Knowledge Belongs to the Past

An interview with Marcel Gauchet by Maciej Nowicki

Humanism was based on the assumption that you need to know things in order to exist as a human being. Today an individual exists regardless of any culture or knowledge acquired—says Marcel Gauchet in an interview with Maciej Nowicki

You wrote recently: “The university thinks of everything. It does not think only about itself.” How should it be understood?

For several decades, everybody has been speaking about a crisis in education. This is not very helpful, for we interpret the crisis in a wrong way. Schools or universities are constantly urged to correct the situation through changing pedagogical methods. Of course, you have to ask questions regarding teaching methods themselves, but current problems are mostly of cultural or anthropological nature. Yet we do not appreciate the scope of the changes that have taken place in our societies.

What changes do you have in mind?

It is an insidious phenomenon, occurring without major upheavals, and maybe that is why we do not notice it. However, in the 1960s and 1970s there was a complete change in understanding basic concepts, such as “culture”, “scholarship” or the role of knowledge in society. The so-called 1968 generation was an unwitting agent of that change. Today, it even experiences certain remorse. Because it has only recently understood to what extent our societies rely on the past, on respecting certain hierarchies of values.

In the past the school was based on transmitting a certain portion of knowledge to a student who remained passive. In the new school the student is much more active. What is wrong with that?

At first glance, nothing is wrong. It’s just that we have gone too far. We have behaved in such a way as if it was enough to make this change and then the teaching process would have no secrets for us. Unfortunately, nothing like that has happened. Instead of a Copernican revolution, we have a great leap into a void. The 1960s revolution put the individual on an absolute pedestal. We started to take the students as they were, and our main goal was to increase their own abilities, according to their own needs. That is the so-called self-fulfillment. This is, by the way, a reflection of a major modern myth that everyone is a self- made man or a self-made woman. Thus we owe nothing or almost nothing to others…

This “privatized” vision of education has a certain gap in it. Learning requires a certain logic in building the successive stages of acquiring knowledge. If everything is constructed around the passions and desires of the individual, there is a great risk that not much will come out of it. There is a certain ideal. But there is also a certain school practice: producing passivity through active methods. When the students are required to be more active, most of them simply get stuck. This rule applies even at university.

You sound as if calling for greater activity did not have any advantages.

It does have advantages, and considerable ones at that. But mostly among students from the so-called well-to-do families, not among lower classes. The latter ones show enthusiasm initially, sometimes quite big, but it burns out quickly. This is because they also have the need for security. And a too personal, too tailor-made approach robs them of this sense of security. They want the institution to give them certain guarantees, to make certain decisions for them. This new “activist” school was supposed to be more democratic, was to serve building a better and more just world. But the new methods meant that inequalities increased. The school ceased to be a “social elevator.”

You once were a radical leftist and now you are criticizing educational institutions for their “progressivism.” But we at least as often hear that they are outdated and disconnected from reality.

The school has to remain a few steps back. It cannot keep up with what is happening in the most advanced sectors of society, for that would mean its death. For example, it cannot announce that everything it has taught so far is of no use in the era of “digital natives.” It has to act as the teacher in a book by Jules Romains, who immediately after the announcement to students that a bloody and terrible war awaits Europe, passes on to the “actual topic:” “And now I begin our arithmetic lesson.” An educational institution is based on a different notion of time—knowledge is acquired slowly and references to the past are frequent, while anticipation of the future, although it does appear, only plays a discreet role…

This is hardly good publicity.

Let us not fool ourselves, the school has lost much of its former great privileges. Its legitimacy was based on access to information and books—in the age of digitalization it looks slightly different. Its ability to stimulate the imagination has also slumped. We no longer live in an era where entertainments are rare and the school is a window to the world. The media have invaded a huge space in our life and they have a much greater “audience” than educational institutions. In a situation where our society highly appreciates certain hedonism, the school is left with an ungrateful task of imparting knowledge which does not offer direct benefits or immediate pleasure.

Jonathan Franzen was asked once why should we read books. And he answered this question with another question: “Is there any benefit from not being an idiot?” This question captures the spirit of our times.

The great role of knowledge or culture in forming the individual belongs to the past. Humanism was based on the assumption that you need to know things in order to exist as a human being. Today an individual exists regardless of any culture or knowledge acquired. This is a great change, the ties between knowledge and humanity have been broken. Knowledge has become something external, having nothing to do with our essence. It is enough that it is accessible thanks to technologies surrounding us, that you can find it in databases which you can plug into whenever necessary. And besides that it is of no major importance. So why bother with it? We constantly hear that we are living in a “knowledge society.” But at the same time knowledge has been greatly devalued.

You sound as if education ceased to play an important role in our societies. But never in the history of mankind has education been accessible to so many.

The mass scale of education is a good thing. But at the same time it leads to another conflict, which we do not know a remedy for. On the one hand we have a large social demand, on the other hand the mass scale of education lowers its quality.

Still, the fact remains that our life revolves around education. Most parents think only about one thing: how to find the best school for their child. As a father I know something about it.

You are right, we need school more and more. We shower it with demands which definitely are beyond its capabilities. But this is due to something else—to the evolution of the family itself. The great dream of French pedagogues from the times of the 1789 revolution was to steal children’s minds from parental authority, in their view more or less obscurantist. They did not want to form children against the parents, but to form them in isolation from their families. And to a great extent, this dream has come true today.

Formerly you became a farmer, shoemaker or lawyer, like your father or grandfather. In many cases an education was only supplementary. It was something which allowed you to live a better life or to be a better citizen. Today, education is primarily a determinant of your career. From the social point of view we are less and less children of our parents.

Besides, there was always a kind of division of labor between family and school. As it was once said, “the family educates, and the school teaches.” But this division of labor is no longer in force. The family wants to dump all the work on the school and it demands from it that it both educates and teaches. The family once was the foundation of the community, it prepared for life in the world, and today it has become “privatized.”

As Hannah Arendt put it: “The family lost its responsibility for the world.”

This is an aspect of the evolution of the family about which definitely too little is said in descriptions of modernity. The new version of the family appears in the 17th and 18th century with the advent of marriage of love and the “discovery” of childhood. In contrast to the old, authoritarian family, the new family is based on the principle of reaching agreement. It recognizes that childhood is different from adulthood, but at the same time it regards education—initiating the child into the world—as its aim. But then the intimate, private factor overrides the educational factor, it invalidates it. From then on the aim of the family is most of all ensuring happiness of its members, to a certain extent in isolation from society. And hence the rather self-contradictory demands of parents towards the school. On the one hand they want the school to turn their child into a dynamic stockbroker, successful in every sphere of life. On the other hand they want their child to be treated at school like at home—as someone absolutely unique, different from all the rest, the whole educational process attuned to its needs and vulnerabilities. As if the school was some store or service center for children.

Although previously the school was based on the assumption that all children should be treated in the same way…

Exactly. And under pressure from parents the school has changed, and not necessarily in the right direction. Many elementary schools in France have adopted the “family style,” which has hurt them a lot. It is very cool there, children like to go to school. Not least because authority is not abused or even used at all. But once they go to secondary school, disaster is in store for them. For they have never written an essay before. Or they are not very good at counting.

“Family style” is based on the assumption that the school does not really need authority. The conservative right would like to begin repairing education through restoring authority.

The times of authority based exclusively on hierarchy have come to an end—whether we want it or not. The old maxim of the French army, “who seeks to understand is disobedient,” is gone forever. And two cheers for that! But the death of authoritarianism does not mean that we do not need figures of authority at all. At school authority is especially important, for the school has no other instruments of influence. Violence is not allowed there and institutional coercion will not induce the students to learn. We will not send police to schools, although such ideas are sometimes entertained. The teacher always embodied something greater than himself or herself. He received a mandate from society, he taught because the community asked him to teach. Today, this pact has been violated. Teachers have to rely solely on their charisma. They work without a clear institutional mandate. Little wonder then that today there is a great discouragement among educators.

Another grim diagnosis…

I do not believe that the situation is irreversible. History has often brought problems for which we had no ready answer. But eventually we always found it. People have to understand that if they want well-educated children, they have to question a whole series of behaviors and attitudes which have spontaneously emerged, and which have specific consequences, often contrary to their expectations. The school or university will not solve these problems on their own. Society must stand behind the teachers, define what it expects from them and give them a clear mandate. And I hope that such times will come. This is my dream.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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