The appalling assassination of Samuel Paty may lead one to think that professorial words are no longer authoritative in certain situations where teachers teach knowledge appearing in school programs, but contested by part of the social body. What are the causes and consequences of such a weakening? What resources can teachers draw on? But also, what limits to their action?
To better understand the issues that arise in the classroom, we must first come back to the different conceptions of truth that have crossed over throughout history, that of knowledge, that of information and that of beliefs.
Let us recall that before 1789, under the Ancien Régime, knowledge emanated from a transcendence (God), from which certain men – the king above all – held their authority. During the Renaissance, printing, Protestantism and free thinkers contributed to questioning the principle of transcendence in favor of the principle of rationality: knowledge is then legitimized because of the consistency of statements.
Since the Enlightenment, the continuous development of the sciences has further established the principle of rationality. But this does not prevent knowledge from being questioned or even contested. There are several reasons for this:
- First, the idea that the truth of scientific knowledge remains temporary is widely shared. Knowledge reflects the current state of our knowledge, which is essentially evolving. In addition, during the XX th century, the idea of a continuous human progress through reason, science and “civilization” has been significantly undermined, when technical rationality has been serving world and colonial wars or totalitarian systems. These elements have helped to delegitimize knowledge.
- Second, the rise of digital technologies – and with them the project of a “knowledge society” – equates science with knowledge and reduces it to information. Acquiring knowledge amounts to processing information, unrelated to the fundamental human questions at the origin of the knowledge accumulated over generations. However, it is the inclusion of knowledge in culture that helps to understand the contemporary world.
- Third, beliefs did not disappear with the rise of science. They provide answers to certain essential human questions, of a different nature from scientific answers. But unlike the sciences which produce knowledge under very specific conditions, beliefs cannot be demonstrated. We adhere to them or not, which does not mean that they are not the subject of debates of interpretation.
End of the school monopoly?
One of the current difficulties arises from the confusions – sometimes openly entertained – between knowledge, beliefs, information and opinions. Certainly, fundamentalist religious groups situating their beliefs at the same level as knowledge, declare that they are telling the truth to the detriment of the latter, but they are not the only ones. In the post-truth era , leading politicians have made it a practice of exercising power, disseminating false information or favoring questionable scientific work, sometimes with the complicity of researchers.
In essence, three conceptions of truth are opposed:
- the truth of scientific knowledge is a classical truth (something is true if it has been demonstrated using scientific reasoning);
- the “knowledge society” goes hand in hand with a pragmatist truth (something is true if it produces tangible immediate effects);
- beliefs are based on a revealed truth, not demonstrable (something is true if it emanates from a transcendence, from words transcribed in sacred texts).
But at school, the first concept prevails. It is nonetheless in competition with the other two. Academic knowledge cannot be taught as beliefs. The authority of professors can no longer be based solely on the knowledge they possess and express.
Clearly, being a scholar is a necessary condition, but not sufficient to teach students, who challenge knowledge more than in the past in the name of other authorities (family, friends, religious…). Whenever possible, the experimental approach, but also the history of science, are valuable teaching resources.
In addition, with the “digital revolution”, the school no longer has the exclusive right to transmit knowledge and teachers no longer have a monopoly on reliable knowledge, most students being able to access diversified and verifiable knowledge. .
However, it is not because knowledge is available on the Internet that students access and acquire it. Thus, teachers must rethink their pedagogy, to help their students to sort between knowledge (specified by the conditions of its production), information (true or false), opinion or belief, in particular by identifying the sources consulted. Documentary research becomes a fundamental teaching.
Let us add that in a “knowledge society”, all the knowledge taught at school is no longer regarded as relevant. School knowledge is invested differently according to the pupils and their families, because of the orientation possibilities they allow or their immediate social utility. However, certain disciplines – for example artistic disciplines – are essential for the development of critical minds, openness and creativity.
Learn to learn
But the professors’ words still compete with the individualist and productivist values of neoliberal societies. Industrial and financial multinationals distribute them by controlling audiovisual and digital means of communication. These new authorities “dictate” the values and behavior of young people. They capture their attention, to satisfy their primary impulses for immediate and unlimited pleasures, to possess in order to exist and be like others, in passivity and without effort.
However, learning requires the opposite attitude: the student must control his impulses at a minimum, tolerate frustration and postpone his pleasure, accept a discipline that will allow him to be in a condition of cognitive activity, but also make efforts over time.
Consequently, the authority of teachers is no longer based on their words alone and the practice of the profession changes in depth. It is by implementing didactic (organization and presentation of knowledge content) and pedagogical (organization of space, time, relationships in class, material and technical aspects) skills that they create in their lessons , conditions allowing their pupils to learn without being satisfied only with what they say, to take them “at their word”.
However, students do not have to “rediscover” or “re-invent” knowledge. The teaching / learning situation should help them to shift their focus from the incomplete or erroneous representations they have of it, while allowing them to ask other questions. New knowledge will make sense for them if it provides them with answers to these questions, joining their human experience.
Students’ reflexivity on knowledge therefore becomes a major issue at school, not only to legitimize the authority of teachers, but also for students to gain access to subjective, critical and emancipatory knowledge.
Some teachers have become experts in teaching sensitive curriculum topics. There are also training mechanisms to analyze these situations. Teachers, researchers, the Ministry of National Education itself take up the challenge of training students to be critical.
Social and political issues
Resources exist, but not all teachers are trained, and it is not continuing education, which has been damaged, that remedies it. It will therefore come as no surprise that some people give up tackling this knowledge which puts them in difficulty, especially if they are under pressure from their head of establishment or the remonstrances of their inspectors.
The words of politicians about the authority of teachers do not provide more support. By constantly suggesting – as the current Minister of National Education does – that teachers need “science” to determine the “good practices” that they would only have to apply afterwards, their qualifications are despised. and their ability to collectively improve their practices. These speeches, which make professors into simple performers, discredit their authority in the eyes of public opinion.
More generally, the recurring difficulties that our national representation has in defining the purposes that society assigns to its school (for example through the frequency of changes in school programs), without correcting inequalities in academic success according to social origin, only increase its discredit in popular circles.
Finally, faced with an attack like the one suffered by our colleague, the response is primarily political. It stems from a coherence of words and decisions, for a resistance of the whole of society to the totalitarian project of political Islamism, contrary to our values.
Author Bio: Bruno Robbes is a University Professor in Educational Sciences at CY Cergy Paris University