Why does France insist school pupils master philosophy?

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I have been staring in admiration over the shoulder of my 17-year-old daughter, as she embarks on a last mental rehearsal before a much-dreaded philosophy exam.


My primary thought is: Thank the Lord I was spared the torment.

I mean, can you imagine having to sit down one morning in June and spend four hours developing an exhaustive, coherent argument around the subject: Is truth preferable to peace?

Or: Does power exist without violence?

Or possibly: Can one be right in spite of the facts?

Perhaps you would prefer option B, which is to write a commentary on a text. In which case, here is a bit of Spinoza's 1670 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Or how about some Seneca on altruism?

I take these examples from my daughter's revision books. My heart bleeds for her, as I look at the list of themes that have to be mastered.

Ruby has chosen to take what they call a Bac Litteraire - the Literature Baccalaureat.

There are alternative, more science-biased versions of the Baccalaureat. They all include an element of philosophy.

But in the Bac Litteraire, philosophy is king.

It means eight hours a week of classes, and in the exams it has the top coefficient of seven. In other words, in the calculation of your overall mark at the Bac, it is philosophy which counts the most.

It also means having to master a host of what they call notions - notions, or themes.

Here are some of them from Ruby's books – consciousness, the other, art, existence and time, matter and spirit, society, law, duty, happiness.

And among the writers you need to refer to are Plato, William of Ockham, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Sartre.

Why this emphasis on philosophy in France?

Written By: Hugh Schofield
continue to source article at bbc.co.uk

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    • In reply to #1 by Reckless Monkey:

      This should pay off big time in a few years.

      It’s been on since Napoleon. It should have paid off a long time ago, but do you really think Napoleon wanted to train free-thinkers ? And that the French government wants that as well ?

      What is taught in French high-schools is not a way of thinking but a method for presenting ideas. It is just a methodology class, and the compulsory philosophers that are to be studied are the most conservative ones.

      You don’t have to actually “think” if truth is beauty or beauty is truth . You are 18, for dog sake ! You are simply expected to be able to answer the question formally (or fail to answer it, but formally. Works either way)

      But philosophy teachers are all darn cool and mine was stunningly beautiful. Too bad I was such a slacker.

  1. I think this is a great idea. We spend far too much effort teaching answers to subjects without learners forming any purposes and expend virtually no effort at all introducing young learners to philosophical debate and reasonable and rational thinking.

    Yep, it is harder work having to think than remember facts but the application of knowledge takes at least as much effort as acquiring it so way to go France. I’m all for it.

    • In reply to #6 by Virgin Mary:

      Because France is irrelevant in everything that matters so they’re desperately trying to produce the next Descartes so that people will notice them again.

      This site is to promote reason. Thank you for telling us we are irrelevant. Is this your idea of reasoning?
      I won’t even start to ague that point with one who obviously has never attempted to understand philo.

      • In reply to #8 by Rosbif:

        This site is to promote reason. Thank you for telling us we are irrelevant. Is this your idea of reasoning? I won’t even start to ague that point with one who obviously has never attempted to understand philo.

        Then I’ll argue with myself.

        I have no respect for philosophy what so ever and I have even less respect for philosophers. One of the first things you learn at Gothenburg University when studying philosophy is that Einstein used philosophical principles in much of his work. This little gem is delivered with one intention in mind: to justify philosophy in the scientific field. But then he second thing you learn is that science cannot and never has dealt in fact, only assumptions!?!?! The example used is Newton’s third law of motion, and the principle argument is that because you only ever see the cause and effect but not what’s in between, the law cannot be a fact. The third thing you learn is justified true belief, which to me is the most ludicrous concept dreamt up by anyone, ever. The forth thing you learn can best be described as “riddles”. Two angels guarding the gates of heaven and hell etc etc.

        The fifth thing you learn is…… I don’t know. I dropped the module because it is nonsense. Kagan and Nietzsche are probably the only two philosophers I enjoy, for obvious reasons. I’m more rooted in the here and now and the goings on in the world and why and how it functions. I’ve been following Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Daniel Yergin since university. People who inform me of things worth knowing.

    • In reply to #6 by Virgin Mary:

      Because France is irrelevant in everything that matters so they’re desperately trying to produce the next Descartes so that people will notice them again.

      Haters gonna hate.

    • In reply to #6 by Virgin Mary:

      Because France is irrelevant in everything that matters so they’re desperately trying to produce the next Descartes so that people will notice them again.

      How, precisely, is France ‘irrelevant’?

  2. We also have this in my country, though the exam is not mandatory. I have to say I loathed the class. Not because I dislike philosophy, on the contrary, but because the part of the lective program dedicated to how to think was a lot less important than the part about what to think. I have nothing against Kant, Stuart Mill or Descartes, but I can’t help but wonder why those and not other authors. It seems to go against the point of philosophy to just accept that I must memorize the authors’ theories for an exam instead of actually learning some logic or something alike.

  3. I m french and i ve not answer.
    But Pierre Bayle have thinking link between atheism and morality
    Descartes hae do one of the first epstemology
    Jules Meslier is the first to writing about one true atheism
    And others
    YToday, Edgard Morin doing Methode and michel Onfray on aheologic traty.
    French have atheistic history in the way of Philosophy. And it s good reason for thinking about.
    Fabien

  4. These are meaningless questions. They are about ill-defined abstractions, vague rules of thumb. No single observation could refute an assertion. They are the sorts of questions theologians indulge in. A better course would cover logical fallacies, rules of deduction, inductive logic, statistics, probability.

    • In reply to #11 by Roedy:

      These are meaningless questions. They are about ill-defined abstractions, vague rules of thumb. No single observation could refute an assertion. They are the sorts of questions theologians indulge in. A better course would cover logical fallacies, rules of deduction, inductive logic, statistics, p…

      The questions aren’t meaningless at all. The point is to teach that all points of view need an argument which is constructed and has a logic whether based on the known or the unknown. They are taught that there may be different ways to look at something but in all cases, opinions will be and should be questioned.
      In effect, the kids are being taught not to be Bill O’Riley which, in itself, is a work of great merit.

  5. “… consciousness, the other, art, existence and time, matter and spirit, society, law, duty, happiness.”

    I shudder to think what blind alleys and dead ends the study of “continental philosophy” will lead these poor students down in these regards.

    “So is it absurd to desire the impossible? Can one ever be certain of being right? Is art real?”

    Good grief! Yep, there I go: shuddering in 3, 2, 1…

  6. At the risk of sounding pompous, I have often said that: Philosophy provides few answers but it does, at least, provide us with a way to ensure we’re asking the right questions.

    According to the OP the French have been studying philosophy since 1809 – progressively including more of the population as time passed.

    If philosophy has great benefits we would surely see them by now.

    After suffering heavily during the First & Second World Wars France has the World’s 9th largest economy (measured purely by GDP) – despite having very few natural resources, and ranking 21st by population.

    I have been on holiday in France at least a dozen times. It has something to do with the French understanding of quality of life.

    The French have, perhaps, the most complete working model of laïcité (separation of Church and State).

    It’s not much of a difference, but sometimes it doesn’t take much …

    Peace.

    • In reply to #13 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

      I have always admired the French their contemplative mode. Perfecting the art of contented living requires the scratching of all itches corporeal and mental.

      Their one sin is Derrida, an exhausting and thoroughly unproductive jerk in my experience.

      Elsewhere we have P4C, Philosophy for Children. This movement which is slowly achieving a fair degree of presence in schools in the UK and also the US is not about Philosophers but rather about making logical and reasoned progress in collective discussions. A teacher friend who has run sessions in a variety of schools reports excellent results. Often occupying RE slots these sessions allow kids to bring their thoughts and feeling to the group in relation to a usually meaty subject that they themselves selected after a stimulus idea to kick things off. The shock they first receive and that all notice is the disparity of views and understandings within the group. Simply facilitating these discussions and lightly moderating them to ensure turn taking and pointing out agreements and disagreements and conflicting evidence, seems all that is needed to net great boosts in logical thinking, an appreciation of evidence and collective problem solving.

      • In reply to #17 by phil rimmer:

        Hi Phil,

        Thanks for the link.

        How far that little candle throws his beams!

        So shines a good deed in a weary world.

        William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

        Peace.

        • In reply to #28 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

          In reply to #17 by phil rimmer:

          Hi Phil,

          Thanks for the link.

          How far that little candle throws his beams!

          So shines a good deed in a weary world.

          William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

          Peace.

          The line from The Merchant of Venice is “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” @

          The weary world thing that everyone remembers is from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

          Hollywood invariably ruins Shakeapeare, but in this case I think it’s actually an improvement.

          Now that’s blasphemy. Religious types take note.

          • In reply to #29 by Katy Cordeth:

            Oops.

            The sad part is I got it right in another post.

            Peace.

  7. I went through the French system. What I found truly mind-opening were the French litterature books, rather than the boring philosophy courses. Litterature presents philosophy in a shorter, more interesting form. Like in Camus’ “L’étranger”, for example.

  8. Why does France insist school pupils master philosophy?

    Hopefully, so that they will get it out of their systems before they reach adulthood :D

    Seriously though, I think this is an excellent idea. Most great philosophy is childishly simple, or at least, it ought to be.

    • In reply to #18 by Peter Grant:

      Why does France insist school pupils master philosophy?

      Hopefully, so that they will get it out of their systems before they reach adulthood :D

      That’s exactly what happens to me when I play around with philosophy. The only concern might be how much this counts toward a final mark.

  9. I think it would be very nice to have Philosophy in german schools, instead of Protestantism and Catholicism as we have now. At least we have compulsory Ethics courses here in Berlin. It does not hurt to learn how and what other people have thought and reasoned even if it was wrong or faulty logic. You learn to take different approaches into account. Sadly Ethics is only about who to live a moral live and don´t get into trouble. Not an eye opener at all.

  10. I wonder if they study any Marx. Of course Marx was not a philosopher, but surprisingly, to me, he was voted best philosopher by the listeners to the BBC’s In Our Time in 2005. For anyone with about 45 minutes to spare the programme is not too bad, and at least Russia wasn’t brought in as a reason to condemn Marx’s ideas.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003k9jg

    Actually I agree with that quote of Marx written on his gravestone : “Philosophers have interpretted the world in many different ways. The point however is to change it

    Critical thinking sure. Time wasting speculations about abstractions not so good.

  11. Its a great concept to teach people how to think freely – not what to think, but how to research, debate and learn all the worthwhile principles and ideas that free thinking brings – that is fluid society – adaptation to change is the key human skill we need, not rigid beliefs that stick us in the ignorant and prejudiced past…… Vive La France !

  12. I barely studied philosophy while in school, but took it up on my own years later. There are many things to admire about philosophy: learning logic, learning some of the “big” ideas others have had over the centuries, comparing various ethical and moral frameworks, and learning what many people have thought are the “important” questions” over the ages.

    Yes, many branches of philosophy can seem like “navel gazing”, I’m looking at you post modernists, but it’s great to be exposed to so many ideas, and to take the time to mull them over, think about them, and use these ideas to think about what your own beliefs are.

    I did find it a bit odd that the author thinks philosophy is so difficult that her “heart bleeds” for her daughter. If you can write a coherent essay and have normal reading comprehension philosophy shouldn’t be any more difficult than any other mainstream arts course.

  13. For those who follow a more science-oriented Baccalaureat, mathematics is king and philosophy is a minor distraction (and an annoying one I found when I was at a French school 30 years ago). What students learn in maths classes in France puts Britain’s A-level system to shame. In France, high school students are expected to learn to think.

    • In reply to #30 by andyb:

      For those who follow a more science-oriented Baccalaureat, mathematics is king and philosophy is a minor distraction (and an annoying one I found when I was at a French school 30 years ago). What students learn in maths classes in France puts Britain’s A-level system to shame. In France, high school…

      I was arguing in favour of the French school system elsewhere, went to look at their comparative results and was somewhat disappointed by their mediocre scores. It seems they are good on consistency though.

      Maybe they can do much better, but having a philosophical outlook don’t let silly tests distract them from the more important task of contemplating lunch and its many possibilities.

      • In reply to #31 by phil rimmer:

        In reply to #30 by andyb:

        Maybe they can do much better, but having a philosophical outlook don’t let silly tests distract them from the more important task of contemplating lunch and its many possibilities.

        Lunch IS a philosophy in itself!

        It is the big question:
        “What are we having for Lunch?”

        It deals with subjects like “Which came first, cheese or desert?”

        “If we make a sauce with butter, garlic and white wine but no one is there, does it still smell delicious?”

        “You serve a black butter steak: St Julien or Pommard?”

        • In reply to #32 by Rosbif:

          In reply to #31 by phil rimmer:

          Lunch IS a philosophy in itself!

          It is the big question:…

          Somehow, Rosbif, your clear insights into this area don’t surprise me.

          I wonder what Epicurus would make of his unintended double heritage?

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