It’s the end of summer, and while American college freshmen may be celebrating high school graduation and, many of them, getting ready to move into the dorms, just a few months ago many of them were probably sweating through their final exams. But students here may have it pretty easy compared to students finishing secondary school in France:
Other countries have school-leaving exams which cover the history of ideas and religion and so on. But the French are very clear that that is not what theirs is.
The purpose of the philosophy [Baccalaureat] is not to understand the history of human thought but to leap into the stream that is the actuality of human thought.
If you learn about what Kant or Spinoza once said, it is not so much to understand their argument as to use their argument.
And though Jesuits schools may pride themselves on imbuing critical thinking skills and forming well-rounded character, the French system may very well give them a run for their money:
In the newly created republic (and yes, I know Napoleon had just made himself emperor, but the point still holds) it was important to create model citizens.
Had not the great writer and thinker Montesquieu himself said the republic relied on virtue, and virtue consisted in the capacity of individuals to exercise their own freely-formed judgment?
So the purpose of teaching philosophy was – and remains, in theory – to complete the education of young men and women and permit them to think.
To see the universal arguments about the individual and society, God and reason, good and bad and so on, and thus escape from the binding imperatives of the now – by which I mean the dictatorship of whatever ideas are most pressingly forced on us in the day-to-day by government, media, fashion, political correctness and so on.
Take a look and see what you think. Given that the American Revolution, driven by its own philosophical ideals of life, liberty, and happiness, arguably influenced the French Revolution, I wonder what kind of implications might this have for the United States’ increasing dependence on standardized testing, and our own ability to form virtuous citizens.
Study photo courtesy Flickr user John Althouse Cohen