French literature in danger

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Sep 13 16:36:20 UTC 2007

September 12, 2007

 French literature pays price as the language of money lures students  Adam
Sage in Paris

France's cultural heritage is in peril because students are shunning
literature in favour of more practical courses that they believe will help
them to secure well-paid jobs, the Education Minister said. Xavier Darcos
said that France was in danger of becoming a nation of unemployed
sociologists unable to master speech or thought. Latest figures show that
fewer than 20 per cent of students chose literature, compared with 50 per
cent a generation ago. Amid this evidence of a long-term decline in the
number of pupils specialising in literary subjects for the end-of-school
baccalauréat examination, Mr Darcos has ordered Education Ministry officials
to draw up plans to revive interest in the French classics.

"We need literary people, pupils who can master speech and reason," he said.
"They are always in demand." As for the aspiring economists and
sociologists, they often ended up on overcrowded university courses with few
openings in the employment market, he added. However, traditionalists
believe that the initiative is already doomed because of the widely held
view among the brightest students that literary studies are a soft option
for no-hopers. This trend is an affront to the rich literary heritage that
has produced writers such as Molière, Voltaire and Victor Hugo, they say.
There is also resentment that intellectual literati are losing their
privileged status in a Gallic society that they say is being corrupted by
television, the internet and globalisation.

Amid sweeping cultural changes, the term "literary" has taken on a
pejorative meaning for young French people, according to a report by the
Education Ministry inspectorate.

Under the French system, *lycée* (sixth-form) pupils sit a dozen or so
examinations for *le baccalauréat général,* with the contents and marks
weighted according to three main options available. *Le bac L *gives
preeminence to literature, *le bac S* to science and *le bac ES *to
economics and social sciences.

The Education Ministry Inspectorate report said *le bac L*was threatened
with extinction after the proportion of pupils taking it fell from 50 per
cent in 1968 to 18.6 per cent in 2007. This year 49.6 per cent of pupils
took l*e bac S* and 31.8 per cent *le bac ES*, which has been growing over
the past 15 years.

But *le bac L* "too often looks like a refuge for pupils who have difficulty
with scientific subjects and who have been brought there by default rather
than by their taste for literary teaching," the report said.

The inspectors said that literature appeared increasing irrelevant to
schoolchildren in a society "founded on technology". They feared that
globalisation would fuel the phenomenon with scientists using an
international language while "the characteristics of literature appear very

"Behind the decline of these studies lies another menace . . . the
disappearance of an essential swath of our tradition and culture."

University teachers complain that many school-leavers are incapable of
writing correct French. "The average is 10 to 12 mistakes but I've counted
up to 50 in a degree paper," said Jean-François Guennoc, a lecturer at Paris

*The pen is mightier . . .*

"Grammar, which knows how to control even kings" *Jean Molière*, 1622-73

"I quote others only in order the better to express myself" *Michel de
Montaigne*, 1533-92

"Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for
the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live" *Gustave
Flaubert *1821-80

"Every reader finds himself. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical
instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without
this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself" *Marcel

Source: Times database
fwd from edling-list at


Harold F. Schiffman
Email:  haroldfs at

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