Think about what we do

Although I have commented on it here and there, I feel the urgent need to come back to this matter of books taken from school libraries in Ontario – and for some burned.

I am convinced that, in order to judge this case correctly, it is necessary to take on it that distance which the philosophy of education helps to acquire. It is this perspective that I tried to adopt when I was asked to comment on this affair and I want here, in writing (which remains…), to recall it clearly and present the conclusions to which it leads me.

The role of the school

What matters first and foremost is to remember that these events occur in a very specific institution: the school. Its main function is to educate and it is intended for children and young people, unlike higher education establishments, such as universities, which are aimed at adults.

The school educates by transmitting knowledge. These are broken down into a curriculum which must have been carefully thought out and delivered, taking into account in particular the age of the recipients. A major concern must then be not to indoctrinate, which would be to ensure that the students unconditionally adhere to a doctrine, which is not knowledge, but rather a possible and debated position on a subject, on a question or on a social issue.

Of course, there are times when the curriculum has to be revised. What often leads us there is first of all the transformations of knowledge that the school has the function of transmitting. The exact same physics content is not taught in high school in a class of 1860 as in a class of 1960: science has evolved and the school curriculum has, with good reason, adapted. The same goes, of course, in history.

This time, on the other hand, much more than in other disciplines, these transformations of our knowledge are also carried by various movements and generate social debates and demands of all kinds. All this takes place in society as a whole, and it is here that another aspect of the special status of the school must be remembered.

This is indeed a kind of middle ground between the family, where the students come from, and the society, in which they are destined to become citizens. Through school, ideally, they leave their family with all that characterizes it and gain access to knowledge and the standards that govern them: they gradually forge an identity and prepare themselves to enter society lucidly.

Now take into account the mission of transmitting knowledge; this inescapable imperative not to indoctrinate; the unique status of the school; and the age of those who frequent it. Then ask yourself under what conditions – and, if so, according to what guidelines – it is appropriate to modify a history curriculum and how it should be dispensed according to the age of the students. If you’ve followed me this far, you can clearly see light signals that read “caution” and “attention”.

But you also know valuable guides for doing this. We will ask experts to update us on the knowledge now known and recognized; we will carefully distinguish between knowledge and ideology, between debated or controversial position, with the concern not to indoctrinate; the age of the pupils will be taken into account when tackling certain more delicate subjects; and we will know that everything that takes place outside of school has no place in school for that reason alone, and even less at all levels.

Reflection and nuances

Curriculum revision could of course have repercussions on textbooks and, more broadly, on the school library. In the Ontario case, we started with it.

It was activism rather than the expertise of scholars that made decisions and acted. There is nothing to ensure that the danger of indoctrination has been carefully taken into account and has weighed heavily on the decisions taken. Regardless of the age of the readers, we put in the same bag history books, encyclopedias, stories, novels and comics, which testifies to a total ignorance of books, while we were preparing to blacklist some and, horror, burn others. And decision-makers have endorsed all this, demonstrating beyond any doubt their incomprehension of what the school is and what its mission is.

Can we – must we? – rethink certain aspects of the history curriculum, in particular what is said about the Aboriginals? Without a doubt. But what we have seen in Ontario is terrifying and signals, once again, alas, that the times too often sorely lacked this precious ability to qualify, or even simply to think.

I wanted to defend the perspective of a philosopher. Just these words come back to me from a precious educational philosopher, Hannah Arendt: “All I ask, she said, is that we think about what we are doing…” She also said this, which takes these days- here have somewhat frightening connotations: “Education is the point at which it is decided whether we love the world enough to take responsibility for it and, moreover, save it from this ruin which would be inevitable without this renewal and without this arrival of young people. and newcomers. It is also with education that we decide whether we love our children enough not to reject them from our world, or abandon them to themselves, or take away their chance to undertake something new, something that we had not planned, but prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world. “

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