What do we know about Mr. Vincent Peillon’s plan to reform France’s public school system, currently under discussion in the French Senate? Not much, actually.
The text of the bill makes it compulsory to teach the “values of the Republic” and “critical thinking,” which will now be part of each child’s right to education, even for children receiving private instruction at home or off-contract (new article L131-1-1). The bill also replaces civics class
with “moral and civic education” aimed at helping students “acquire respect for the person, his origins, and his differences, equality between women and men, and secularism” (new article L311-4). This “moral and civic education aims to help students become responsible and free citizens, develop critical thinking abilities, and adopt a thoughtful behavior. This teaching entails, at all stages of education, training in the values of the French Republic and knowledge and respect for the rights of the child” (new article L. 312-15).
As for primary school, the text adopted by the National Assembly in the first reading indicates that “it provides the conditions for education in gender equality. Along with the family, it provides moral and civic education, which must allow the exercise of citizenship and the learning of the values and symbols of the Republic and the European Union, including the national anthem and its history .”
This moral and civic education will be taught
by professors of history, science, and natural history starting in the fall of 2015 for one hour per week in primary and middle school. It will be mandatory, including for private schools under contract. Classes must be graded. This intention to restore honor to secular morality and citizenship
is a response, understandably, to the need for a common cultural framework, a Republic
, for a generation of youth that is socially fragmented, often illiterate and violent. It is about building “a better life together in our society” (explanatory memorandum).
This generation of youth is influenced by political, identitarian, religious, sexist, racist, and homophobic fundamentalism; it often adopts a hostile attitude to French culture. In a nutshell, large sections of the youth must be re-civilized and incorporated into French society, and this task belongs to the schools of the Republic. This is Mr. Peillon’s praiseworthy ambition, which is responding to a very real problem. The main means proposed are the hiring of 60,000 additional teachers, a massive investment in digital technology, and the teaching of morality and republican values.
The current situation of youth is not due to the failure of public education, but to the failure of families, because of their social, cultural, and religious determinism. Thus we understand the desire to educate children starting at the age of 2 and give high priority especially to children from immigrant populations.
The Minister also decided that a Charter of Secularism
should be added to each school’s rules in 2013. This charter defines the principles of secularism and will be binding on teachers and students. The drafting of the charter text has been entrusted to the High Council for Integration
that works to “block communitarianism.” It is here that we see the purpose
of teaching “morality” and “civic values”, and the National Education Minister’s concept of the Republic. In spite of the lack of precision about the future content of this moral and civic instruction, which is still under development, it is possible to refer to the Minister’s remarks and writings. He has stated
: “The purpose of secular morality is to remove the student from all forms of determinism, whether familial, ethnic, social, or intellectual” in order to “enable each student to emancipate himself” because “the purpose of the republican school has always been to produce a free individual.”(National Assembly, full report on the second meeting of Thursday, March 14, 2013 report.) These statements are not accidental; rather, they summarize a coherent thought, an ideology. Thus, in his programmatic book Let Us Refound the School,
published in February 2013, the Education Minister explains that “In our republican tradition, it is the school’s responsibility not only to produce a free individual, emancipated from all guardianships – political, religious, familial, social – so that he can make his own choices as an independent, fulfilled, and happy individual, but also to educate the informed citizen of a democratic, just, and fraternal Republic” (p. 12). The Minister warns the reader, as if it were necessary, that “the Republican school has never claimed to be neutral toward all values. While secularism has indeed meant religious neutrality [...], it has never meant philosophical or political neutrality” (p. 134).
One of the determinisms from which children must be freed is that of gender identity. Mr. Peillon announces in his book that the “battle against gender stereotypes and homophobia must be waged forcefully at all levels of education. Gender stereotypes must be challenged starting in primary school” (p.128). Addressing the education authorities, Mr Peillon said last January, “The government is committed to relying on the youth to change mentalities, particularly through education that teaches respect for the diversity of sexual orientations.” (Letter from Vincent Peillon, National Education Minister to the rectors
, dated January 4, 2013) The book in which Mr. Peillon
reveals his personal thought is The Revolution Is Not Over
, published by Seuil in 2008. Here is what he says about the school:
It is up to [the school] to break this circle [of determinisms], to produce this self-institution, to be the matrix that constantly generates Republicans to build the Republic, a preserved Republic, a pure Republic, a timeless Republic within the actual Republic. The school must work the miracle of begetting in which the child, stripped of all his pre-Republican ties, will rise up to become a citizen, an autonomous subject. It is a new birth, a transubstantiation brought about in the school and by the school, this new Church, with its new clergy, its new liturgy, its new tablets of the Law. Republican and secular society has no choice but to ‘teach itself’ (Quinet) to be a perpetual renewal of the Republic in every Republican, a continuous begetting of each citizen in every child, a peaceful but permanent revolution”.(The Revolution Is Not Over, Seuil, 2008, p. 17)
The link between the school and secularism is clear: the school-church is the place for teaching the secularism-religion. He adds:
Because of its desire to remove religious determinism and scientific determinism, the Republican synthesis is forced to invent a new metaphysics and a new religion in which it is man ... who will appear as an infinite that constantly “transcends himself” (J. Lagneau). This religion is not a religion of God made man, nor is it a religion of a man who makes himself God. It is a religion of the man who creates himself through constant movement (p.141-142).
Later, he continues:
What socialism still needs in order to emerge as the thought of a new era is a new religion. Thus, a new dogma, a new regime, a new cult must arise so that a new society will take the place of the old. Secularism itself can thus appear as this religion of the Republic that was desired since the Revolution It is to socialism that the Republic will turn in order to carry out the religious revolution that humanity needs, by being both a moral revolution and a material revolution, and by putting the latter at the service of the first (p.195). In his biography of Ferdinand Buisson
, he specifies about this secular faith that “the whole operation really consists in changing the very nature of religion, of God, of Christ, and of finally defeating the Church. Not just the Catholic Church, but any Church and any orthodoxy. Human deism, the humanization of Jesus, a religion without dogma or authority or Church, the whole purpose of secularism is not to abandon the ideal, the infinite, justice and love, or the divine, but to renew them in the end as part of a requirement and a task that are at once intellectual, moral, and political.” (A religion for the Republic: the Secular Faith of Ferdinand Buisson
, Le Seuil, 2010, 277)
These quotes (which cannot do total justice to their author’s intelligence) offer a glimpse, for the uninitiated, into the ideological background of the moral and civic education project. We have yet to know its precise content, and how teachers in the public and private sector will teach it, up to at least one hour per week, according to the Minister's wishes.
As one can see, the Minister’s ambition and faith are considerable, and the challenge to integrate the youth is no less considerable. One may still be skeptical of this secular faith and its effectiveness, but can one still express it openly? His education will be compulsory for all children and the classes will be graded . What is the stance of private schools
toward the project of rebuilding society through schools? Do they have anything else to offer, and do they have anywhere near the same missionary zeal as Mr. Peillon? In any case, private education under contract is in the paradoxical situation of being forced to teach this secular morality, while having to impose a ban on religious education to its students.
According to its contents, this moral teaching is likely not only to strike against the “specific character” of private education, but also the natural right of parents to ensure the education and teaching of their children “in accordance with their religious and philosophical convictions,” a right guaranteed particularly by the European Convention on Human Rights.
Finally, the bill contains a more symbolic provision: it states that “the Republic’s motto and the tricolor flag must be displayed on the façade of any public or private school under contract. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 shall be applied in all these institutions.”(also see this
) It is not clear whether the symbols of the republic should be placed above or below the cross which often adorns the façades of Catholic schools.