an obligation and good way to rake points up; some see it as beneath themselves. The STI and STG see it as totally irrelevant.
The "S" only get access to high culture insofar as their parents are upper-middle/upper class themselves.
This comes from an actual study done by Bernard Lahire, I believe, but I can't get my hands on it.

To me, the first big reform for high schools was the 1906 reform that paved the way to the "comprehensive high school" open to all; Conant's ideas developed it.
Since the idea only took root in the early 80s in France, I think the lycées have done a great job... it's as if they'd bridged about 40 years in 20. Now there's a lot more to do ;)

Also, if as of next year (as is planned) college kids are thrown into classes without the first basic class on teaching/psychology or whatever, I doubt it'll get better. Even "TFA" students get a summer of intensive classes + practice to get ready for their first year of teaching. I'm kind of wondering what kind of slaughter it'll be, what the newly-minted "teachers" will be able to do, and how many will quit how fast.
Pity: the Ecoles Normales had a very good effect upon creating a cultural community - albeit a very normative one.

Leo said...

thanks, quite stimulating.
Just one tiny detail. You are wrong to ascribe the creation of A,B,C...filières to Edgar Faure in 1968.
I took the bac in 1960 and went from A (6° to 3°) to C (2° and 1°) and then Mathématiques Élémentaires in Terminale.

C was the main culture and science thread: we did Latin, physics, chemistry and maths (a lot of them) but it was looked down upon by A' who had the same curriculum, except a second language was replaced by ancient Greek.

There was also an M section with the same science but no Latin. If you had any ambition, like making it to Polytechnique or Normale Sup, you were not supposed to be there...
Of course this changes in no way your analysis that I thank you again for.

Unknown said...

Leo, Thanks for the correction. Do you know when A, B, C was instituted? I checked this with someone who I thought had the facts, but I guess we were both wrong.

Leo said...

My educated guess is just after or during WWII.
My brother went to the Lycée (at the time Lycée started in 6°) from 1944 till 1951 and I . I remember that his 4° school reports were section A.