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No More Teachers: French Education’s Back to the Wall by Hélène de Lauzun

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No More Teachers: French Education’s Back to the Wall

In the chorus of lamentations that the contemplation of our decaying Western societies gives rise to, there is one motif that regularly comes up in the mouths of French conservatives: national education is in deep crisis. The public education system, which had its moments of glory during the Third Republic, which had nurtured talents like the fatherless Charles Péguy, facilitating his entry into the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, has been dead and buried for a long time. The time of little Albert Camus—a miserable child spotted on the benches of the local school by his teacher, who, thanks to his master, obtained a scholarship and was thus able to study philosophy—is well and truly over.

This is not a new observation. It has been going on for years. The feelings of many parents and grandparents are clear when faced with the continuous lowering of educational standards. But there is also objective evidence: for many years, France has been falling steadily in international rankings assessing children’s skills at the end of primary or secondary school. The ‘basics’—reading, writing, and counting—remain baffling to an ever-increasing number of pupils. More than 40% of pupils entering secondary school cannot read properly, according to studies dating from 2020. In science, France is ranked second to last in the international TIMSS ranking, just ahead of Chile, and well below the average for both EU and the 38 OECD member countries.

Recently, the reception of Ukrainian refugees on French soil has shed new light on these already well-known facts. The Ukrainian children forced to integrate into French classes were stunned by the low level of attainment, particularly in mathematics. 

An outside view is often extremely effective in waking up parents and teachers who have acquiesced to a generalised cult of mediocrity. At the end of the pre-collegiate curriculum, the French university pays dearly for so many wasted years. Only recently, Aude Denizot, a law professor at the University of Le Mans, drew up an implacable report on the collapse of the level that she observes among students who arrive to begin a course of higher studies. They are totally lacking in the minimal knowledge of the language, without which it is impossible to think in a demanding way. She deplores the fact that even the best students’ papers are riddled with elementary mistakes, when sentences are simply not understandable or even legible. 

The lack of mastery of knowledge is in fact only the reflection of a much deeper crisis in society, of which education is ultimately only one of the places of its expression. National education is the receptacle of a whole set of disastrous policies implemented in France for over forty years. It is now reaping the spoiled fruits of a general crisis of authority: the vertical transmission of knowledge has been banned within it because it is suspected of being fascist. It also bears the consequences of uncontrolled immigration associated with the myth of multiculturalism, supposedly necessary to generate fraternity. In the so-called ‘priority education’ zones, teachers may find themselves faced with classes where several different nationalities live side by side, and where mastery of French is non-existent. There is no possibility of recourse to the authority of parents, since they have no command of the language, little desire to abide by the rules, or trust the school institution. 

The corollary to the absence of authority and frustrated communication is the explosion of violence. Although French schools have escaped the mass killings that have hit the headlines in the United States, they are nonetheless plagued by a dull, continuous, and unhealthy violence that quite simply makes it impossible for children to learn. 

Harassment and its corollary, school phobia, are exploding. But the hierarchy is powerless. It has neither the means nor the will to remedy these ills. A few years ago, a hashtag was all the rage among French teachers, which in itself sums up the disarray of the teaching profession: #pasdevague (no wave)

Don’t make waves, don’t complain. Say nothing, change nothing. Take the blows, and watch helplessly the shipwreck of an institution and its millions of children. 

The press sometimes echoes stories, each as sordid as the next, of powerless, depressed teachers, beaten up, despised: victims of violence, victims of Islamism. The decapitation of Samuel Paty is, in a way, only the tree that hides the forest. Already in 2004, the general inspector of national education Jean-Pierre Obin warned of the communitarian danger in schools: his conclusions were taken up in a book published in 2020, Comment on a laissé l’islamisme pénétrer l’école. He went back over the cohorts of teachers prevented from putting up a Christmas tree in their classrooms, or serving a ‘galette des rois’ (king cake) to their pupils. He warned that girls, needing to adhere to Islamic dress codes, would brandish medical certificates of convenience to avoid going to the swimming pool. Nothing has changed in almost twenty years.

The observation, we said, is widely known and documented, and it is not our intention to add a few more lines to the traditional deploratio temporis acti that so many teachers like to indulge in. Yes, ‘it was better before,’ but there is no sense in beating that horse.

This time, things are really getting serious because a point of no return has been reached. At the end of this long series of disasters, the French system finds itself confronted with an unprecedented situation that no one has been able to anticipate on such a scale: the recruitment of teachers is becoming impossible. No one wants to be a teacher anymore. 

The educationalists who have taken over the reins of the French education system have advocated for inclusiveness, anti-racism, multiculturalism, contriteness, the autonomous construction of knowledge, horizontality, and participatory debate, without ever worrying about the consequences—out of pure ideology. Governments, Left and Right, have played the open-borders card without giving immigrants the means to assimilate, all for ideological and economic comfort. 

Today, the toy is broken. The intensity of the brainwashing to which several generations of young French people have been subjected has not been enough for the system to ensure its own reproduction. By dint of having done nothing to educate anyone, no one wants to pursue education in any professional capacity anymore.

The examination sessions for the recruitment of teachers have just been held. The figures are alarming. It’s not even a question of whether the newly recruited teachers will have the level to teach—they haven’t had it for a long time—but simply of whether there will be new teachers. For example, there are 16 eligible candidates for 1,035 posts in Mathematics (compared to 1,706 eligible last year); 83 eligible for 215 posts in German (179 in 2021); 60 for 134 posts in Classics. The situation is particularly alarming in certain regions, such as Ile-de-France for primary education. For example, there are 180 eligible candidates for 219 school-teacher posts in Paris, and 484 for 1,430 posts in Versailles. Even if all those eligible were recruited (and not all of them have the level), we would still be far below the needs of the educational institutions.

Two subjects are particularly hard hit: German and classics. How can this be surprising? German culture is constantly reviled in the media. Learning German would make you a national socialist. As for the classics, they are vilified by low-level Marxists as markers of a shameful bourgeois superiority—an elite pastime totally disconnected from today’s world. So why study them, why pass them on? 

It’s too late to cry. The disastrous figures reflect two dilemmas: a repugnance, felt by students, toward sitting teacher-certification exams, and the poor reputation of the profession. Only 22% of practising teachers would recommend their profession. Resignations are on the increase. Some have only one focus: to leave their school, their college, while there is still time, to preserve what remains of their mental health—or to preserve their lives. 

Today, on the occasion of the spring 2022 exam session, the perverse effects of an entire ideological system are glaringly apparent. Under these conditions, the appointment of the historian Pap Ndiaye as head of the ministry of national education appears all the more dramatic. This character perfectly embodies everything that led to the disaster, and signals the death knell for teachers today. 

Allow us to draw a daring parallel: those who advocate extending the legal time limit for abortion—sometimes up to 24 weeks, or until the end of the term—never ask themselves the question of how it impacts the doctors who have to carry out the act. The same applies to education. The staunch supporters of immigration, multiculturalism, and the deconstruction of authority do not ask themselves whether, at the end of the day, miserable convicts will be hired to carry out the dirty work of transmitting and maintaining order in classrooms that have been transformed into a madhouse. 

Today, many difficult jobs are experiencing a crisis: a crisis of working conditions, but also a crisis of meaning. The vocational professions are no exception. But the professions of education are particularly suffering because their meaning has radically swerved from the noble ends they have historically served. Teaching has become a ‘dirty job,’ because the ideal of the teacher has been deeply perverted. The mission of teaching is no longer to transmit a heritage or to build a people, but to destroy them. 

Teachers, before becoming the victims of a machine gone mad, obviously have their share of responsibility in its demise. Many of them have been brought up with a left-wing mentality. Often the sons of teachers themselves, they reproduce inherited ideological patterns. They are prey to a very powerful corporatism, and the mediocrity of their salaries and status sustains their collective drive to bond for a common cause. French teachers are poorly paid—less than many of their EU neighbours—so they stick together as activists. They accept this lack of means as an inexorable inevitability, which feeds a complacent discourse of a revisited class struggle. They demonstrate and go on strike, but rarely on the real issues that matter: what do they intend to pass on to the children in their care? 

The problem is not restricted to the Left. The conservatives have also contributed to this general disaster. Denigration of teachers is a national sport in French right-wing circles. In good families, it is fashionable to scorn teachers—all unionists, all lazy guys. They discourage the vocations of those who would have the foolish idea of becoming a teacher. Teaching! What an idea! There are only leftists in this milieu

Except soon will be the day when we have no more teachers at all. Then what? 

Today we can hope that the breaking point has been reached. There is always a moment when ideology comes up against the hard resistance of facts. And facts are stubborn. Lenin, a man from the Left, has been saying so. Has the time come to face reality?

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).