Tuesday, May 18, 2010

There's No Substitute for Education

Remember how on our first day of school I mused that there might not even be a Parents' Association here, because the line between public and private was so great? Boy was I wrong! I've been aware of the Parents' Collective (as it is called) because of the cool events they organize (Tic Tac Magie and the like), but I wasn't aware of their activist role. This banner greeted us when we came to school this morning, and the press was there photographing parents around the banner this afternoon! It reads "Angry Parents! A teacher for our child!" and then gives the phone number of the School Superintendent in Ploermel to request a substitute for Iris's class (G.S.) and Oliver's today. Sarkozy's government (to quote my fervent student Hallie, "don't get me started") has instituted severe cuts in education: almost doing away with the substitute teacher support at all levels, and considering doing away with the maternelle entirely, and school starting only at Iris's age (5) - more like the American system. Iris's teacher, dear wonderful Elodie, has been suffering from back problems and has been unable to come to school - this has been going on sporadically throughout the year, but steadily over the past week. So they've combined Eleanor and Iris's classes (which is making the girls happy) to get by - but you're looking at 3 teachers (well, 1 teacher and 2 assistants) and around 50 kids. Today Oliver's teacher's baby boy was sick and so she had to stay home, and there was no substitute for her either - thus the little addendum about CE1 et 2 at the bottom of the poster. I don't think that this is happening because Josselin is a little town - there have been many news report of subject area teachers not being replaced in lycées in Paris (no English classes for 6 weeks, no math for a month) and the parents take to the streets and protest this. I have long admired France's protest culture (I guess is what I would call it), and, what do we make of this?: Elodie will be replaced with a substitute on Thursday and Friday.

So the question, the rant, is: What part of "education is everything" do governments not understand? Let us brush aside the obvious truths, that children have little or no political power (they don't vote), that education's long process makes it easy to put more pragmatic concerns before it (we need that football stadium before that school - urgh, Indiana), and that the American educational system has created enough pockets of private education to keep politically influential people happy (this one's really insidious), and let's move on to the philosophical necessity and historical perspective (beyond "our children are our future") of education. I really have just two points here, things that I want at least floating in the ether, but that we talked about with the kids as well (their reaction to this whole situation follows).

The first is the tried and true, but important to remember etymology of the word "education" - to lead out of ("e" + "ducere"). Medievalists always make too much of etymologies (Isidore de Seville's Etymologies saw to that) but this one I find especially engaging. To lead us out of what? and into what? Darkness, I presume, and light. Ignorance to knowledge. Passive to active. Stillness to movement. I love this etymology because it reminds me that education is a process, and that it is a transformative one. It reminds me of education's fundamental allegiance with and difference from politics: politics is also a transformative process, but one based on pragmatics more than principles. If our politics were more principled, there would be more support of education. But politics have been deemed unprincipled since at least the ancient Roman period, so not much hope there. I retrench into facile optimism too often (I should be more of the activist that I see around me here), but remembering my mission as an educator (that I need to keep being transformed by what I learn, that I need to look for those opportunities of "leading out of" for my students) keeps me going when I see the political system around me failing in its mission.

The second point emerged today in my research and it's from the mid-16th century. Whenever a royal figure came to town, say Louise, there was a big to-do (records of royal entries into town are just incredible: plays, pageants, tableaux vivants on platforms - when the royals came to town, they Came To Town), and, at the very least, a poem or two (sometimes, as here, written years later to commemorate the event). This excerpt is from one commemorating her visit to Angoulême (her husband was Charles d'Angoulême) towards the end of her life. Receiving a royal personage was occasion for the local politicians to make themselves look good (or at least favored), and here we see the praises of the town's mayor being sung - but look at the terms:

Le maire Estivalle...
Voyant que escolles n'avoit ceste ville
Ardant de cueur, pour cause bien civille
Les y droissa, dont tout le populaire
Le hault louha, ainsi que ung bon maire.

Mayor Estivalle...
Seeing that this city had no schools,
Ardent in his heart, and for a good civic cause,
Erected them; thus did all the populace
Praise him on high, as a good mayor.

1535. That was written in 1535 - right at the beginning of "education is a good idea" - one of the many reasons we can continue to glorify the Renaissance as a new chapter in human history. Wonder what was taught in those schools. Wonder who was taught. And by whom. As recently as the late 19th-century, they still taught Hebrew at DePauw (had to know your Bible). Now, you can learn about French literature from Martinique, or African-American slave narratives, or atonal music, or German concrete poetry - forms of knowledge that challenge The Way Things Are - or the Way We Thought They Were. The glorious incertitude of education is that what is being taught changes all the time - what is considered the Important Things to Know shifts and moves. This is what makes education inherently political and civic, and inextricably part of the public sphere.

Education is about change, and to cut off support for it, is to cut off social progress.

Of course, that may be exactly what some politicians want to do.

Was the social progress of Brittany cut off because the kids didn't have a substitute teacher today? Pragmatically, no. But think of the morale of the teachers, of the greater statements being made about what is valued, of what the kids are supposed to think of it all. Bravo, Collectif des Parents, for the protest and the phone calls. When I expressed my admiration for the presence of a substitute on Thursday, one of the teachers said "Et bien oui, si on râle assez..." - I could translate "râler" as "complain", and a dictionary translates it as "fume," but that does not do the word justice - there's "rant" and "argumentation" implied in the word - there's nothing whiny about "râler" - it's the language of protest, and it's classically French. And sometimes, to hold on to a social movement begun in the early 16th century, you have to practice a little "râler"ing (hmm, wonder if the English word "rally" is etymologically related...)

So how did the kids react? Well, Oliver was very nervous about going to school today - for the first time in months, he really didn't want to go, didn't want to "just be put somewhere" was how he put it. But just as naturally as the sun rises, we go to school (mantra with Iris of late), and so he went. And guess what? He had "the best day EVER!" to quote him - things were loosened up, and he found himself in a group with Clementine and Sarah and the three of them built an elaborate village of monsters, and then ran around during recess, and he says that he can't wait for the next day of school so that he can play with them again during recess. So you're thinking, what's the problem with no substitutes, your kid had a great day at school? And my reply is, yes, he had a great day at school, but he couldn't have if he hadn't had the supported structure all along. A day that shakes things up a little is great - lots of days like that would undermine the whole project. It does remind me, though, just how much my little guy would probably thrive in a Montessori situation. Sigh. But you know, he's making his own way. In the midst of all this, he finished the enormous Inkheart trilogy, and so back to the English bookshop we went. The owner, whom we've befriended a bit (British), recommended a new series for Oliver, starting with the title Tunnels - the first book was self-published, but then picked up by the editor of Harry Potter. So we'll see - Oliver is excited about reading it, and maybe even introducing it to his friend Simon (who's read everything!).

The girls are so incredibly focused on Eleanor's birthday tomorrow, and Iris is so happy to have Eleanor in her class, that they, too, had a great day. (This whole situation impacts the parents more than the students, let's just say it - but we see the Big Picture, don't we? although I like the picture the kids are painting for themselves, too: plucky!). Iris wants to give Eleanor the book of prehistoric paintings they made on Sunday. I hadn't actually looked at it (!), so here they are. This is a hunt by Iris - I love how she always insists on a sky - gives the whole piece a lot of movement here.

This is Eleanor's painting of megaliths under the rain - Megaliths Under Rain, I should say. This kid has been insistently non-figurative in her drawings, so megaliths are just the thing for her. Megaliths under rain are even better, because you get to dab your paintbrush onto the paper again and again and again. Apparently that's a korrigan dancing underneath the megalith. Turns out the girls had done several paintings (what on earth on was I doing that whole time? oh wait - packing our first box of books) - but my favorite part of it all may be the title of the book:

For them, that pretty much says it all about the paleo- (and neo- for that matter) -lithic period.

Let's end with glee, shall we? And the hope that the human spirit of inquiry will prevail, unhindered by political negligence. I "hault louha" all teachers out there: thank you for keeping the Great Hope alive against too many odds. Here, then, is Eleanor's joy at her dear friend Sophie's birthday card, and Iris's phenomenally toothless grin.


  1. We found out today that our visa applications have been approved and our passports are in the mail - yeah! Look forward to meeting you all in person in just a few weeks.

    Just wanted to ask if Oliver has ever read the Swallows and Amazons series? A personal favourite of mine, even though I only discovered them a few years ago!

  2. Hi ho

    Hoorah! The wheels are really in motion now!! I've just told Oliver about the Swallows and Amazons series - it's on The List. (Plus, the 1930s is Mac's period, he'll be reading them, too) :-)

    It's so great to think of you all being here - bon packing and bon voyage!