Monday, December 01, 2008

Entre les murs: a French film exploring the problems of multicultural education

The question of education is central to the current debate concerning multicultural societies. How can the state provide effective schooling to societies composed of so many cultures and languages. There are over 120 languages currently spoken in Irish schools, and many educational institutions have manifested significant difficulty integrating such a diverse range of immigrants. Many children entering Irish schools spend their first formative years speaking languages other than English or Irish. Thus, they are put at a considerable disadvantage when they enter school, having to learn all their subjects through a foreign language. But Ireland’s late arrival to the multicultural world gives it the advantage of learning from other countries, whose multiculturalism is now in its second or third generation. It is in this context that Laurent Cantet’s new film Entre les murs adapted from a novel by Francois Bégaudeau should be of particular interest in Ireland. Cantet’s film is filmed in a school in the 20th district of Paris, and documents the progress of a multicultural class during the school year. Francois is a teacher of French literature, whose job is to impart the finer points of French culture to a motley class of students of varying cultural, national and intellectual backgrounds. The film was shot in an actual school and Cantet uses real pupils for his lead actors. Winner of the Palme d’Or in Cannes this year, Entre les murs has animated vigorous debate since its release in France a few weeks ago, perhaps more due to the pertinent questions it raises concerning the French education system than the magnificence of its cinematography. Cantet’s cinematic style in this film contrasts with some of his more subjective previous films. Entre le murs attempts to take the temperature of a modern French school; in other words, the camera simply observes events as they pass creating an impression of cold objectivity. This documentary form of film-making draws the viewer into the virtual world of the modern school, a world which is in very much a replica or microcosm of modern societies, with its own rules and regulations. During the school year Francois is confronted by a myriad of problems; many of his students come from poor immigrant families, whose parents don’t speak French. These are the children of the infamous ‘banlieux’, the suburban youth, the forgotten of French society. The film has many poignant moments subtly suggestive of a deeper, though understated philosophical problematic. Francois’s attempt to explain the use of the imperfect subjunctive tense to a class whose perplexity borders on downright anger is, despite its comic aspects, indicative of the gulf that divides official France from many its citizens. The imperfect subjunctive tense is never used in French speech; it is a purely formal, written grammatical construction, often used in high French literature. Yet one gets the impression that the director is using this example to serve as a metaphor for the contradictions of French society, and one gets the impression throughout the film that there is a conflict between two dimensions of expression or meta-languages, that of the teachers on the one hand and the meta-language of the students on the other. Francois’s informal dialectical method of teaching his students, in which he invites them to express their opinions, enabling them to clarify their own ideas, is a modern form of the Socratic method called maieutics, that which gives birth to ideas. However, this dialectical and perhaps more democratic form of teaching does not always succeed. Suleiman is a disruptive student from a poor African family who don’t speak French. His confrontation with the school authorities and eventual expulsion is particularly poignant. As his mother only speaks an African language, Suleiman has to translate for her in front of the school board. His perfect bilingualism, a sign of considerable intellectual ability, seems to go unnoticed by the school authorities debating whether or not to expel him from the school. The inflexibility of the school’s regulations, their obdurate refusal to take his difficult familial circumstances into consideration despite the impassioned plea of his mother, is a moving example of how the education system often fails its students. Entre les murs is the French expression meaning ‘ between the walls’, a title suggestive of what happens within the world of the modern multicultural school but also perhaps, of how certain individuals can fall through the cracks between the walls of the education system. It will be in selected Irish cinemas soon. Anyone interested in the philosophy of education in a multicultural context should make an effort to see this film.

The idiom of the capitalist world

Since its humble origins in the forests of Saxony, Denmark and Sweden, this Anglo-Saxon dialect of the Germanic family, the English language, has become the most widely spoken tongue on the planet. As Professor David Crystal has noted, never in the history of mankind has their been one language spoken by so many. There have been various theories regarding the planetary prepotence of English, many of which are obvious : the industrial revolution emanating mainly from Britain, the British Empire and the global dissemination of American popular culture after the second world war. Yet the ascendancy of English has had its dissidents. Anthropologists and cultural ecologists have warned of the dangers presented by global homogenisation generated by an Anglophone hypercapitalism spiralling out of control. America’s current economic crisis has led many to perpend the future of this capitalist social model. Is this really the only way in which a society can function in this technological century ? There can be no doubt about the overwhelming movitation in learning English : money. It is for this reason that the dollar is the most important word in the English language. Yet there is a striking irony here. If one were to teach a class of top executives today by making use of an article from any Anglophone newspaper, one would propably have to teach the following vocabulary : meltdown, disaster, bailout, hedge funds,bankruptcy, cash, outsourcing, unemployment etc etc. These words are already joining the myriad others who have taken their place in foreign languages. English as an international phenomenon is in inextricably tied up with the global capitalist system ; it is, in fact, the very language of capitalism. Yet there is a sense that perhaps that the language, learned for the most part, on the basis of business, is itself becoming bankrupt , or rather the civilisation that formed the cradle of the language is in terminal decline.

When the Roman’s conquered Greece in 180 BCE, they took Greek teachers with them back to Rome. Why ? The Roman’s realised that, although their military and engineering superiority was beyond question, they nevertheless lacked cultivation in the liberal arts, literature, philosophy, art and poetry. Greek intellectuals became slaves for Roman villas, educating the new rulers of the known world. The camparison between Greek and Roman civilisations and Modern Europe and the United States has been made before. Just like Rome, the two principal components of America’s global domination are the economy and the military or the economy propelled by military domination. The is no doubt about the technological superiority of The United States. Yet the paradox here is that, although the Romans ruled the mediterranian, they nevertheless felt a compulsion to copy, immitate and emulate the high culture of those they conquered. The Americans, on the other hand, feel no need to follow this route. Even though Spanish is taught in American schools and native speakers of the language could soon equal English, Americans know that they have no use for other languages. A society which so fervently believes in capitalism, a civilisation that speaks the very language of capitalism has no need of anything else. The Americans know this and does the rest of the world. The teachers of English as a foreign language are today’s Ancient Greek slaves. But there are a couple of significant differences of course. Firstly, their poorly-paid job is to enable a foreigner to to make money ; the TEFL teacher provides access to the market. No philosophy, independent thought, poetry or art is necessary here. Secondly, many of the cultures so eager to learn this gilded-tongue are themselves for more culturally advanced than the Anglophone world, take France and Germany for example. So the planetary prepotence of the English language represents a rather puzzling inversion of the classical world. As the capitalist world proclaims disaster triumphant, perhaps it is time for us to put other verbs, nouns and prepositions together, to create a new means of expression, a post-capitalist language.