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Who came up with the crazy idea of education?

by Théophane Le Méné

" These bad students are the outcasts of a new world, the world of globalisation "

Every three years, the publication of the PISA* rankings causes uproar in the Western countries – often the largest amongst them – that occupy the lower echelons. France, Germany, the US and the UK are at the back of the pack, while Finland, South Korea and a slew of Asian countries look down on them from the heights of the podium.

Everyone has their own enlightened opinion on the vices of assessment, said to favour the so-called “Anglo-Saxon” educational system – although, interestingly enough, it is the Asians who excel –, and on the desperate decline in educational standards in their own countries. While such views have their kernel of truth, nobody seems willing to put their head above the parapet and point out the exact, primary reasons for the PISA ranking. The countries that triumph are either nations with small, homogeneous populations, or nations in which education is still meted out with the severity of a bygone age. There is no shortage of excellent pupils in France and the United States; in fact there are more of them there than elsewhere. But those countries also have more than their fair share of bad students.

These bad students, whose incompetence is sometimes flagrant, were not conjured up with the swish of a magic wand. They are the outcasts of a new world, the world of globalisation, of the disappearance of social values other than those of money, power and domination. We can observe, and it’s an irony of history, the re-emergence of massive class inequalities in the countries once most concerned with equality, the well know countries of the “level playing field.” The children of immigration and of the déclassé indigenous population, these students are paying the price of an anti-society in which the exacerbation of individual desire has undermined all pre-existing forms of solidarity. School is obligatory, but its goals are muddy, variable, undefined. It is as if, in a sense, it had become an activities centre designed to help out busy parents – little valets of capital – otherwise doomed to dealing with their progeny for the entire day. Education has always been a rival to the family in terms of inculcating values, those of the paternal or maternal business of which one took up the reins when the time came, those of the region or milieu into which one was born. Confronted with theses particularist realities that sometimes had a restricting effect, school was an arena of the universality of knowledge where anyone, no matter where they came from, was able to demonstrate their talent for being human. School was this space of abstraction: the abstraction of origins, of the knowledge dispensed there, of the future trade or profession.

But today, this power of abstraction has turned on itself: by dint of displaying too great a faith in the idea that anyone can have access to knowledge under any circumstances, Western egalitarian and universalist systems have forgotten the demands on which their foundations were originally built. The social promotion and intellectual elevation dangled like carrots at the end of the educational cursus justified the process of acculturation of the beneficiaries of the system and the means applied to achieving it. Alas, the great bourgeois libertarian revolution of the 1960s, naively trusting in the future and in the innate goodness of humanity, broke the severe but fair mechanism of this educational approach. At the same time, neo-liberalism has thrown the nobility of the humanities that produced the honnête homme into the dustbins of history, favouring instead the competent, though limited professional, efficient, bankable and adapted to the market. Knowing what’s expected of him, the student of Western educational systems reifies himself, working diligently to transform himself into a dependable worker saving for his inevitable retirement.

The fall down the rankings corresponds, more than anything else, to the loss of meaning of the future of the psychologically aging countries, whose youngest generations no longer aspire to finding a comfortable position as a cog in the great productive machine. They have long since stopped seeking an honest man, as Diogenes once said, and the lantern of their curiosity went out long ago.

*Program for International Student Assessment

Théophane Le Méné

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