Democratic emotions in the face of barbarism – Philippe Meirieu

196030284_B974991685Z.1_20150311180409_000_GK144RHUF.1-0In the aftermath of the massacre of 147 people at Garissa University College in Kenya on 2 April it is difficult to find any positive emotions to draw on. The slaughter of young people in their place of learning shocks us all to our core. For their communities and families, this place which symbolises hope and reason seems now to represent nothing but despair and barbarism. What can we possibly say?

Soon after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris on January 7th, French educationalist Philippe Meirieu wrote an important piece for the French education site Café Pedagogique. I provide a brief summary here as some of it has a wider relevance.

“The intense collective emotion which has been expressed following these killings was broadly seen as a massive and positive humanitarian reaction. We firmly and calmly demonstrated our common attachment to democratic values – a strong and necessary political act which must remain in our memories. However, it does not exonerate us from the task of taking stock or making a difference; quite the opposite. Without indulging in the tearful guilt of “we should have…” we need to stare “we must…” in the face.”

Beyond this stock-taking, educators, for whom the future is their profession, need to take on the task of political, social and pedagogical creation. We cannot avoid asking ourselves “what comes after the emotions?” or even “how can we use these emotions?”.

Meirieu then draws specifically on the work of the US philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in particular in her Political emotions: why love matters for justice where she defines the primary purpose of education as the development of young peoples’ capacity for democratic life through peace, respect for others and a search for the common good. Young people, Nussbaum argues, need to see the world through the eyes of others and to imagine their experience, including their suffering. This is the only way that distant or different people can be thought of as equal. Meirieu feels that Nussbaum’s analysis allows us to escape the dichotomy between theory and practice and to define education in terms of both ends and means.

In order to build on Nussbaum’s thinking, Meirieu develops her views on the importance of empathy by adding that in order to have an authentic meeting with the ‘other’ we need to enter into their frame of reference without ‘getting lost’ in it. In other words we must never take anything for granted, always check our sources of knowledge and get as close as possible to what is really happening.

It also seems to Meirieu that we need to give everyone the opportunity to find a place and take some responsibility in the collective construction of our shared society. It is in this shared world that we can experience legitimate authority; acting on behalf of the common interest. Finally, he insists on the vital need to describe and formalise what young people learn through action and see it as part of establishing a strong social framework.

Meirieu goes on to provide evidence of what he regards as the ‘continental drift’ affecting schools in France, including a lack of commitment to genuine civic, philosophical and artistic education and various other tendencies in government policy. In doing so, he in no way absolves terrorists or the extremists who encourage them from their terrible responsibility.

“We must clearly take stock of how we have let our institutions drift to the extent of having lost much of their credibility. We must listen to those who remind us that our education system is not keeping its promise and that “the right to a quality education for all” remains largely a pious hope.”

He also argues for some teaching of law as a subject within the French system as law is after all what holds us together, protects and liberates us. He asks: if no-one can ignore the law, how can we omit to teach about it?

Ultimately, Meirieu is optimistic that teachers need not be powerless in the face of barbarism. They may not be all-powerful and neither education nor democracy will guarantee success. It is their very fragility which is so precious and which we need to defend against dogmatism, totalitarianism and violence.

Adapted and translated from Pour que nos emotions soient vraiment democratiques, Cafe Pedagogique 19/01/15. (any errors and misunderstandings are mine)

See also my posts on  Learning and xenophilia and Colleges and violent extremism

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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