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The Philosopher in the Classroom

THE PHILOSOPHER IN THE
CLASSROOM:

A ..epo… f .. om r .. aDce
Colin Gordon & Jonathan Ree

Aboul GREPB

The supplement ‘Philosophy from Below’ in RP15
raised once again the question of whether Radical
Philosophy can be content with trying to change the
content of philosophy in this country or whether it
must also question the institutions and even the concept of philosophy teaching. A further question is
that of the historical interdependence of philosophy
and philosophy teaching; the question whether
philosophy has not always been essentially a
didactic practice.

Since 1974, GREPH (Groupe de Recherches sur
1‘Enseignement Philosophique: research group on
philosophy teaching) has been working in France on
precisely this question; and, because the French
government is attempting, in the ‘reforme Haby’,
to .eliminate philosophy as a compulsory subject in
schools, GREPH has been compelled to link its
researches to the formulation of counter-proposals
for the progressive transformation’ of philosophy
teaching.

In this article we present a survey of GREPH’s
activities within the French academic and political
Situation, including an interview with a GREPH
representative and a report on a recently published
collective study of philosophy essays in schools.

We consider GREPH’s work to be of real relevance
for RP, and we hope that joint meetings will be
arranged in coming months to explore possibilities
of exchanges and cooperative activities. The interview below, portraying the harsh realities of the
French academic scene, destroys the notion current
in Britain that France is a radical theoretician’s
paradise. By developing contacts at the level of
concrete institutional conditions and struggles,
perhaps we will be able to put our ambitions of
internationalism on a more solid footing.

GREPH was founded at a meeting at the Ecole
Normale Superieure in Paris in April 1974, which
agreed on a document outlining proposals for its
activities. This was circulated among most French
philosophy teachers and students in secondary and
higher education. A democratic and decentralised
organisational structure was adopted; at present the
members of GREPH receiving its national newsletter number 500. The group has had difficulty in
organising among students, and most of the active
participants are teachers. The group has been
heavily involved in mobilising resistance to the
‘reforme Haby’ and the philosopher and critic
Jacques Derrida, who is a founding member, has
pursued GREPH’s counter-offensive to Haby in the
national press. As well as the study of school
essays described below, GREPH plans to publish
an account of its experiments in philosophy classes
for 11 to 13 year olds (see interview belOW), which
will include extracts of recordings of the classes.

A further volume is planned including studies on
the age at which philosophy can be taught, on
2

spreading philosophy teaching in schools over
several years (it is limited at present to the final
year – the e:ctension is one of GREPH’s demands),
on the relatIon between philosophy and the 19thcentury idea of a moral reform of the people; and
on the history of’ and constraints on philosophical
work in universities. GREPH also has friendly
informal links with two new radical journals,
Revoltes Logigues and Le Doctrinal de Sapience.

It has local groups in Toulouse, Bordeaux and
Strasbourg, as well as Paris, and has cooperative
links with militant teachers’ and students’ unions.

We hope that more of GREPH’s work will be
published in a future issue of RP. The following is
a brief resume of the group’s preliminary statement of aims.

1 To investigate, the constitution and history of
an essentially unified didactico-philosophical
practice.

This would include a general survey of pedagogical institutions, from the Sophists to the ‘quaestio’

and ‘disputatio’ of the Scholastics and to modern
schools, colleges and universities, and of such
practices as the dialogue, the master-disciple
relation, the oral and written examination, publication, the essay, the lecture, the lesson, the theSiS,
and so on.

2 To investigate how the didactico-philosophical
system inscribes itself and is inscribed within
economic, historical, social, political and affective fields of relations.

This proposal is not just for a. philosophical
criticism of philosophy as doctrine of diScipline.

It concerns the power which philosophy exerCises,
the general principles governing the historical
modes of operation of the didactico-philosophical
system, in such developmmts in France for
instance as the 1Bth- and 19th-century interventions
of philosophers – the Ideologues, Victor Cousin etc
– in the politics of education, and the development
of the role of the philosophy teacher.

3 To investigate what is involved in contemporary
struggles in and about philosophy teaching in France.

To the extent that this problem arises in the space
of academic philosophy, the project must involve a
philosophical critique – though not a politically
neutral one.

As Jacques Derrida has emphaSised, the theoretical and political facets of GREPH’s object are inseparable. ‘When, following a trivial formula, I say
that it is.power which controls the educational
apparatus, this is not to assign power a p’osition
outside the pedagogical scene (power is rather an
effect ,of this sc~~e, con~tituted within it, regardless of what pohbcal or Ideological forms of power
are fnstalled around it), nor is it to foster thoughts
or dreams of a teaching without power, whether as
divested of the power which it itself engenders or
as freed from a power standing above or outSide it.

This would be precisely the idealist, liberalist conception which gives comfort to a teaching body
which is blind to power. ‘

– I cannot reply directly, because to do so would be
to take the place of the students. I can reply only
indirectly, with an observation that comes. from myown experience as a professeur in a lycee. There
was a large strike and the students decided to
conduct it in an active manner: all teaching was
1.

. stopped, but when they wanted a lesson, they came
In November we visited a representative of GREPH
iRto the hall where we were gathered, selected a
in Paris. One of our questions was whether GREPH
teacher, and said, “Look, we want to discuss such
aspired to intervene in mass political movements.

and such a point; please supply us with information
– This could be done only in a revolutionary situaabout it. ‘ Of course this was completely illegal …

tion – which does not depend on us. . .. In the
but it was obvious that something quite astonishing
current anti-revolutionary atmosphere, the condiwas occurring. Normally when one is teaching, it
tions are not favourable.

is as though one were confronting anorexics, people
whose intellectual desire ha s been completely
– Very often there is a contradiction between
extinguished by the education system. But, given
teachers and students. Here (at the Ecole Normale
a revolutionary situation, the extraordinary thing
Superieure) for example, the work of GREPH is of
was that the students had a demand, a wish and a
no interest to the students. The students define
desire for lessons, and for lessons which were very
themselves as far more conservative, aristocratic
substantial, and the opposite of trivial. . .. The
and dogmatic than their teachers.

lessons which I gave then were at the level of my
– Since 1968 there has really been a regression.

own research – I was working at the extreme limits
’68 was a kind of liberation, an opening …. But
of my own knowledge and reflection, but my
since then there has been a tightening control of
students, in the final year of the lycee, had no diffiuniversities, prinCipally through the competitive
culty in understanding me; whereas in normal cirexams for Agregation and CAPES. At this level, a
cumstances I am unable to get much simpler points
closing up is taking place. . .. It is always better to
across.

talk about Descartes rather than Freud. And now
2. The Reforme Haby
that philosophy is under threat, there has been a
retreat. Alain (the first edition of whose Elements
The majority of GREPH’s work has concerned
de Philosophie came out in 1916) has become a kind
secondary education, and has been in response to
of model. . .. Ten years ago, he was a standing
the Reforme Haby, a programme for restructuring
joke. Nowadays, when students mention him, he is
education which would involve the phasing out of
still a joke – but the ‘mandarins’ advise students to
compulsory philosophy in ‘terminale’ (the final year
read him in order to prepare their exams; and
of secondary education). But GREPH is careful not
those who have power (especially the Inspection
to be driven into a defensive position of ‘protecting
Generale – the education ministry’s inspectorate)
philosophy from all attack’.

give Alain as a model in all seriousness.

– The work of GREPH is taking us in the direction
Our informant returned to the contrast with 1968
of breaking up the concept of philosophy. That is,
when we asked her what sort of consciousness. she
we are in the process of saying that ‘Philosophy’,
would like to see amongst students.

in the singular, is no longer valid. This is why our
title mentions ‘philosophical teaching’ rather than
‘teaching philosophy’ …

Interview
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– There are three responses to the proposed
reforms. First, that of the ministry, which implied
a progressive-diminution of philosophical studies;
this can be labelled the reactionary stance. Secondly
there is the position of the ‘masters’ of philosophical education, of the Inspection Generale, and of
some of the ‘mandarins’, the great professors; this
is the conservative position, which believes in
maintaining philosophy as the crown of the student’s
work, its final culmination, the finishing touch.

Finally, there is the position of GREPH … which
is an offensive position, and consists in criticising
the present situation.

– We have launched a petition, which has collected
1300 signatures so far, calling for the spreading of
philosophical education over several school years.

The theoretical effect of this is that GREPH has
devoted much of its research to the question of the
right age for studying philosophy. The offensive has
had the theme that ‘there is no such thing as an age
for philosophy’ … The notion of maturity is itself
one that needs to be analysed.

– Last year three supporters of GREPH managed to
get permission to teach philosophy in the premier
cycle (11-13 years old), on an experimental basis.

We have been absolutely delighted with the results …

– Broadly speaking, the three teachers involved in

the experiment all decided, independently, to put
the emphasis on the mastery of the language people
use. . .. Two of them included some study of Plato
and the myth of the cave. One of these told the
pupils the beginning of the story, and set the students an exercise which consisted in trying to work
out how it would end. They gave very good answers.

They showed a very good grasp of the relation of
philosophy and violence, for instance. . .. There
were also discussions of the fact that language is
a cultural product ….

– There is a kind of speech which children of that
age are capable of using, and with eighteen year
olds it is too late. . .. At 11, children say what
they think as they think· it; whereas eighteen year
olds say only what they believe is expected of
them …. We believe that the education system
creates a whole system of blockages, and that this
is why it is opposed to the teaching of philosophy at
an early age, since philosophy tends to remove
these barriers. . .. It has now been proved that
there is no such thing as an ‘age for philosophy’,
or at least that if there is, it is 10 rather than 25.

3. The philosophy curriculum in schools
We asked next about the content of school philosophy
courses.

– There, what we have criticised is the baroque
eclecticism of the syllabus, in which one has to
cover, let’s say, perception, memory, the unconscious, politics, morality etc, all in one year compiling a kind of encyclopedia, . and this in a
period in which philosophical encyclopedism has
become meaningless. We still live in the reign of
Victor Cousin (1792-1867), who believed that
philosophical education could be based on a kind of
grand reconciliation of all philosophical schools,
from the Pythagoreans to Victor Cousin …. This
created a colourless philosophy, in which there
were no great disagreements, and where all schools
were amalgamated. This approach is still alive in
philosophy teaching today, enabling the teacher to
move happily between Plato and Freud, between
Descartes and Durkheimian sociology …

To some extent this syllabus has changed, in that it
is now possible to teach philosophy in terminale
from collections of modern extracts – La Philosophie Contemporaine edited by Huismans and
Vergez, and Textes Nouveaux pour une Philosophie
Nouvelle edited by LeGall and Bredeloup. These
texts allow the c-ourses to centre on Marx. or Freud,
or on Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan and Althusser.

– This poses a serious problem. . .. Rather than
leave modernism out, they adopt it and remove all
its offensiveness, paSSing it through the mincer of
philosophical teaching … without disturbing the
atmosphere of humanism. This is the colonisation
of explosive matters by the education system – as
though education were an enormous stomach,
capable of digesting anything. . .. So why say, ‘we
must teach Freud, we must teach the moderns? ‘;
there is nothing to stop us doing so; nothing could
be easier. We have to recognise that teaching’s
capacity to defuse ideas makes the determination
of the content of courses a very secondary question.

4.GREPH and the ‘Dominant
Philosophy’

Our informant clarified her conception of the field
in which GREPH is try.ing to intervene by distinguishing between the dominant philosophy, the
philosophy of the academy, and modernism.

– The dominant philosophy is difficult to define.

Roughly speaking, it is the philosophy which is
sustained by power, and specifically by the
structures of philosophy teaching. It dominates
even when it is not explicitly taught, as a result of
the particular way in which philosophical study is
organised. It is a structural effect. … It is a
wishy washy humanism which is what one always
finds when one approaches philosophical study from
the point of view of the student. . .. It is to some
extent the implicit ideology of the practice of philosophy, but it is not wholly implicit: it is explititly
stated by the Inspection Generale and there are
many professors in universities who perpetuate
it too.

– However their practice is really academic
philosophy, which consists basically of history of
philosophy . .. and epistemology or history of
science ….

– Then there is modernism (represented by names
like Foucault, Deleuze, Chatelet, Lyotard and
Derrida) .. ~ This can be seen as the workshop of
philosophy; but it is very marginal. It remains
marginal even when introduced into secondary
schools. Althusser may be taught in lycee, but when
he is . .. nothing happens!

– This marginality i’s demonstrated by an experience
of teaching Freud (in a lycee). . .. A supporter of
GREPH gave an extended course on Freud, which
went very deep and was taught in an imaginative
and varied way. But in a test which the students
took at the end, the Freud who emerged was a
proper little Plato! . .. Thus trying to teach a
special content is a waste of one’s time, because
of the tacit philosophy of the structures of
teaching ….

GREPH’s active members are mostly teachers.

We asked if they had experienced contradictions in
a project which is in part an act of self-criticism.

– Yes! Many teachers active in GREPH are
unhappy with the objective conditions of their
professional work, doubtful of their right to be
there in the school as teachers. But this contradiction has made us ask ‘_what can we do in spite
of what we are? ‘; it also demands a permanent
self-criticism directed against ‘the illusions which
are part of the position of the teacher’. To be a
teacher is to suffer a certain blindness which
obscures a whole area of the reality of education.

4

Finally, we asked whether GREPH subscribes to
a particular mode of philosophical critique, and
whether it shares Jacques Derrida’ s programme
for the ‘de construction of metaphysics’.

,

– GREPH is committed to a project of deconstruction, but .as such this is not a specifically Derridan
undertaking. The object of GREPH’s deconstruction
has its own anchorage. in philosophical institutions.

GREPH is not committed to a point of view as to the
‘deconstruction of metaphysics’, though some of us
think that it is necessary. Moreover, Derrida has
widened the object of his own enterprise, from
metaphysics to the whole pedagogical, the ‘didactophilosophical’ tradition – the effectiveness of
philosophical, textual critique. itself calls fnr a
. pre.ctical, political involvement.

School philosophy essays
The f”irst GREPH research project to have published
its results is the study carried out by Grephon, a 1
group at the Ecole Normale Superieu~e de Fontenay.

It deals with sets of essays written by students in
three lycees at the start of philosophy courses taken
during their final school year. One of the schools
was in inner Paris, another in the Paris suburbs
and a third in a provincial city.

The idea of the project was to read the essays of
‘beginners’ in the philosophy class as philosophical
texts, allowing them to speak and listening to what
they had to say. Fro!D a traditional viewpoint, the
enterprise would appear senseless: ‘To read schopl
essays as texts to be explicated, as documents to be
analysed, means changing,’ or trying to change,
their official status – making a use of them other
than that for which the institution destined them,
and (conversely) applying our supposed powers of
textual analysiS to an object for which those powers
were not designed. ‘

The radical originality of the undertaking meant
that Grephon could not follow ready-made methods,
and it is not surprising that contradictions emerged.

Grephon’s report is presented not as a finished
piece of research, but as a collective work fissured
by internal divergences. The crucial disagreement
within the project seems to have emerged when they
realised that, in freeing the students’ essays from
the correcting pencil of the teacher, they might be
promoting them to the rank of texts only to subject
them to the higher correction of an ideologica1
critique. For this reason ~e group defined its
object as the ‘discourse’ of ‘the essays, rather than
their ‘ideology’, thus directing attention to the
features peculiar to the production of this discourse
rather than simply conSidering it as a reflection of
a dominant ideology in society. Nonetheless,
Grephon came to recognise that the project could
not be insulated from the effect of their position as
teachers or future teachers and that didactic habits
could not be neutralised ‘by a mere act of political
will. In giving the essays the status of an autonom0us discourse, Grephon were identifying it as
different from their own in a number of senses: the
discourse was ‘pre-philosophical’ – it expressed
attitudes from which the members of Grephol). had
learned to dissociate themselves, and even the
germs of philosophies hostile to and in competition
with their own; more fundamentally, the legitimation of the teaching role as such implied a distance
from the discourse of the taught, which be cam e the
raw material to be worked on and transformed by
the teacher. Thus, while students display ambivalent attitudes towards philosophy, teachers experience a conflict with their own repressed, pre1 Les Cahiers de Fontenay, No. 3. Le discours
philosophique des Lyceens (May 1976). By
Martine Cauvin,
Available from 5 rue Boucicaut 92 260
Fonteriay aux Roses, price 15 francs, 192pp

philosophica.l discourse. Grephon experienced
occasional outbursts of revulsion and hostility to
the views expl”essed in the essays, no doubt partly
in consequence of standing outside the more comfortable’ proprietorial relationship one can have to
the essays of ‘one’s own’ students.

Grephon proposed the following conception of what
they were studying. Students entering a philosophy
class are bearers or possessors of a discourse
which is ‘already in place’. Thus the different discourse transmitted by the philosophy teacher can
take root only in so far as this is permitted by the
lines of r’orce already established within the first
discourse. But as it is manifested in the student’s
first efforts at,philosophical essay writing, this
first discourse should not be regarded as spontaneous, for two reasons: first, it is the product of a
prolonged previous training, and secondly, its
philosophical forms and contents can emerge only
through articulation with the ‘obligatory rhetoric
of a text submitted for the judgement and approval
of anoth er’ .

This meant that the discourse of the essays ought
not to be seen as an immediate reflection of the
lived situation of its authors as ‘students’ and
‘adolescents’, a situation of economic, political and
sexual exclUSion, subjection and deprivation and of
linguistic and cultural domination. However,.

‘students feel obliged to mime an “adolescent”
discourse whose features are provided by the myth
of “youthful romanticism” and by the mandatory
modesty of the disciple. When they say that the
individual is helpless in ~e face of society and
destiny, they conform to a ready-made image of
adOlescence, and define themselves as adolescent
in their discourse . •. by adopting the manner of
paternal discourse (“Victor Hugo is quite right in
saying that we must seek the key to happiness in
virtue”), they mimic a submission which suits their
age. In their docile submission to a Kantian or
Platonic mode of utterance, they are only adopting
their expected position of pupil. As long as adolescence is not taken as the ~ of t,his discourse, it
is legitimate to speak here of an adolescent
discourse, similar to a colonial discourse (as
defined by the expectations d the colonist): a
‘youthfulness’, expected or thought to be expected
by others, just as childishness is expected of
children by adults, and delicious inconsequence is
expected of women by those whose delights they
provide.

Thus the group point out the danger inherent in
the ‘su,?stantialising,! assumption of ‘attributing to
the subjects writing them the characteristics of the
discourse of the essays’. ‘We realised soon enough
. .. that students do not conduct a discourse which
is their own, but one which is required of them,
first by their notion of what is expected, and second ..

ly by the imperatives inherent in the essay form as
such. The determining factor is the pedagogical
5

relation as it functions in existing institutions, by
which the discourse of the pupil is alienated in the
desire of another, namely the teacher. ‘

They add, however, that some properties of the
essays’ discourse can properly be considered as
ideological in that it operates objective distortions
in communication. ‘When a friend gave her class
the essay subject “What is a citizen”, the students
wrote essays on the question “What is a good
citizen? “, and proceeded to list the qualities which
a good citizen must possess. Clearly after this no
sort of critical analysis was possible; the moralising mode of discourse bars the way. ‘

Having described what Grephon set out to do,
and before summarising their fiildings, it may be
appropriate here to say why their project seems to
us interesting from the point of view of Radical
Philosophy. Firstly, it reminds us that the school
or college is the site not only of the transmission
and reproduction of cognitive schemas, but also of
the production of discourses, writings whose
function is to be judged rather than read. Before
now it never occurred to us that to understand how
education functions it is necessary to read what the
students write; we have acquiesced in the official
view that these productions are valueless. And at
the same time the problems encountered by Grephon
(espeCially the temptation to indulge in straightforward denunciations of the essays’ political
c~mtent) are a useful reminder that radical campaigns in education, such as RP and GREPH are
engaged in, must constantly guard against becoming
apotheoses of the pedagogical mentality.

We must also keep in view the limitations of
Grephon’s project. They are careful to point out
that the sample of essays they had to work on was
very limited. The essay titles included: ‘What is a
citizen?’, ‘What is happiness?’, ‘Are we in a
position to understand and free ourselves from our
prejudices? ” ‘Philosophy cannot be taught, only
philosophising’, and passages for commentary
from Plato and Levi-Strauss. This selection of
titles, even if it is typical, is not inSignificant in
itself, and to fully understand the essays produced
would require information about the rationale for
setting the essays, as understood by the teachers
and the students; one would need to knqw what
conception of correctness, as opposed to simple
acceptability, the students had or were supposed to
have; why the students were, apparently, over,whelmingly motivated by the desire to please, and
what other aims they might have had; what relations
there were between the content of the essays and the”
system of rewards and punishments surrounding
their production, and whether these included effects
of ‘positive reinforcement’ as well as of censorship.

No doubt Grephon were unable to conduct such investigations in the lycee~; and their concentration
9n reading the essays as texts involved a welljustified refusal to interpret them as documents of
the students’ character or intentions. But this need
not prohibit looking for determining factors outs-ide
the texts. For instance, could it be that the paucity
of thought and the threadbare routines which
Grephon noted in the essays result in part from the
culture-shock felt by students suddenly transported
into a new and unfamiliar pedagogical terrain?

Their real deprivation of intellectual reference
points, their exposed and invidious situation, might
explain why the texts are so nakedly symptomatic
of their institutional determinants.

English readers will find much that is familiar
6

in Grephon’s report; other factors no doubt are
peculiar to France, not least of course the existence of the philosophy class in schools. But an
adequate differentiation of national and international
conditions will have to await a comparable study of
English essays.

‘What is philosophy?’

The essays on the Kantian dictum, ‘Philosophy
cannot be taught, only philosophising can be taught’,
allowed some of the students’ feelings about starting
philosophy to emerge explicitly. ‘A subject as
exciting as it is indefinable.: .. ‘; ‘one always embarks on it with apprehension’; ‘To learn philosophy
is beyond our powers, whereas learning to philOsophise is within the range of our modest means’.

Philosophy has a quite special position: ‘Man needs
philosophy to question, if only once, himself and the
meaning-of life. ‘ Generally the subject eme”rges in
an aura of quasi-initiatory mystery: at the beginning
of the year teachers are regularly pressed by students to answer the question, ‘What is philosophy? ‘

The way students conceive philosophy is conditioned
by its prestigous place in the school syllabus: taught
only in the final year, the philosophy course is the
‘couronnement des etudes’, the culmination of the
school career. To study philosophy is ‘a proof that
1 am an educated person, that 1 already know about
all kinds of things’. The difference between philosophy and other earlier studies is that ‘one now
ceases to learn’. ‘The time for learning is over,
now we will ” reflect about all the great problems of
existence. Our task is to ask questions, not to
answer them u: an illuminating formula which locates
the debate at the level of duty – meaning what is
required of a schoolchild writing an essay, and what
allows them to conclude essays by declaring that
the problem is insoluble and decreeing that we
must all choose our own solution. At this point the
break appears which philosophy represents in an
institution where pupils have hitherto had to reproduce what they have learned from books and
teachers, and where questions – and, here, questions which demand answers – are in principle the
prerogative of the teacher.’

The definitions of philosophy in the essays
commonly expound the formula ‘love of wisdom’.

Wisdom is characterised as ‘self-mastery’,
‘temperance’, ‘discretion’, ‘calmness’, ‘tranquillity’: ‘the wise man must be calm, balanced and
capable of reflection, in order to have a sound
judgement. His ideal is the mastery of conduct,
thanks to rational thought’. ‘The (Platonic)
“taming of desires” by the practice of reason is
the special competence of philosophers’. The philosophy course consists essentially in a brief and
decisive moment of initiation. ‘I initiate myself by
ceasing to think, in order to reflect alone. When
students have heard something of Descartes, the
method of doubt becomes the model for this conversion, which allows us to suggest that if certain
texts of Descartes “go down” in class without resistance this is because they convey to the pupil nothing
nothing other than the place assigned to philosophy
in the syllabus. ‘ This implies ‘a break with what has
come before, correlative with a (fictitious) repudiation of prior beliefs, the famous “calling into question” of things by philosophy … ‘

‘Students think that there is an innate philosophica1
faculty, while the institution believes that philosophi.

cal aptitude comes all at once at a certain age at
which students can instantly switch from the a~cu­
mulation of information to “calling things in ques-

I

tion”; no one speaks here of educating a capacity.

And is the concession to the teacher, the restriction
which permits and legitimates his presence in class
(we want to”learn, but not too much) – is this any
different from what can be read in the ~
Treatise on Action by Huisman and Vergez:

“Philosophy is not a question of knowledge. In all
other disciplines you have to learn something …

in philosophy there is nothing of the kind. No doubt
you Will be asked to retain a few of the ideas and
themes of the great philosophers. But … “” if the
pupils’ discourse converges with that of the authors
of standard textbooks, this is not because the
pupils have read the textbooks, but because the
organisation of school itself serves fo transmit a
certain conception of philosophy deriving from the
sociological function of its teaching. ‘

‘The reason why it is said officially that a
certain age is necessary before beginning philosophy
is that the teaching of philosophy during the final
year at school has perhaps as its primary function
to make the students feel that a page in their lives
is being turned. If we scandalise certain of our
colleagues by calling for philosophy teaching in
schools to be extended over several years, it is
because sU,ch a step would mean leaving the world
of ritual. Can you imagine suggesting to a Hopi
headman an initiation ceremony lasting several
years? ‘

Another set of essays studied is worth particular
mention because it caused the group to draw marked·
ly pessimistic conclusions about the opportunities
for progressive teachers. These are the essays
produced after the experiment of teaching Freud in
philosophy, in which the students were asked to use
Freud to criticise Plato’s remarks on dreams, and
responded by Platonising Freud (see interv~ew
above): mandatory respect for the great philosopher
dictated that the teacher’S request should go unheard
‘A school essay is not a letter directed to a particular teacher but a text destined for a Reader /
Corrector who i~ defined either through the institutio~ or by the formal category of the text. Indeed it
would be uncomfortable for teachers if things went
otherwise. ‘

Themes jn the essays
After sections containing detailed readings of the
essays on philosophy, happiness, Plato/Freud and
Levi-Strauss, the report presents a survey of the
system of thematic elements which recur in all the
essa ys.

A pervasive theme is the contrast drawn between
learning and understanding. Learning is represented
as essentially’ passive, as the laborious quantitative
acquisition and possession of knowledge, motivated
by a goal of encyclopedic coverage which is seen,
characteristically, as a Utopian and useless ambition: this applies in particular to philosophical
knowledge, the ‘preserve’ of an ‘elite’. Moreover
the learning process has overtones of a moulding
of, and even an assault on, the learner. Understanding, in contrast, is seen as something which is to
be achieved by the individual spontaneously and on
his own, as the p~rsonal transcendence (in the
sphere of his ‘private life’) of prejudices engendered
by and for the sake of society. A connected contrast
is drawn in the essays between book learning and
learning from life: the latter is irrefutable, it
recognises ‘facts’ which just ‘are there’ and are
‘undeniable’. This mode of knowledge is essentially
negative: its facts are ~rute facts about society and
human nature. Often it is transmitted through

popular (and traditional) proverbial wisdom;
‘modesty’ and ‘good sense’ are invoked. Individual
seU-expression and creativity are universally,
often passionately, extolled, at the same time as a
spontaneous need for communication, though the
latter concept is always empty of specific content.

The themes of prejudice and self-criticism noted
-above belong to the characteristic problematic of
the” relation between the individual and his ideas
which the group argue to be intimately linked with
the polarity ‘individual’ / ‘society’, in a way identical to that affirmed by Durkheim: ‘Social life is
ess.entially made up of representations’, ‘types of
conduct and thought’ ‘external to the individual’ and
‘possessed of an imperative and coercive force in
virtue of which they impose themselves on him
whether he wills it or not’ (Rules of SOciologi~al
Method);
, The contrast ‘objective’ / ‘subjective’ is employed
In the essays as meaning neutrality versus idiosyncracy; ‘errors’ are always viewed as characteristics of particular ages or societies – deviations

from objective external norms. Hence an antinomy
seems to prevail in the essays between the extremes
of the particular individual with his personal truth
and the abstract universal (e. g. ‘Man’) endowed
with objective impartiality. But in fact as they
operate in the discourse of the essays these terms
are complementary: the essays normally assign
epistemological primacy to the neutral, objective
position,· but where this position cannot be determined because of ‘conflicts of opinion’, the essays
are able to take refuge again in the mandatory
respect due to (diverse) individualities. This is
also connected with the essays’ psychology: radical
contrasts are drawn between rea~on and the heflrt,
spontaneity, imagination, fantasy etc, between
reason and desire, and between fantasy and both
work and knowledge.

The group describes the effect of these systems
of themes as a closure of the essays’ discourse.

They describe notions like ‘society’ and ‘communication’ which feature in the essays as ‘screen’ and
‘phant’om’ notIons – notions which resist all closer
determinations; the discourse they figure in is an
‘algebra of unknowns’. Certain of these notions,
like ‘fre.edom’ and ‘individual’ are.also absolute,
admitting of no possible qualification, sacred and
untouchable.

The closed discourse of the essays is seUsufficient in its materials, fabricating for its needs
a mythical history with a fictitious past – ‘The Past’,
indifferently p~e-20th century, pre-1789, preindustrial, troglodyte etc – and a Present which is
identical with Eternity – things ‘have always’ been
7

like this. Similarly, ‘society’ is always referred to
in the singular, never in the plural. Relations
between normative and descriptive formulations
function only as velleities, exhortations and implicit
renunciations; ‘must’ is never a contestation of ‘is
not’. The authors describe this ‘must’ as ‘the
categOJ’Y of the wish, which makes it possible to
say nothing about the relations between what is and
what ought to be’. Frustrated ‘aspirations’ are converted into good resolutions; ‘the authorities should
not … ‘ passes over into’ everyone should … ‘

Again, personal solutions – freedom, enlightenment,
etc – are blocked as ‘utopian’, or as ‘only for an
elite’ – one from which the student modestly
excludes himself. Desires and gratifications are
never ‘forbidden’, only ‘impossible’.

The primary axis around which the discourse
turns – the individual/ society contrast – has obvious political consequences: theoretically it serves
to mask actual contradictions and prohibit analyses
of social reality in class terms; practically it
condemns as utopian any project for political
change: ‘the subject of such a transformation
being of necessity the individual, the question of
its p’ossibility in terms of relative forces cannot
even be posed, for the strength of individual and
society are incommensurable. Discontent can only
lead either to a vague feeling of aspiration, or to
escapism (a centrifugal tendency), . or to a sterile
revolt. ‘ Before the philosophy course begins, the
students are already imbued by Durkheimian conservatism. ‘When one reads Durkheim, one has no
conception of the seductive power of the dominant
philosophy. But reading the school essays, and rereading Durkheim over the essays’ shoulder, one
begins to have some idea of it. ‘ This does not
contradict the fact that nearly all the essays include
expressions of malaise, of impotence and revolt,
even of denunciation, rejection, repudiation; the
essay serves to accommodate every kind of discontent, provides it with a code of expression (the
individual as victim of society) which at the same
time disguises it in an acceptable form, and provides it with a rhetorical means of consolation,
which complete s the process -of defusing it. In .this
consists perhaps one of the pleasurable functions
of writing the essay. The institutional function of
this discourse would seem then to be that of providing an outlet, a ‘catharsis’ for the ‘malaises’ which
permeate it.

Rhetoric and strategy
The final section of the report relates the themes of
the- essays, outlined above, to the major function
which the essays have to fulfil: satisfying the person
who corrects them.- It is possible to recognise,
beyond the practice of the school essay, the ideologies – and philosophies – contained in the essays’

thematic materials. ‘The students know Durkheim
already, without having read him, they platonise
before reading Plato; already they are travelling
companions of Levi-Strauss, disciples of Alain,
fond listeners of Bergson. ‘

An essay has to have a beginning, a middle and an
end. Here, already, the ready-made materials show
their usefulness. The writer justifies himself for
beginning to write: the subject at hand has an eternal
status, ‘Man’ ‘has always’ been troubled by it. The
problem developed in the course of the essay is also
ready-made: many diverse opinions have been held
on this issue: Marx, Sartre, Freud… Finally, the
necessity of closure, the means of bringing the discourse to an end: there is nothing to be done; or,
8

each of us must choose for himself. The availability
of a neutral, impartial standpoint protects the
writer from running risks. The author must speak
as representative of the consensus. ‘The I who
writes has no rights, except to indeterminateness
and neutrality, to nothing, that is; I can only preach
interiority (in a theoretical sense: not my own), the
profound self, radical subjectivity, originality,
singularity, everything that is in which the real
evaporates; or else I can preach the abstract universal (“Man”) and the objectivity in which everything particular is wiped out. ‘ The faults of essays
which examining bodies regularly and monotonously
attack – banality, mechanical formulations etc are manifestations of the’ code of the essay’, the
system which organises the expressions and operations which are convenient in the production of an
essay. ‘We are not entitled to say that the students
~ sceptics; rather, they are in a situation of producing sceptical discourses. ‘ The textbook mentioned above quotes Karl Jaspers: philosophy
‘betrays itself when it degenerates into dogmatism’,
and observes that ‘philosophy is an unquiet consciousness, dissatisfied with what it possesses’.

The student, required to demolish all particular
substantive positions on an issue (‘To do philosophy
is to be always on the move’ – Jaspers), draws on
an eclectic stock of arguments culled from his previous schooling, adaptable to every subject. ‘If the
essays reduce every topic to a few constant
themes, this does not mean that the students are
incapable of more than three or four ideas which
are always the same. Nor does it mean, as one
regularly reads in examiners’ reports, that they
use the topics merely as pretexts for ready-made
procedures. But it may well be that students are
only sure of the validity in school of a small number
of themes’ – precisely those which have survived
the selection operated by correction throughout
their essay-writing careers.

At a linguistic level as well, the essays showed
a marked lack of those logical and syntactic formations necessary in critical and analytical discussion.

But, again, this cannot be taken as meaning that the
students are somehow linguistically deficient; the
students display in E>~her school subjects their
mastery of these resources. Their absence in
philosophy is the mark of a censorship; already in
their school career students have learned that ideas
are no more to be criticised than colours or tastes.

A taboo exists on the scrutiny of opinions. This
prohibition of analytical and critical procedures as
applied to ideas is frequently asserted explicitly
and dogmatically by state education officials. In the
words of the president of the French League of
Education, teachers must ‘accustom pupils from
the beginning to the idea that all opinions, all sincere b9liefs deserve the respect which is due to any
creative human effort’, and ‘one either espouses or
rejects an idea, but in any case one doesn’t play
around with it’. Those essays which call for analytical/ critical commentary on a text of Plato or
Levi-Strauss are instead written as paraphrases
of opinions held by Plato or Levi-Strauss. The
student falls back on certain resources to produce
a substitute for the impossible underta~ing, such
as vehement expressions of approval or disapproval.

‘For the student to appear indifferent to the problem
or text would be inadmissible; it would show a lack
of interest insulting to the teacher. ‘

At the same time, such procedures serve to constitute, within the text, the officially defined identit}
of the author – the pupil – and of the destined recipi-

ent, the teacher. ‘They inscribe themselves in the
texts as pupils and adolescents by adopting the discourse of malaise, of romantic revolt, generous
and sterile, exalted and intransigent. ‘ The ~gnostic
confession ‘I don’t know’ is incongruous and inadmissable in a teacher (how would he then have
authority to teach?), but admissable and acceptable
in a pupil. The pupil-teacher situation possesses a
certain ambiguity wt?-ich .emerges in the essay s: the
writers ‘inscribe their supposed reCipient in statements aimed at showing an interiorisation and incorporation of certain values supposed to be those
of the recipient’; at the same time the flights of
pomposity express the fact that the st~dent is trying
hard, and even having some success in becoming a
grown-up.

. The authors recall here that one of their members
with experience of teaching burst out at one point
in protest at the nonsense contained in some of the
essays and proclaimed that her students would never
have written such stuff. But this reaction of shock
and revulsion at the materials is, they argue, a
natural consequence of stepping out of the closed
situation of reading essays in the role of a corrector: the situation in and for which the essays themselves are produced. ‘If the essays have a meaning
only in the pedagogical situation which commands
them, if their discourse is only plausible in the eyes
of a reading itself inserted within the relation, perhaps that is because a good deal of their content
exhausts itself in the inscription of the fact of writing an essay which is supposed to be about philosophy and which is addressed from a pupil to a
teacher. These are texts, perhaps, in which
“nothing takes place except the place”.’ Nevertheless, the rhetorical conclusions of the essays may
represent a real effect of the act of writing the
essay: the authors emerge full of good resolutions.

‘Should this phenomenon perhaps not be directly
linked to the mythical figure of the philosophy
teacher as a moral director-confessor?’

People generally consider that ideological impregnation operates with pupils in the situation of listeners. A striking consensus can be observed on this
point. Philosophy teachers complain about the moral
bludgeoning to which pupils are subjected outside
the school (mass media etc), and about the instilling
of the dominant philosophy by other school disciplines; parents often protest at their children’s
indoctrination by the school, as though the teachers’

discours~ formed a sed!mentary deposit in the
children’s minds.’ Against this consensus, it is
worth reflecting instead on the positive functions
embodied in the notion of a school “exercise”.

‘What does it signify, except that the transmission
of knowledge, the interiorisation of schemas, is
not produced simply by the words of the teacher,
but demands work in which the pupil is required to
intervene actively.’ ‘It is true that by the time the
student writes his first text of philosophy, everything has already been played out; but it has been
played out, in part, in written exercises of the
same form. In these texts, the pupils show themselves to be not so much beginners in philosophy as
veterans of the essay. ‘ ‘If the essay is a dead or
dying form in schools, this is not because the
students no longer know how to write it. They understand its rules and techniques very well; what they
no longer know is how to conceal this knowledge. ‘

Comparison of the texts with similar essays written
a decade earlier shows a certain decline, but this
process consists only in the students’ declining

capacity to hide the guiding threads of rhetorical
convention which structure the essays. The essay
form acts as a conservative, deadening factor in
the didactico-philosophical system; ,but it also
continues to be cpngruent in its tendencies with the
reproduction of a certain, official philosophy; and
this congruence is not an accidenta”l one.

Le DoelriDal

A new magazine called Le Doctrinal de Sapience
has many of its aims, and supporters, in common”
with the GREPH. It is basically for teachers of
history and philosophy in lycees, normal schools,
and colleges. It comes out four times a year (at
least in theory) and has had two issues so far. They
look quite like RP, are about half the length, and
cost 5 francs.

The historians and philosophers have allied themselves because they see their disciplines as targets
of a single attack: philosophy having to face the
‘death of philosophy’, and history the redistribution
of its theoretical content to various social sciences;
at the same time both are being threatened by proposals for imposing technocratic regulation on the
aims and methods of education in France.

The objective of Doctrinal is to promote collective reflection and research on ‘our educational
practices, on their explicit aims, and on their
objective functions’.

The first issue contains three historical analyses
of the development of ideologies of education in
France – one describing the idea of ‘lay’ education,
another the’ concept of ‘laziness’ (‘faineantise’), a
third the state of schools in Aube at the end of the
nineteenth century, ‘based on inspectors’ reports.

There are also two excellent articles on problems
of philosophy teaching – one analysing the official
reports on the competitive exams through which all
prospective philosophy teachers have tb pass, and
the other describing the new teaching manuals
edited by Huismans and Vergez and by LeGall and
Bredeloup (see above). The author of this article,
Jean Pierre Hedoin, tries to describe the mechanisms which enable these manuals to assimilate what
is supposed to be subversive thought, and then
raises the question ‘whether the materials taken
from what is new in philosophy are not in some way
pre-adapted to this kind of treatment, whether the
texture of this new material is not such as to make
it easy to fit into the pattern of scholastic philosophy. In short, is there not a special construction
in this modern discourse which is what enables it
to be easily integrated into the forms of traditional
philosophical didactics?’ Hedoin’ s hypothesis which ·nee~s a lot of further development – is that
the cause is the reference, if only unconscious and
negative, which the new philosophy makes to Kant.

The second issue of Doctrinal contains a collection of documents, mostly by schoolchildren, on the
meaning of discipline and indiscipline in education;
including an excellent questionnaire for students
which includes such questions as ‘Regardez-vous
physiquement vos profs?’ On strictly philosophical
issues’ there is one -article on the fictional character
of ‘experiments’ in school science courses, and on
the problems of linking literary and philosophical
teaching (eg Sartre and Sartre). Altogether an
admirable venture, deserving every help from
supporters of Radical Philosophy. The address of
Doctrinal is clo G. Navet, 42 Rue Thiers, 10120
Saint-Andre-les-Vergers, France.

9

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