How many Americans have followed the brouhaha in France over the Education Minister’s recent proposals to change the curriculum? I would think not many. But it is instructive what that young, pretty, not very experienced Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has proposed, and the reaction — overwhelming and furious — that her plans received. The Minister of Education in France sets the curriculum down to the set books that each child will read, and decides, too, what courses will be offered, and in what schools. Everything is top down, and there is very little difference in the courses offered from school to school.
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who by parentage is half-Muslim, decided that it was time to change the curriculum. Out would be Latin, and Greek, and even German, though one would have thought that as a commercial language, the teaching of German would have been expanded, not eliminated. Of course those immediately effected were furious. It was pointed out that Latin and Greek represented not just classical antiquity, but European civilization, that without keeping up these two languages, the general tenor of French culture would suffer, and even the study of French would suffer, because Latin and Greek had contributed directly to the language, and the possibility of acquiring either of them was important to the country’s understanding of itself and its past.
No one sensible could disagree, and Najat Vallaut-Belkacem found herself the object of fury, scorn, and ridicule. It was not her only act of folly. She also wanted to replace, in the history curriculum, several subjects, including Medieval Christianity, or rather, not to omit them, but to make them available but not required. Who could object to Medieval Christianity as part of the history curriculum? What group of students could not bear to be taught about the Crusades?
And having replaced Medieval Christianity as a required subject, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem wanted to make Islam a required subject. She has backed down, but what she wanted to do is telling. She knew that in France there are now many students who object to learning about the Crusades, who object to learning about the cathedrals, who object to learning about medieval religious art and poems. These are the Muslim students. So why not exempt them from the requirement to study what has always been deemed an essential part of the French history curriculum? It would be as if a Secretary of Education in this country had decided that the period from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War no longer had to be taught, in order to make room for courses on “recent immigration to America.”
And then there was the course on Islam that would now be part of the curriculum. What did that mean? It meant that there would be jobs, ready-made, for Muslim teachers, on the theory that Muslims should surely be the ones most qualified to teach about Islam. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a French student sitting in a class on Islam, taught by a Muslim, and that student wanting to take issue with something the teacher said? He would be petrified to do so, especially if among his fellow students were Muslims.
There is not much more to tell about the proposal. She, Vallaud-Belkacem, has had to back down. It is not its failure to be adopted that counts. It is the mere proposal itself, and what it tells us about the state of modern France.