Classics Professors in France Protest Education Reform in Style
After centuries of revolution and unrest, you could say that the French know a little something about protesting. Employees of virtually every sector have spent some time picketing unacceptable changes in business policy--metro conductors, nurses, and now, middle-school classics professors. Last year, the French Ministry of Education released plans to overhaul the nationwide academic system. The "réforme du collège" or "middle school reform" has met with intense resistance among teachers, parents, unions, and politicians. One of the proposed changes includes the removal of compulsory ancient Greek and Latin from the middle school curriculum, to be replaced by sprinkling French language classes with the "fundamental elements that Greek and Latin bring to the French language," whatever that means. Full-credit language classes were reduced to electives taught one-hour-per week, but the outcry was so intense that the Ministry added an hour.
Dismayed, frustrated, but certainly not hopeless, a group of teachers nicknamed "The Immortals," reacted with a certain elan that only the French could pull off. In August of last year they created a parody calendar called "The Calendar of the Immortals," in which classicists portray Zeus, Hermes, Hera, and other Olympian gods. So far, it sounds tame enough, but it gets subversive once you start reading. Each month is accompanied by a parody of an "EPI," basically the French version of our Standards of Learning. (Zeus's dictum is unprintable here.) Needless to say, the calendar caught people's attention. Available for purchase online, the teachers expected modest sales, and were happily surprised when over 400 calendars were bought by loyal supporters. In an article published by the French daily newspaper Le Figaro, one Immortal responded to suggestions that Greek and Latin are dusty and useless with, "We aren't grumpy old dinosaurs. We are just classics professors...Greek and Latin will never die." The reform puts the entire academic system in jeopardy, the Immortals claim, by robbing children of the opportunity to immerse themselves in the fundamentals of Western literature and analytic thought. Indeed, how does a student approach Dante's Divine Comedy without first understanding the poetry of Virgil? Or Jean Anouilh's Antigone (1944) without reading Sophocles' (500 B.C) tragedy by the same name?
As a former middle school French and Latin teacher, this revolt warms my heart. These teachers haven't given up on the hoi polloi just yet.
(A hearty merci beaucoup to bibliophile Jean-Paul Fontaine for sharing this story on Facebook. To see it in French, click here.)