Philippe Meirieu on keeping the big questions open
The French educationalist Philippe Meirieu reflects in Café Pedagogique on how the French education system should respond to the 13th November Paris massacre:
“Our society’s response to terrorism must keep faith with our democracy’s founding principles, otherwise its adversaries will have won. We also need to take care not to strengthen the very things we claim to be fighting against, this would risk bringing about, if not a ‘global war’, then a ‘globalisation of war’ which could take a form far more terrible than we imagine.
“With these concerns in mind, we need to put in place the means to resist all forms of terror; at a national, European and global level. To patiently and methodically build real solidarity between democrats and between democracies; a solidarity which can bring justice and peace. The challenges are immense; social, economic, diplomatic, geopolitical, technological – for societies as well as for citizens.
“The attacks of November 13th also require a sustained educational response. From November 14th, many teachers started to think about how to tackle these issues with students. By Monday 16th the school system seems to have risen to the challenge. That’s good, but it’s not enough. We need to continue to work on these issues in the longer term.
“Apart from needing the necessary reassurances from the adult world that it is there to protect them, our students also need to be able to ask some big questions which we must address without any sense that ‘this might not be the right time’. The first relate to the problem of evil, the second to the meaning of life and the third to the relationship between social injustice and personal freedom. I think we need to make room for these questions and keep them open.
The problem of evil
“For many young people, evil remains an absolute mystery. They share with Socrates and Plato the conviction that ‘no one deliberately wishes to do evil’. We can make mistakes, be driven to break the rules in a moment of madness, be drawn into stupid actions, get carried away in anger or get things wrong – but always in the knowledge that we could get them right in future. We can bully or intimidate others ‘for a laugh’ without realising the impact on them. In summary, there are many ways to ‘do wrong’ – usually by mistake, by choosing to put ourselves and our needs above the common good and the interests of others.
“Young people understand all this and in philosophical discussions they can establish a hierarchy of good when they consider the human condition, the idea of the common good and the need for us all to look beyond our immediate personal wants. Such discussions are possible and can be fruitful when run by skilled adults.
“However, there remains a flaw, whether it’s in Habermas’ project to promote universal rational discourse or that pointed out by Plato near the beginning of the ‘Republic’: How can one make an unreasonable person listen to reason? Or to put it another way, when someone is rushing at you with a knife, is there any chance of persuading them not to kill you by reminding them of Kant’s categorical imperative?
“This is a real mystery for all of us. How can a person in full possession of their senses wish to do harm for the sake of doing harm? For many of our students, confronted with the 13th November Paris massacres, perpetrated by suicide bombers who seemed to want only to sow death and devastation this is the first time they have faced, in real life, the question: how can a human being possibly wish to commit such acts?
“Those teachers who have been able to discuss this with their students report that their unanimous reaction is: It’s not possible; a human being cannot do that! It’s true that this mystery leads us to the very edge of humanity and the boundary which separates it from inhumanity. It is important that this inhumanity be understood by young people as being beyond all limits. This may not be an absolute vaccine but the fact that a line has been identified may one day prevent others from crossing it.
The meaning of life
“Nevertheless, here or there, students will suggest that these terrorists, while being cowardly murderers, are also martyrs to a cause which they felt was worth sacrificing their own lives for. This is where a second question arises: what is this cause which is so powerful and attractive that it can justify such acts? Could they not have found constructive ways to devote themselves to helping others or improving their communities?
“We understand that young people who might be lost, deracinated, experiencing failure and having little hope can be targets for recruitment by violent groups. Such groups can offer something to identify with. In such a group one can experience a kind of fellowship based on hatred of the ‘other’ and to model oneself on particular heroes from within the group. It’s possible to become someone significant, someone who will be spoken of – even after death, someone identified with a cause and who will be respected. These recruits pay a high price for this identity – often with their lives.
“So the question becomes: what have we offered these young people which might have allowed them to build positive identities and stay safe? What ideals have we proposed which might satisfy their wish to commit to something without tipping over into murderous folly? In this world where poverty and injustice continue to grow, why weren’t they choosing to volunteer in their communities or dig wells in developing countries? Why weren’t they able to commit furiously to their studies or seek training for a job?
“These may be naïve questions, but young people are asking them and there are no simple answers in a world which seems short of shared grand ideals. So the question which needs to be asked and kept open is: what can I hope for if I really make an effort? Is the promise of a better life within my reach? Have I explored the full range of possibilities life offers to bring happiness to myself and others – rather than rushing headlong towards self-destruction?
Social conditions and freedom
“Another difficult question: could these terrorists have acted otherwise? Are they not themselves victims of their circumstances? Our students understand that people do not face life, school or the labour market as equals. People’s social circumstances are hard to escape and can mark them for life. The answer comes quickly: not everyone who faces difficult family, social or educational circumstances becomes a criminal. How come some people do OK and others tip over the edge? This is impossible to answer fully. One can imagine that for some, peer support or adult mentoring and guidance may have played a part, for others the ability to draw on some inner strength of character would have come into play – who knows? We can look for sociological correlations but they will never explain the singular journey of each individual and what decides their fate at any particular moment.
“It is because there is such a gap in our understanding that we need to keep this question open too. This allows our students to remain committed to eradicating the social inequalities and scandalous injustices which have embedded themselves in our society. Such conditions will only make things worse. But the question must also stay open so that we can each assert the freedom to be the author of our own life, regardless of the obstacles we face. So that each of us is capable of choosing the path of generosity, hard work, solidarity and freedom.
“After the second world war, Theodor Adorno asked how one could teach after Auschwitz, and the question has never been fully answered. But we can and we must teach after 13th November 2015; not to indoctrinate but to educate. To answer our students’ legitimate questions and to give them some fundamental bearings on our history, our conquests, the republic, democracy and secularism. But also to help them not to respond too quickly to those philosophical questions which will help them throughout life; questions about good and evil, the meaning of life and their own commitment to making the world a better place.
“To stop these questions being asked, to shut them down too quickly, or to regard them as unnecessary would do us all a great disservice and deny us all our humanity.”
Adapted from the French post on the Café Pedagogique site (30th November)
Democratic emotions in the face of barbarism – following the Garissa massacre (April 2015)
What is learning? Philippe Meirieu (July 2014)
France: “teachers need to resist” – Francois Dubet (November 2015)