A portrait painting of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, 1793. Wikicommons/Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon. Public domain.When it comes to education, the public debate in France, as in Germany, seems to have taken a very cartoonish shape. It’s reached the point where we can predict almost exactly how the debate will go. The discussion will start with someone from the left wing highlighting Sweden as being the model to follow. A country which supposedly achieved high results while giving more room to creativity, imagination and free-time. The debate will unavoidably end with some right-winger replying that Sweden has a very high suicide rate, that the Swedish are not really happy in general – even slightly neurotic – and that this so-called model would damage the French “art de vivre”. On top of that, the new Swedish generation is said to be ill-mannered.
The problem I have with this debate is simply that all of the above is wrong. Firstly, Sweden's performance in terms of education, as measured by the PISA test, is very low. As an example, the country only ranked 27th in science, behind.... France. Secondly, the suicide rate in Sweden is absolutely not as high as claimed. With a suicide rate of 12 in every100,000, the country is about the European norm, even better, their rate is lower than France’s. Thirdly, when it comes to ill-mannered kids, anybody who has been to France recently knows that Frenchman really have no right to say anything about this.
In other words, in 10 years, and despite everything that has been written and said on the matter, nobody has taken 5 minutes to check the facts on Google....
But this debate says something extremely interesting about French society. The irrelevance of facts in the ongoing discussion is no longer surprising once it gets clearer that the “Swedish miracle” is a strawman allowing a topic that nobody would otherwise dare to speak about.
The first thing to understand is that the education system's efficiency is not the real problem. If that was the case, then right-wingers could very easily use Japan, Hong-Kong and Singapore as powerful counter-examples. These countries have been, and still are, performing very well education-wise and yet are completely absent from the debate.
The reason is simple: Asian countries’ view of authority epitomizes everything Europe currently rejects, especially when it comes to the education system. During the Meiji revolution, Japan sent emissaries to Prussia, which they considered the best education system at the time, in order to copy and implement Prussia’s example back home. They did just this and have never felt the need to overhaul their school system since its implementation in the nineteenth century.
And here lies the core of this debate. The reason why Asian countries are not invoked in the French debate is that anybody quoting them as a source would be immediately disqualified. These countries' education systems are still based on an authoritarian model, the relation between the teacher and the student, the way the class is taught, etc, everything still reminds us of the old European way. This is precisely what Europeans do not want any more and why Sweden is showcased as being the model to follow. The Swedish model is not especially efficient or good, but it is the one that has pushed as far as possible the post-authoritarian logic in modern European education.
To fully understand what it means for the debate about education systems, a detour through the modern history of Europe is necessary. Alleging that the aversion towards authority leads us to prefer some forms of education over some others is no doubt a thesis that requires justification.
It is common sense that Europe was traumatized by the Second World War and Nazism, but the consequences are not always fully understood. One of the consequences is that, and this is something unique in history, authority is now condemned as a concept. Critics are no longer focused on criticizing the excesses of authority, but rather on condemning authority in its entirety, as such.
During the French revolution, Saint-Just condemned both monarchy and the King as inherent criminals. Both, as he saw it, were stripping away from the people their most precious treasure and right: sovereignty.
Stanley Milgram drew similar conclusions from WWII, and even if his work is often quoted, the importance of his theory is often underestimated. Previous critics of authority were focused on criticizing abuses and finding ways to justify “fair” rebellions against oppressive power. But Milgram broke with this tradition and theorized authority as being intrinsically toxic and dangerous. The conclusions from his work are that any form of authority puts us in the position of obeying orders we do not want to follow. To the point that many people were ready to kill an innocent simply because they received the order to do so. [i]In other words, authority is no longer being experienced and described as a way to structure collective action in order to reach a goal that we would not be able to reach alone. Instead it is seen as a mental structure that degrades both the leader and the follower.
This does not mean of course that authority will always lead to crime and murder. Nor does it say that authority is never necessary in social interactions. However, Milgram demonstrates that the very existence of authority is sufficient to turn us all into potential criminals. Milgram’s experiment completely changes the way we view the excesses of authority. They are no longer abuses but a clear revelation of authority’s true nature. At its core, according to a “milgramian” perspective, authority is rotten.
This unspoken condemnation of any form of authority is the reality of European culture, and it explains the shape taken by the French debate about overhauling the education system. While education has traditionally been perceived as intrinsically linked to authority and hierarchy, Sweden shines as a beacon in the north. A country where education and authority have been completely disconnected.
With the available space we have, it was of course not possible to go into the full details of European culture’s relationship with authority. This short detour was only meant to highlight the reality of the crisis of authority behind the smoke and mirrors of the current education debate.
Once we realize that this debate has been fed by the subconscious hopes and fears of an entire society, it is no longer shocking to observe the complete disconnect between facts and words in today’s French debate. Conservatives can no longer publicly defend authority, and the left faces a similar challenge, as radically condemning authority would mean being labelled as utopian or even worst: communist. This is yet another European trauma that works against the quality of public debates.
There is a real debate to be had regarding this “projet de société”. [ii]
Some might be against and some might be in favor. But by starting out on such a basis, we can at least start to discern the possibility of a genuine dialogue replacing this sterile opposition of two antagonized camps refusing any form of compromise and discussion.
[i] The Milgram experience was a test of how authority works. The experience was the following: subjects were ordered to give electric shocks to a victim (in reality an actor) whenever he was giving a wrong answer to a test. Each time, the strength of the electric shock was increased. The shocks were not real but the goal was simply to test how far where the subject was ready to go. The majority of the subjects went as far as to administer lethal shocks just because they were ordered to do so.
[ii] See Hannah Arendt, What is authority?