Controlling Thought in French Schools and Beyond

France as a whole—if we can speak that way of a high culture whose chief unity consists in a shared distaste for consensus—has behaved irrationally only in those historic moments when called upon to defend reason. When a true Frenchman has lost an argument on the basis of its merit, his last recourse and gravest insult is to call his opponent a “pseudo–intellectual.” The term reeks with elegant contempt for those whose principles are better in practice than in theory.

I am speaking with reference to a debate now going on in France about the state system of education. Far from condescending to those involved, I cite it as a sort of template for the problems facing the schools in the United States. It is civilized to look to France, because, as the playwright Henry de Bornier had Charlemagne say  “Tout homme a deux pays, le sien et puis la France,”—Every man has two countries, his own and France. If that sounds chauvinistic, well, Nicolas Chauvin was a son of France.

From time to time the French tendency to resolve philosophical points of view by rushing to the barricades has been to some good effect. Take, for instance, the surprisingly huge marches through Paris against abortion and the redefinition of marriage.  Last May, those who went “aux barricades” did so because of proposed changes in the curriculum of the middle school (or “college”) for ages 11 to 15.  This is not a novelty, since the tinkering is an almost annual compulsion, in spite of the fact that academic performance seems to drop regularly compared with many other nations. Besides some change in structure and methodology to which the more leftist teachers unions object, the difference in the recent mandates (which have apparently have been postponed) is the dropping of much of the classical system in favor of social polemics.

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Latin, now studied by 20 percent of the college students in France, is discouraged as elitist.  So is German, which might have become France’s national language not long ago without Anglophonic military assistance.  Given the commercial facts of the European Union, one would think that German would now be an advantage. Its avoidance, along with Greek, is said to be indicative of the government’s desire to de-Europeanize the cultural matrix. The Latin roots of French civilization and medieval Christianity would be optional courses, while the history of Islam, its sources and expansion, would be compulsory–obviously taught mostly by Muslim teachers.  European history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would emphasize the inequities of colonialism and the slave trade, while the great writers of the national literary canon would be virtually ignored.  Social memory is evicted so that ideology might be ensconced.

The current Minister of Education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, is a member of the Socialist Party, and a Moroccan-born “non-practicing Muslim.”  Before she backed off for the time being, her predecessor, Luc Ferry, with a typical Gallic disinclination for understatement, or “euphémisme,” called her proposals “scandalous, empty-headed, noxious, and partisan.”  Two steps forward, one step back.  In 1945, there were 100,000 Muslims in France. There now are nearly seven million. With increasing Muslim immigration and a current Muslim population now approaching 10 percent, possessing a birthrate three to four times that of the rest of the nation, 40 percent of the population could be Islamic within fifteen years. One should expect tension in classrooms where common warnings about the social destructiveness of Islam are found in Bossuet, Chateaubriand, Condorcet, Flaubert, Montaigne, Montesquieu and de Tocqueville. Thus, they are in the cross hairs of the national education establishment.

Voltaire was more wary of Islam than Christianity: “Nothing is more terrible than a people who having nothing to lose, fight with a combination of rapacity and religion.”  In religious matters a utilitarian, Napoleon idiosyncratically perceived Islam as a threat only to those who threatened him and declared under the Egyptian sun, if only for propaganda, that Mohammed was “a great man.” He objected to Voltaire having attributed to Mohammed,  “whatever trickery can invent that is most atrocious and whatever fanaticism can accomplish that is most horrifying.” In 2005, Voltaire’s play “Mahomet” was revived in Saint-Genis-Pouilly, inciting “street disturbances,” to which the much put upon mayor refused to yield “in the name of France.”  For the poet Vigny, the crescent moon was a suitable symbol of Islam, for it was “trompeuse et sans chaleur”—derivative and without heat.

André Malraux, De Gaulle’s Minister of Culture said that a united Europe is a utopia because political unity needs a common enemy, and the only common enemy that could unite it would be Islam.  He was succeeded as Minister of Culture under Giscard d’Estaing by Alain Peyrefitte, a confidant of De Gaulle. In Peyrefitte’s 1973 book predicting the emergence of China Quand la Chine s’éveillera, he wrote as an aside: “‘Islamophobia’ is only a term intended to silence all criticisms emanating from non-Muslims … the West trembles before this threat and yields to the temptation of compassion, an attitude that Islam despises and considers weakness.  The West took refuge in the illusion of peace with an enemy who only aspires to impose a new order, that of the Islamic sharia. Is it not time to give up the naïve vanity of wanting to westernize Islam?”  The ashes of Malraux are in the Pantheon and Peyrefitte is buried in Les Invalides but their words are not to be read in the schools.  Another vanishing shadow is De Gaulle, who remarked to Peyrefitte that the French and Muslims are like oil and vinegar, and if we try to mix them, “mon village ne s’appelerait plus Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, mais Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées.”

In the ninth century, two theological schools contended within Sunni Islam. The Mu’tazilites directed man’s first duty to reason and justice, believing that is the nature of Allah.  Contrarily, the Ash’arites held that man is subject to the arbitrary will and power of Allah.  This is the third rail that Pope Benedict XVI touched upon in his singularly prophetic Regensburg address, which some dissembling prelates considered fractious.  The Ash’arites disdain historical realism, reducing history to a static myth, with consequences for all empirical studies, including physical science. The Nigerian founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, for instance, said in 2009: “Present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam. Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and become [sic] rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teaching of Allah, we reject it.”  But Western educators should be cautious in mocking this when, by motives callow or cunning, they revise fact.

It is a crime against our universal patrimony for the Islamic State to blow up monuments of the Assyrian Empire.  It is a more subtle crime, but criminal nonetheless, for educators with an agenda to tear down what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and known.”  Consider how the Scholastic Aptitude and Advanced Placement tests in the United States increasingly slight or ignore the great figures and foundational documents of our national life.  Washington, Franklin, and Madison are fugitive ghosts; the Declaration of Independence is lost down the memory hole; and the Second World War is an awkward distraction. Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said the proposed outline for Advanced Placement history “weaves together a vaguely Marxist or at least materialist reading of the key events with the whole litany of identity-group grievances.”

The future will decide whether reason or revision wins the laurels, but that future is shaped in the schools. The French education bureaucracy is known with strained cynicism as Le Mammouth—the Mammoth. It remains to be seen if our own federal Department of Education which, if the 10th Amendment is a serious construction, has no Constitutional authority over local schools—and the rebarbative “Common Core” program, will lumber the way of Le Mammouth. It is astonishing that so many Catholic school systems, neglecting the Church’s social tenet of subsidiarity, have displayed such mindless magnanimity toward the federalization of education.  We may not be Parisian enough to cry “Aux Barricades!” But we can profit from the counsel of Chesterton on the virtue of classical education over ideology: “Without education, we are in the horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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