Doublespeak and paradoxical injunctions in educational policies

1Here, I will consider the teaching of philosophy as authentic philosophical fieldwork: putting the concepts and demands of philosophical ambition to the test within the reality of a class in terminale. [1]

2The first element of this reality principle is the final exam for the baccalauréat. I am not questioning either the selective principle behind this exam, or its national character, or the content of its programs, content subject to recurring crises that have affected the world of teachers and academic directors, with no solution found as yet. These crises present a twofold discrepancy: one that is both quantitative and qualitative between the core content of philosophy and the average level of intellectual and cultural preparation demonstrated by students in terminale; and one between the kinds of exercises that are assigned (the dissertation and the commentaire de texte[2]) and the knowledge of logic, syntax and organization that a teacher may reasonably demand of their students first upon entering terminale, then at the end of the year nine months later.

3We are faced here with a reality principle in two parts: the reality of the final exam as it is stipulated in the decrees [3], and that of the population of students as it manifests itself upon their return to school in September. And it’s not saying much to point out the incommensurability of these two realities in a class in terminale in a technical high school in the Paris suburbs.

1 – Twofold Discrepancy

4Teaching philosophy to a class in terminale is not the same as a café-philo[4] intended for fashionable people who wish to cultivate themselves or find elegant answers to their moral questions. It is a preparatory exercise for a required written test, which justifies its inclusion in a study schedule. But it’s also the last opportunity many students have to "make an effort to think [5]," to borrow Kant’s expression. For that reason, it deserves our time and consideration here.

5The twofold aspect of the discrepancies we have just mentioned will not present itself in the logical form of an intellectual antinomy, but in strategic terms of real conflict, in an attitude that will be – latently or overtly – one of a recurring impediment to the class. This affects every discipline, but here we will consider its effects on philosophy. This impediment manifests itself as the spread of behavior that, when it is at a low level, is easy to counter, but which has more or less become the rule rather than the exception. The background noise of chatter is one major symptom of it. It translates the indifference to the content of the course, to the presence of the teacher, to the aim behind what is conveyed. It translates the habitual nature of an attention span that systematically veers off course, with the result that the course itself becomes background noise, like a television left on while having a conversation. In the opinion of most students, listening to another’s words and exchanging the questions and responses that those words may engender has become a sort of absurd fantasy, a collective delirium of the teaching profession’s unconscious, with no relationship to the reality that is generally known as a course. And the desire to insist on those words, i.e. to simply pass them on, presupposes the establishment of a few coercive measures. Not at all because the students, as a whole, have become more disruptive and undisciplined than their predecessors were, or than the teachers they now have before them were when they were students, but because the structural evolution of the educational system has produced, and continues to produce, the conditions of the impediment to the coursework, conditions that have become the ordinary mode of teaching. The teacher’s position is then, always and by necessity, to go against the tide. The attempt to resist the entropy of this tide is, quite simply, what teaching means. What teachers must confront is not by any means their students (even if the course may find itself adopting the forms of that confrontation), but the underlying situation that has produced them such as they are when they start their year in terminale. What teachers must therefore confront is nothing more than their own institution. Not because it is repressive or coercive, which would drive them to demand liberation from it, but on the contrary because it patiently constructs all the conditions that lead teachers to give up resisting the tide. And, in this field as in so many others, the institution’s own representatives are then faced with its suicide.

2 – The double bind [6] of the teacher’s position

6Here, we are struck by the profusion of paradoxical injunctions arising from the teacher’s position that one must resolve, in one way or another, precisely in order to maintain one’s position. If we actually consider the school as the ideational site of republican equality, we have no choice but to note that this conception presents us with two daunting alternatives. In the first case, since schools effectively result in a system of discrimination and social differentiation, we admit that they are unable to carry out the project they claim as their focus, therefore participating, in this sense, in that project’s failure and in an increase in the inequalities that they claim to combat. In this case, the teaching profession is but one of the forms of an objective participation in the production of injustice, requiring either complete cynicism or utter obliviousness to participate in it.

7In the second case, we consider that schools are in a position to reduce the forms of inequality by undertaking a process of normalization, which only enables complicity in a supplementary right of inspection of the powers that be over their subjects. Schools are only a place for equality to the extent that they are, at one level or another, a place for normalization. And from this perspective, they are at the very heart of the dilemmas of democratic thought. In teaching philosophy, such a dilemma proves to be particularly formidable, and so powerful that it may subsequently become paralyzing. The empty injunction to learn to "think for oneself" is actually a complete rhetorical trap on every level. If we look at it on the basis of the sociolinguistic, political and cultural determinisms that the humanities have brought to light, it appears as a non-sense. If we look at it on the basis of the moralizing presuppositions of apolitical thinking, it becomes a banal truism, as effective as a catechism lesson.

8Finally, an injunction of this kind highlights the hypocrisy of a presumed carefree naturalness of knowledge, which would effortlessly appear through mere interplay with the environment. A concept of learning as "fun and games" permeates the eudaemonistic teaching methods that consider the teacher-student relation as a figure of harmony. But this denial of pressure and antagonisms only guarantees that those forces will worsen and become more virulent.

9Clearly, none of us have ever had any other foundation for our thinking than the conditionings we have endured, conditionings that became all the more effective as they multiplied. And this possible multiplicity may be the only thing to which schools can bear witness, i.e. a possible conditioning that differs from the one received from the family, or from the totalitarianism of the media that Tocqueville had already foreseen. If schools have a political function, it may, above all, be to furnish a way out of these two enclosures: family conditioning and the regressive criteria of a biological relationship to childhood and to arbitrary parental power (even if this power takes the form of neglectful parenting); and then that homogenization that the tyranny of ratings has become, for which the points of convergence, perfectly separated into genres, boil down to the field of "sports" on the one hand, and on the other, to the "private" lives of "stars" thrown onto the market like products.

10Just as clearly, learning has never been the object of a natural impulse, but has always been the result of a set of constraints, the first of which – a physical one – is to keep the most naturally dynamic, excited, energetic and communicative age bracket in a seated and silent position six hours a day. This is always the first condition to acclimatizing students to socialization. So it really is through this physical undertaking that classroom governing begins.

3 – Authority and the Two Forms of Governmentality

11We will therefore have to examine what we mean by "governing" here. Etymologically, the Greek word "kubernein" (which led to the term "cybernetics") means, as does the Latin "gubernare," the steering of a boat, in other words the perfectly rational techniques making it possible to pilot it and to maintain its course in a natural environment that was not conceived for it. French dictionaries insist on mastery, domination and the exercise of political power. In every case, it involves the centralizing model of a unifying leadership exerted over a multiplicity of those who are led, i.e. a model of authority.

12With this authoritarian paradigm as a starting point, political reflexivity can lead to considering the possible forms of democracy on the basis of the idea, itself highly questionable, of a civic responsibility to participate. On the level of schools, this democratic angle is absent, not by some aberration but by its very nature. If in fact schools have a democratic vocation, at least in the decrees (providing a level playing field), there is no democratic reality to conditions in schools, at least when they are seen less as places of instruction and more as places to be filled indifferently with students. We will then have to consider authority, in order to legitimize it, in terms of a democratizing purpose that contradicts the reality of its exercise. But the attempt that is the most doomed to failure is the one that tries to democratize that exercise itself, for that would mean making it quite simply impossible.

13Therefore, the teacher-as-civil servant, after all is said and done, implements the two forms of governmentality that Michel Foucault successively considered. On the one hand, government, as he defined it in 1973 in his lecture on "Truth and Juridical Forms," is "an administrative technique, a management method – in other words, […] a particular way of exercising power." [7] This led Foucault to assert the following in his lectures at the Collège de France in 1977-1978 on "Governmentality (Security, Territory, and Population)":


It is within the state that the father will rule the family, the superior the convent, and so on. Thus, we find at once a plurality of forms of government and their immanence to the state […] [8].

15Here, the accent is placed on the heteronomic and centralizing dimension of a power that establishes itself from the outside as a force of alienation, and the earlier passage from "Truth and Juridical Forms," concerning the processes of inquiry in medieval Europe, tends to demonstrate that those processes do not in any way strive for a rationalization of knowledge and focus instead on a consolidation of the systems of power. On the other hand, governmentality, as defined in Foucault’s 1982 lecture at the University of Vermont on the "Technologies of the Self," presents itself in a dual fashion:


This encounter between the technologies of domination of others and those of the self I call "governmentality." Perhaps I’ve insisted too much on the technology of domination and power. I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others, and in the technologies of individual domination, in the mode of action that an individual exercises upon himself by means of the technologies of the self [9].

17What interests us here is precisely that the concept of domination no longer just applies to a force of heteronomy, but also to the form of autonomy itself. This means that subjection (i.e. domination) produces forms of subjectification (becoming a social, psychological etc. subject through those "technologies of the self") that escape the person doing the subjecting. Here, Foucault presents this relationship of the technologies of autonomy to the techniques of heteronomy in terms of interaction, or reciprocal actions.

18Schools are also characterized by these processes of interaction. These processes can be interpreted in terms of escape: the more the government establishes itself, the more it permits resurgences of secrecy, forms of communication that both elude its control and are produced by it. Furthermore, it allows for the emergence alongside it of an authentic oppositional line of thought that, without it, would never emerge from nondifferentiation.

19Therefore, teaching is precisely the state of being on the razor’s edge between two forms of governmentality: firstly, the one making the teacher the disseminator of state ideology, forms of submission, and intellectual and moral conformism. They become an agent in the system of control and surveillance, taking attendance, grading work, inflicting sanctions or granting rewards. They also participate in the effects of social hierarchization. In this respect, the governing of a class fully participates in the first form of governmentality.

20But it also participates in the second form: the one that provides the means of accessing the technologies of the self. It provides those means, precisely, by offsetting the effects of that other form of governmentality: family discipline. We must therefore also be sure to see governmentalities as possibly conflicting, and not merely complicit, if we want to be able to consider, for example, a positively pernicious effect of instruction. But then we will also have to consider a positive reality of discipline as a technology of the self, and understand that it can establish itself correlatively to the exercise of a form of governmentality. Without such a concept, there could only be a shameful or abusive manner of teaching.

4 – The effacement of historicity and the fiction of aletheia

21The current standards for teaching philosophy, on the contrary, strive to efface the limits, to not disclose the referents and the structures, to conceal the sutures, and to act as though everyone has to discover by themselves and for themselves that thinking that we all share by nature and that one only needs to bring out in oneself in the phenomenological manner of Heidegger’s aletheia. It is a magic trick whose emblematic expression is written at the top of every sheet of paper in the baccalauréat exam, below the text to be commented on, a commentary that becomes an "explanation" of it:


Knowledge of the author’s doctrine is not required. It is necessary and sufficient that the explanation account for the problem in question through the precise understanding of the text.

23The thinking of the author whose text is to be analyzed is thus simultaneously reduced to the restrictive and unyielding status of a doctrine, and eliminated from the reader’s field of investigation. And the students whose syllabus features that author are told that they don’t need to know the author’s presuppositions in order to analyze their position, sweeping aside the constitutive historicity of any philosophical assertion, and of any form of thought in general. This effacement of history, this refusal of genealogy, claims to have the liberating vocation of a return to conceptual naturalness. On the contrary, it is radically alienating, because it fundamentally leads students astray.

24Teaching philosophy is thus in many respects built upon a series of paradoxical injunctions. There is a syllabus of authors, but the candidate is not supposed to know them. There is a program based on notions, but the questions they are supposed to raise are left to the "liberty" of the teacher. There are rules of argumentation, but each student is supposed to recreate all their steps by themselves, through the magic of the Socratic method. In the end, each side is "free": to learn nothing, to not impose limits on one’s teaching, to give one’s spontaneism the status of an argumentative construction. Actually, in the end each side is free to impart nothing and acquire nothing, in an educational context that comes into conflict with the very concept of work as developed by Hannah Arendt, at every level at which the work is organized. This naive concept of a form of freedom associated with spontaneism, which refutes the very authors of the tradition one is supposed to hand down and which is the only point of reference, which also refutes common sense, always intrudes, like a return of the repressed, into the world of teaching in general and of teaching philosophy in particular. And it seems to me that an approach to teaching philosophy that is conscious of its aims should free itself from that concept, the most alienating one, before anything.

5 – A Post-Colonial School

25In this respect, Laurent Cantet’s film The Class (Entre les murs[10]), which won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, raises an enormous set of political questions, both through its content and through its reception. It is based on the book by François Bégaudeau on his experiences as a teacher in a collège[11] in Paris, but it is by no means a mere adaptation. Indeed, unlike the book – which is centered on the character of the teacher-narrator and complacently describes his life in self-deprecating terms, sometimes with contemptuous irony – the film avoids the pitfalls of narcissism, clearly displaying its documentary stance by way of fiction. But the problem lies precisely in what it documents. And what it documents is a situation where the transmission of knowledge is completely blocked, a situation in which the institution of the school, the nexus par excellence for the possibility of equal opportunity through shared access to knowledge, has on the contrary become the site of social reproduction and discrimination. Near the end of the film, a female student who has remained essentially silent, one of those who did not participate in the festival of wisecracks and retorts that pepper the script, approaches the teacher as he puts away his things after the last class of the year, and says to him shyly: "But Sir, I haven’t learned anything this year." And she adds: "I don’t want to go to vocational school."

26Nothing more needs to be said. This is when we realize that what we’ve witnessed for and hour and a half was not a comedy of oratory jousting. It was in fact the tragedy of a stagnated social situation, where everything is prearranged so that those students whose vivacity and intelligence have constantly jumped out at us – as has their ignorance of the cultural knowledge that must be exploited in order to maximize their potential – will indeed be sent to vocational schools, to prepare them for the least sought-after professions. Actually, everything in this film seems prearranged so that the institution, logically and with complete impunity, guarantees the failure of those under its responsibility: a spineless administration, powerless teachers on whom the blame is laid, a situation where communication has broken down. The Class does not just put walls (murs) up around an institution that has lost its grip on social reality, but also between those involved in it: a staff room where the discussions go round and round in circles, a classroom where there is never a glimmer of understanding. But unlike what happens in Human Resources (Ressources humaines), one of Cantet’s earlier films, there is no critique of the society to help invigorate the exposé of shortcomings. The film shows us what has become – through a form of division that prolongs and sustains racial divisions with impunity – the discriminatory post-colonial educational system as it self-destructs. It does not show us another reality: one involving a political struggle, on a daily basis, in order to avoid that collapse. A book published in 2007, De la Destruction du savoir en temps de paix[12] [On the Destruction of Knowledge in Peacetime], gives us a rigorous analysis of this political issue in education. If we really want there to be "proles among the bluebloods," the first thing to do, as Rousseau would say, is to "force them to be free [13]." In any event, precisely by imposing a consequential and demanding authority relationship in the most drastic fashion possible, one can share a passion for the profession of philosophy with one’s students (who are, in many places of public schooling and through the effects of social ghettoization in general and educational ghettoization in particular, nearly all from an immigrant background). Because of this, the binary oppositions "obligation / freedom" and "atavism / progressivism" are not only deceptive, but play into the hands of utterly destructive ministers, who ride the wave of that failure in order to impose a thorough demolition of the educational system. The choice is not between Jean-Paul Brighelli’s "atavistic" positions on returning schools to what they were long ago and Philippe Meirieu’s "progressive" (and in fact even more discriminatory) positions on what they have become now: a place where unhappy teachers drag themselves around, completely overwhelmed, constantly guilt-tripped while in a paradoxical position as victims, who are made to believe that a "vivacious" class is one where it is no longer possible for students to listen to each other. These teachers are effectively compelled, through force of circumstance, to abandon public schools to their chaos while the elite go to private schools to get the education they will need to work (and think) efficiently. In this respect, The Class is a revelation.

6 – The Foundations of a Determinism

27Clearly, schools are not the locus of freedom. And when they claim to be, they produce the most pernicious forms of alienation. On the other hand, they can be a place that conditions forms of emancipation: but only on several conditions, which involve the explicit recognition of a few determining factors. In this respect, the question of emancipation can only be raised in Spinozist terms: freedom is only what may highlight the foundations of a determinism, and let it be recognized. The school is the emblematic site for the crystallization of determining cultural factors. And if this is true, the philosophy class is the intellectual production of the obviousness of those factors. This is why the history of philosophy – whose method of instruction in secondary schools is, indeed, widely condemned as "doctrinaire" and "dogmatic" whereas it becomes fundamental in universities – is the mainstay of a form of intellectual emancipation. A philosophical line of thought is neither a body of doctrine, nor the truth of a transcendence revealed to a genius. It is the crystallization of a set of historical and political facts within a mode of thought that quite simply enables the understanding of what we are made of. This includes what the strange tradition that produced us is made of, the tradition whose textbooks present St. Augustine as a pioneer of human rights, Aristotle as a representative of creationism and Descartes as the assistant of St. Anselm. On this matter, it is clear that the tradition in schools and universities, a tradition that is so quick to denounce the doxa as prejudices spread by the media, is much slower to denounce its own dogmatisms, its own presuppositions and its own blind spots. Some aspects of the program in philosophy and of the formulation of its topics may seem to convey these tendencies. A year in terminale only allows for a few glimpses of this bundle of prejudices and paradoxical injunctions at the heart of the "thinking for yourself" to which the educational system often claims to reduce the ideas of Kant and the Enlightenment, by making them the spearhead of a depoliticization of thought. Foucault, in a 1970 interview with the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, summarized the doublespeak of this system as follows:


The philosophy class is the secular equivalent of Lutheranism, the anti-Counter-Reformation: the restoration of the Edict of Nantes. The French bourgeoisie, like the other bourgeoisies, needed that form of freedom. After it failed to be attained in the 16th century, freedom was regained in the 18th century and institutionalized in the 19th century, in a bourgeois form of teaching. The philosophy class is the Lutheranism of a Catholic and anticlerical country. The Anglo-Saxon countries don’t need it, and they do without it [14].

29The "Lutheranism of a Catholic country" is precisely that rhetoric of free thought that claims an unmediated relationship to truth, like the ideology of the Reformation – the product of an interpretation of St. Augustine’s thinking – claimed the constitutive and unmediated relationship to divinity that the Catholic hierarchy had distorted by mediating it through the authority of the pope. And Foucault shows that, in a way, the secular institution of teaching establishes a new theological schema, by inscribing that pretension to self-determination into intellectual conduct, a pretension that blinds it to the political reality of its determining factors:


Secondary schools, which thrived thanks to philosophy, ensured the training of an elite to compensate for universal suffrage, to guide its application, to limit its misuse. This meant creating, on behalf of a deficient Lutheranism, a politico-moral consciousness. A national guard of consciousnesses [15].

31Here we clearly see the idea that "thinking for yourself," the individuated and unmediated spontaneism that is the official slogan for teaching philosophy, indeed participates in a political logic of control, and that a veritable system of doublespeak is at the center of that production. But the duplicity of this system, which originally claimed to ensure the "training of an elite," once again enters a mise-en-abyme, and is made yet more duplicitous by the massifying conditions of public education, where the injunction this time seems to be to stand in the way of transmission, to not even allow the slightest advancement of the fiction of "free thought."

32The "thinking for yourself" of the German Protestant elite of the 19th century is thus used as a weapon against a school population that it keeps in a state of ignorance and social inferiority, in a context where the ideological individualism of discourses goes hand in hand with the constant manipulation of the masses. Ultimately, the students understand the injunction as telling them to learn nothing, while the teachers understand it as telling them to impart nothing, in other words to leave the door wide open for the media to have its way with both sides.

7 – Teaching, Held at Gunpoint

33It seems obvious that the advice that teachers are constantly given – to be willing to listen, to demand nothing, to foster the student’s development – is in radical contradiction to the very need to teach, under quantitative conditions that left the one-on-one teacher-student relationship behind long ago. And if the means offered for this come into such open conflict with the tacitly endorsed goal, it is precisely because that goal is not the mandated one. Until the mid-20th century, the "hussars of the Republic [16]" had the duty to promote equal opportunity in schools, but now it is clear that that role is reversed and has become one of standing guard over the state of things, and suppressing the slightest hint of social mobility.

34The teacher stands by the bedside of students now considered as "having great difficulties" or, to use a recently-coined nosographic term, "décrocheurs[17]", and is tasked with holding the student’s hand like a nurse in a ward for the terminally ill, without hope of seeing the slightest improvement in their condition. Of course, we are at some distance from the English school system, where the violence of the disciplinary measures, as pernicious as it was, at least demonstrated some insistence on perfectibility. We are at the heights of doublespeak, where an educational system finds itself robbed of everything that could be called "educational." This robbery is one aspect of a twofold perspective: the discriminatory construction of a class of politically weakened subjects on the one hand, and on the other, the commercial construction of an economically profitable education that is no longer integrated into the circuits of learning, but into those of the consumer society. This two-part process, of robbery and profitability, produces what I called in another text "the humanitarization of public education": [18] a system in which the vocabulary of understanding, of the consideration of psychological factors, of pity and, more generally, of a "compassionate" discourse regarding the students, masks the reality of class domination, in which teachers get to the point where they no longer expect anything from those students whose progress they are supposed to further.

35The system that has been established does not content itself with producing teachers who are perpetually discredited, and made to feel guilty by the class relations that the public school imposes on them, teachers presented by the standards of the media – in films for example – as constantly confronted by "school violence," and incapable of handling a classroom situation. It also discredits them through an attenuation of their fields of study, which transforms them into transmitters of what they themselves haven’t learned, to the point where they are assigned social functions with no relationship to their training. In this respect, the expansion of the role of the "homeroom teacher" (professeur principal) in high schools in the early 1990s is particularly revealing. Here is the passage describing this role in the official guidelines:


The homeroom teacher, with the teaching staff, regularly prepares an overview of the student’s situation, with input from the psychologist/guidance counselor, the educational advisor or chief educational advisor, the student him or herself and his or her family, and if necessary the school doctor, the nurse and the social worker.

37In this way, all of the adults – whether professionals or not – who are supposed to participate in the student’s development are placed at the same level, while the coordination between them is provided by a teacher whose hiring for this position does not presuppose either any experience or competence regarding this kind of coordination. And the considerable time and energy that such a task entails can only be spent to the detriment of another temporality: the preparation of courses, the correction of homework and the supervision of the classroom’s academic progress, which are in themselves a full-time occupation, giving ample justification for the idea that the time teachers spend physically present at a given institution is inferior to their overall working hours.

8 – An Education Integrated into the Circuits of the Consumer Society

38Edith Wolf, a literature teacher, has given one interpretation of this in the joint publication mentioned earlier, aptly titled On the Destruction of Knowledge in Peacetime:


The IUFMs [19], created in 1989, served as the framework for a reorientation of teacher training, which brings teachers closer to the role played by social workers: remediation, and the consideration of "communities" who are failing in school, are omnipresent in the official discourse, which also borrows a part of its vocabulary from the business world [20].

40This highlights the deeper meaning behind this socialization of the teaching profession: not the possibility of reestablishing equal opportunity and a level playing field for schooling, but on the contrary a situation where schools are treated like businesses, associating the humanitarian vocabulary of remediation, help and support with the economic vocabulary of management. This leads to what Edith Wolf analyzes as the direct consequence of the reorientation of the 1990s:


The private tutoring industry is thriving: there are now countless firms such as Profadom, Complétude, and Acadomia. The sales figures for Acadomia increased by a million euros between 1998 and 2003, and it is listed on the stock market (Le Monde, May 2 2005). The families who resort to this system receive a 50% reduction in taxes [21].

42Public funds, taken from the educational system through reductions in staff numbers, credit restrictions, budgetary squeezes and destructive reforms, are at the same time redirected through tax reductions to the private tutoring industry. Money is tellingly diverted from the free system of education that it is supposed to secure for the whole population in order to encourage, as a consequence, the transformation of the right to education into a commercial service, and its confiscation by the social reproduction of a creditworthy elite.

43In the same book, Kathleen Barbereau takes a broader view by resituating the educational question within the context of the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994:


It is an adjustable framework agreement that paved the way for a progressive liberalization of all services, and succeeded in getting countries to ratify the reclassification as "services," that is as commercial activities subject to the rules of competition, of what our societies consider inalienable human rights: education, health, culture, access to water [22].

45That says it all about what unites the discredit cast on the teaching profession, the destruction of the public school system, and the humanitarization of public education, each embedded in the same logic, affecting all areas of public life: reclassifying an inalienable right as a commercial service, and intentionally arranging for the deterioration that allows it to happen. So it is only to the extent that teaching is not concerned with social assistance, and is rather an activity of symbolic structuring, that it may participate in an "isonomy": equality under the law of what nature has not made equal, emancipation in the face of natural determinism, with the aim of producing the determining factors of culture. But the very experience of teaching philosophy, ever since its origins in France in the 19th century, shows us the effects of cultural doublespeak: the pretense of emancipation, concerning the determining factors of class, through the vocation of "public instruction," and the standardization of minds through the project of a national educational system.

46But this project of standardization is itself twofold: whereas governmentality presupposes, through the state’s commitment, the possibility of a shared access to the same cultural requirements and the same qualification criteria, that ambition, from the outset, was correlative to the class barrier that the advancement from primary to secondary school represented [23]. That barrier, seemingly lifted by the introduction of compulsory education until the age of sixteen, was well and truly continued in the system of vocational schools. Through that system’s magic, what is officially presented in terms of career choices is ultimately translated in terms of social division, then – through the geopolitical configurations of urban planning associated with the map of school districts – in terms of territorial discrimination. In this way, the democratization of education, far from supporting the measures needed for social mobility, has on the contrary produced all the conditions of its inertia. This renders a large segment of the teaching profession powerless on two levels: powerless to further the intellectual progress of the subjects with whom they are entrusted, and powerless to participate in the social advancement of the age groups for whom they are responsible. Jules Ferry, the creator of the system of public instruction – of free, secular and mandatory schools – was also one of the promoters of France’s colonial adventure in the late 19th century: this gives us a very clear idea of the paradoxical injunction to which the teaching profession finds itself fundamentally subject. And the massive arrival of immigrant communities in the schools of the Republic – a category of individuals who, in Ferry’s view, could not constitute the people – forces the educational system to come to terms with its own aporias, and with the hypocrisy of its doublespeak.

figure im1

47This hypocrisy fully benefits the radically alienating and comprehensively globalizing mission of the WTO: the transformation of a fundamental right into a commercial service. The more public school teachers – and more symbolically philosophy teachers – are driven to give up the basic requirements of their role, the more they become active participants in that alienation. Education is the focus of a veritable social war, and a war is not won with noble sentiments.


  • [1]
    Terminale is the final year in French secondary schools, equivalent to senior year in US high schools or the upper sixth form in British and other Commonwealth schools [translator’s note].
  • [2]
    The French dissertation is akin to the five-paragraph essay with which American students are familiar, on a topic typically phrased in the form of a question ("Are religion and freedom mutually exclusive?", for example). The commentaire de texte is a close reading and analysis (and not merely a reiteration) of a passage from a given text, philosophical in this case. Both forms are generally more rigorous than their US equivalents [translator’s note].
  • [3]
    Because in France the format of the final exam is established by decrees from the ministry of education, most recently one from 17 July 2020 [translator’s note].
  • [4]
    A concept created by the philosopher Marc Sautet in 1992, where those interested in philosophy meet in cafés to discuss topics chosen through a vote. See Marlise Simons, "Thought For Food: Cafes Offer Philosophy In France," New York Times, May 2, 1998 [translator’s note].
  • [5]
    See Immanuel Kant, "An Answer to the Question:’What is Enlightenment?’," in Political Writings, trans. H.B. Nisbet, ed. Hans Siegbert Reiss (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 54 [translator’s note].
  • [6]
    In English in the text [translator’s note].
  • [7]
    Michel Foucault, "La vérité et ses formes juridiques" [1973], Dits et écrits vol. I (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), 1452 ["Truth and Juridical Forms," trans. Robert Hurley, in Power (Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 vol. 3), ed. James D. Faubion (New York: The New Press, 2000), 48].
  • [8]
    Foucault, "La ’gouvernementalité’" [1978], Dits et écrits vol. II (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), 640 ["Governmentality," trans. Colin Gordon, in Power, 206].
  • [9]
    Foucault, "Les techniques de soi" [1982], Dits et écrits vol. II, 1604 ["Technologies of the Self," trans. Robert Hurley, in Ethics: Subjectivity And Truth (Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 vol. 1), ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 225].
  • [10]
    The literal translation of the title is "Between the Walls" [translator’s note].
  • [11]
    In the French system of secondary schools, the collège is the equivalent of junior high school in the US or the 1st to 3rd forms in the UK system [translator’s note].
  • [12]
    De la Destruction du savoir en temps de paix, ed. Corinne Abensour (Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2007) [translator’s note].
  • [13]
    "[W]hoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to be free […]." Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "The Social Contract" (book I, chapter VII, "The Sovereign"), trans. Henry J. Tozer and Susan Dunn, The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses, ed. Susan Dunn (New Haven / London: Yale University Press, 2002), 166 [translator’s note].
  • [14]
    Foucault, "Le Piège de Vincennes," in Dits et écrits vol. I, 935.
  • [15]
    Foucault, "Le Piège de Vincennes," 935.
  • [16]
    A variation on "the black hussars of the Republic" (les Hussards noirs de la République), a nickname given to schoolteachers and associated with the writer Charles Péguy, in reference to their long black coats (in Péguy’s text actually worn by the students at teachers’ colleges), their attachment to republican values, and their severity [translator’s note].
  • [17]
    "Décrocheur" is typically translated as "dropout," but in this context it is intended to mean "likely to drop out" [translator’s note].
  • [18]
    Christiane Vollaire, "Affronter l’humanitarisation de l’enseignement public," in Enseigner les humanités: enjeux, programmes et méthodes, ed. Jean-Noël Laurenti and Romain Vignest (Paris: Kimé, 2010).
  • [19]
    The Instituts universitaires de formation des maîtres (University Institutes for Teacher Training) were teacher training schools established to replace the former écoles normales. They were eliminated in 2013 after being criticized for an overly theoretical approach [translator’s note].
  • [20]
    Edith Wolf, "Les vrais enjeux des réformes," in De la destruction du savoir en temps de paix, 186.
  • [21]
    Wolf, "Les vrais enjeux des réformes," 198.
  • [22]
    Kathleen Barbereau, "La fin de l’éducation nationale?", in De la destruction du savoir en temps de paix, 30.
  • [23]
    The author is referring to the period during which primary school was free in France (as a result of the famous Ferry laws of 1881), but secondary school was still not (it only became free in 1933) [translator’s note].