Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons

Education Means Helping Young People to Come into their Own Humanity

Laurent Lafforgue is one of the greatest mathematicians in the world, but his writings on the topic of education and school have set him against the French cultural establishment.
Luca Doninelli

Walking through Paris, one senses that something’s not right. It’s like being unable to put together the pieces of a mosaic that someone has strewn about. A highly efficient police force safeguards the image of the ville-lumière, where intellectuals, seated at the little tables of some famous café or other discuss topics such as “alterity,” while “the other,” with his very concrete face, is pushed aside to the outskirts of the city. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” has become a postcard sentence (as if to say, “Greetings from West Palm Beach”)–the expression hailing integration conflict with a decade-long policy of near segregation. There were great hopes that France would win the soccer World Cup, and thus bring about social peace–because the French national team is composed almost entirely of people of foreign extraction, often the sons of the most infamous banlieues (slum areas). The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has been practically banned from French intellectual circles because he dared to observe that few Frenchmen play on the national team.

Something’s not right, and at the center of the problem is the French school. The sociologists say so, the immigrants who can’t integrate say so, and the mothers worried about their children’s futures say so; everybody says so.
Fortunately, there are also a lot of things that work well in France, such as higher studies. The government protects them, one could say, even from itself. Thus, in France, unlike in other European countries, a scientist isn’t forced to emigrate. But there’s more. A human fabric, founded on Christianity, has managed to endure, even though the State’s excessive power has impoverished its social and entrepreneurial potential. It has endured as consciousness of itself and of its task in a context that certainly does not throw many doors open wide to Christians.

In one of the most prestigious institutes, the Ihés (Institute for Advanced Scientific Studies), we met with Laurent Lafforgue. At the age of forty, having been awarded the Fields Medal (an award higher than the Nobel Prize) in 2002 and the Legion of Honor in 2003, Lafforgue is one of the world’s greatest mathematicians, considered by some to be the greatest one.
His website is invaluable, immediately readable and sharable, written simply and, at the same time, relentlessly.

His “short writings” on the topic of education and school are striking for the freedom with which this great intellectual of our time does not hesitate, in the name of the value of education, to set himself against the entire French cultural establishment. Invited in early November 2005 to serve on the High Commission for Education established by Chirac, he was then asked to resign only a few days later because of irreconcilable differences, having said that the principal culprit responsible for the destruction of French schools (mark well, secular and republican) is the State itself. Since that November of 2005, many things have changed for Lafforgue and his position in his country’s culture.

“The people who know me,” we read in one of his writings, “know that this commitment of mine is somewhat paradoxical since, far higher than my condition as a mathematician, my passionate interest in literature, or my love for France and her language, I prize my faith in Jesus Christ and my trustful loyalty to the Catholic Church through which I have received this faith–things that often make me critical of republican and lay France and, even more, of a secularized society in which I feel like a foreigner. And, notwithstanding all this, I defend the republican school…”

My friend Joshua Massarenti and I went to see Lafforgue at the beautiful Ihés building in Boures-sur-Yvette, about 19 miles south of Paris.

How did you get involved in the problem of education?
I got involved in this issue in a very concrete way, without preconceptions. I’m very fond of the school I attended since my earliest years. My grandparents began working when they were twelve, but they always respected school very much and passed on this respect to their children and grandchildren. My specific interest in the topic of education began a few years ago when I signed a petition defending Greek and Latin as academic subjects, as they were in grave danger. Struck by this dramatic situation, denounced by just a handful of teachers, I began inquiring more into it, reading books by people of different ideological orientations, joined by their seriousness about the work, and by their passion for school and the future of young people. This reading shook me profoundly–Latin and Greek are just the tip of the iceberg! In France, even the teaching of the French language itself was at risk. The new French school no longer had anything to do with the one I had known only twenty-five years ago.

This zeal of yours didn’t seem to be appreciated by the person who nominated you to the High Commission.
No, I wouldn’t say so. A very influential person called me to his office and tactfully explained that it would be better for everyone if I were to resign. So I did, explaining my position in a brief piece [on his website].

How would you define education? And the disaster today
Education means helping young people to come into their own humanity. School is important because, though it doesn’t fulfill this duty entirely, it does performs an essential role: it is, essentially, a place for the transmission of knowledge. Well, today in France, school is everything but this. It has become a place of life, I won’t say it hasn’t, where values such as tolerance are practiced, and there are those who speak of school as the “place of peace”–many lovely things, but things that have nothing to do with the purpose for which school exists.

Many who oppose your position say that the school you mourn is for a privileged world, and can’t be proposed in today’s France, burdened as it is with enormous problems of social integration. [Before responding, he asks us to turn around and look at the large blackboard occupying one wall of his studio. There are some mathematical formulas, with the words, “Please do not erase,” and, further on the left, the name “Liliane Lurçat”.]
Do you know who Liliane Lurçat is? She’s a dear friend of mine, an elderly woman, the daughter of very poor immigrants. As a child, she was able to attend only elementary school, and yet elementary school gave her some certain and fundamental knowledge. For example, it enabled her to read a book and understand what was written there. Because of this, when circumstances so allowed, she set out to study, focused on psychology, and wrote a text on child psychology that is the best in France. France has shining examples that are sufficient to contradict the thesis you quoted. Think of writers like Charles Péguy, whom I love immensely, or like Albert Camus, men born in conditions of great poverty, orphans. But school enabled them to become what they became. It gave them simple instruments to be able to do so. I’ll never forget the episode of Camus, who, after he won the Nobel Prize, informed his elementary school teacher. For me, it’s this way, too.

You say that the problem of education is not limited to school. Let’s talk about the general cause of this crisis, of the thing that is a step ahead of the scholastic problem.
The first datum is that today, those who are adults are no longer able to take on the role of the adult.

And yet today’s adults attended a kind of school that you define in your writings as excellent.
It’s true. I defend the republican school as it was realized between the late 1800s and the 1960s. In the fifties and sixties, young people received a great deal from school. The trouble is that they weren’t able in turn to transmit what they had received, because the sixties introduced great doubt about the value of the tradition they had received. Look, the problem of the transmission of tradition and knowledge isn’t a problem; it’s the problem of our civilization. I recently participated in a public debate on school. My interlocutor, the famous Professor Alain Viala, was a man of letters who is very much in style these days, a professor at the Sorbonne, chock-full of all the titles and honors possible. Well, in his course on French Literature, this great professor doesn’t have students read one work–not even one, you understand?–of French literature. To pass the exam in French Literature you needn’t read even one line of Montaigne, Racine, Balzac, or Victor Hugo. For that matter, now they begin instilling doubt in the children’s heads in elementary school. Parents observe–we have thousands of witnesses to this–that their children return from school agitated, troubled, while school, in order to transmit knowledge, should above all give tranquility. Today, school destroys their faith in themselves. Just think, now they’re establishing philosophy seminars for children, “so they learn to seek,” they say. But how can an individual look for something, if he isn’t sure about anything?

In short, for you, this great crisis derives from philosophical causes.
The deepest reasons for this problem are surely of a philosophical and anthropological nature, inasmuch as they concern the representation of the nature of man. Moreover, the affirmation of a position of doubt has blocked us from seeing the proportions of the disaster. But it isn’t the teachers’ fault; they, in turn, are victims of this situation. The principal responsibility lies with the State itself, which has destroyed school, introducing deleterious factors such as the so-called “sciences of education” that, aping the true sciences, reduce man–in the best of hypotheses–to a guinea pig, a laboratory rat, because they treat him like a body subject to pure laws (psychological and sociological), depriving him of his freedom. So, education is taught in general in this way, as if it were something empty. The IUFM (University Institutes for the Formation of Teachers) are the least free and democratic things in the world, and they’re based on this pseudo-scientific method.

What becomes of the young people, then?
At school, young people are subjected to an unimaginable dose of violence. I don’t mean just the cases of grave breaches of discipline, which are an everyday occurrence, but the daily violence suffered in an environment that no longer transmits knowledge and thus no longer transmits values. Even simple values, like self-control, presume certain knowledge.

What do you mean by self-control?
I mean the thing by which, even when you’re bored during a lesson, you continue to listen and take notes.
Let’s return to young people. What is the difference between the great protests of 1968 and the disturbances of November 2005, which in part were also repeated this year?
The young people of 1968 did not lay a hand on a single school, while in 2005 over two hundred schools were destroyed.

Why this difference?
The reason is that the protesters in 1968 respected school, which had enabled them to think and take a critical position about school itself. Vice versa, those who set fires to schools in 2005 knew the schools hadn’t given them what they should have. France doesn’t want to admit that the problem that exploded in the banlieues is general; it’s everyone’s problem. If you transmit to everyone knowledge and tradition, you will enable each person to think and decide in a personal way. You make a true personality possible. If, vice versa, you don’t transmit knowledge, you only create an undifferentiated mass.

A mass that is very much to the advantage of those who hold power, because it can be more easily enslaved…
Madame Lurçat holds that Nazism took over in Germany most of all because, previously, the school had been destroyed. Today in France, in terms of ideological violence, the situation is not very different. A short time ago, in a school of a certain level, a teacher was accused of Nazism by a colleague because she taught French grammar!

You have become a protagonist of a movement for rebuilding school. This is a sign that there are still many people who believe in the value of education.
My misadventure with the High Commission for Education had extraordinary positive repercussions. Look here.
[He gets up and points to a shelf full of papers in his bookcase.]
Do you know what these are? They are some of the letters that I received from all over France from people of every extraction–teachers, parents, students, including numerous immigrants–after my forced resignation from the Commission. Now I’m in contact with many of these people; we’ve created a very concrete movement. We have also drafted an appeal for education [also available on Lafforgue’s website], for rebuilding school in France. French school was destroyed from above, at the hands of the State, but it can be born again from below.

Who are the people with whom you are the most in tune?
With the people who had certainties, people who spoke from real experience, and not from ideological positions. I have encountered many Catholics who are truly motivated, but also many secular people, and I mean really secular–Communists, often very convinced anticlericals. Well, I find myself more in tune with them than with many Catholics. The reason is that these are serious people. They can have whatever ideas they want, because what I’m interested in is the fact that they work seriously in schools. These are people who pay heed more to reality than to ideology.

What do you think about the recent positions taken by Benedict XVI, for example, in Regensburg, that have aroused so much discussion and violence?
What the Pope said on reason and the need to broaden our concept of reason is absolutely fantastic, and I’m very enthusiastic about it. The “sciences of education” assert that the concept of reason is a Greco-Latin concept, and as such is not universal. Instead, the Pope defends the true value of reason, its universality.