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This article is essentially a commentary on a little-known text by 'Alain' (whose real name was Emile-Auguste Chartier), successively entitled Les marchands de sommeil and Vigiles de l'esprit. This piece of work, initially a prize-giving speech to students in a Parisian lycee, was rewritten by Alain many years later during the Second World War. It describes with acute intelligence and in a splendid metaphoric language the enduring and compelling proposition that the formation of critical judgement should be the ultimate purpose of all teaching.
People say the same thing is happening everywhere, even though there are local variations; all over the world the study of the 'humanities', and even of languages (other than the new lingua franca, American English), is going through an unprecedented crisis that may rightly make us fear for their very survival into the future. In Europe, probably never since the Renaissance has the threat of a return to barbarism or vacuity (the difference is not very great) in education been so clear.
My aim is not to launch into the complaint we have heard all too often, whose repetition, one might even say monotony, is proof of the impotence of the men of goodwill who do take it up. As far as France is concerned, I shall simply refer to a conference (another one) held recently, which brought together (genuine) good minds--among them Dominique Boutet, Emmanuel Bury, Antoine Compagnon, Michel Zink--and resulted in an excellent little book, focusing, rather more so than many others, on concrete reality and action: Propositions pour les enseignements litteraires (2000). From it I take the following few lines written by Alain Finkielkraut (pp. 91-6) in his pointed argument against what he ironically calls 'the cultural revolution in our schools'.
According to his analysis, which comes from the advocates of reform at all costs, 'teachers, who are too devoted to their subject and their libraries, are simultaneously guilty of archaism, selfishness and elitism'. As for teachers of literature in particular, 'they chose an old humanistic profession but now we are asking them to work in a new humanitarian one. Taken together, helping kids at risk and defending the equal status of all people require us, if not always to close our books, at least to move on from a limited and sanctified conception to an open conception of literature, [to] texts that anyone can produce.' Then Finkielkraut concludes: 'Schools are not dominated by a liberal idea that has become tyrannical. They are dominated by a democratic idea that has become all-consuming. It is this idea that rejects the concept of art as one of greatness, a strict hierarchy of values, in favour of a cult of equality whose slogan is: we are all writers, artists, creators' (2000: 91-6).
As with so many other debates, we can see how far the one about education has become political, in France at least. And this development is probably inevitable, given the current state of French society. But we can also approach the question from a higher level, and this, far from fudging the issue, means instead that we examine it in a more accurate light. It is for this reason that I would like, at several points in these pages, to quote an exceptional man who is scandalously forgotten, even in his native land.
The person I am talking about is Alain (1868-1951). His fate has been one that will soon render unknown even such names as Montaigne, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyere, Vauvenargues, Chamfort, Joubert ..., that is to say, the names of the great family of French moralists of whom Nietzsche said that it had produced a kind of literary 'chamber music' unmatched in world literary history. So it would perhaps be useful if in a few words I introduce Alain (whose real name was Emile-Auguste Chartier) and especially the text by him that I very much want to familiarize you with.
Alain finds his rightful place among us when we explore our splendid and difficult profession as teachers of languages and literature in a world that is often so different from the one described by the works we are called to pass on. Alain was himself a teacher of philosophy. But he was definitely not a philosophy teacher as the role is very widely conceived of, a combination of bookworm and dreamer who has opted to live among abstractions. Alain was hugely respected by his students in the top class (he himself had studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure). He was nothing like the 'philosophy master' caricatured by Moliere. Besides the fact that he was a master who inspired respect because of his knowledge as well as his modesty, he was bathed in the glory that came from having seen war at close quarters. And nevertheless he more than anyone was focused on and fascinated by life, aware of its Heraclitean ebb and flow, attuned to it by a kind of superior confidence. (For the record I should point out that Alain's war was the one that in France we normally call 'La Grande Guerre', the 'Great War', the 1914-18 war, which consumed and crushed infinitely more lives than the 1939-45 war, though the latter was so pitiless and cruel in its own particular way.)
Because he was an alumnus of a very prestigious institution, Alain could …