Lighter teaching exams show no enlightenment

June 15, 2001

France is dropping Shakespeare from tests for future teachers. Ruth Morse says the implications are not good.

For the second time in three years, Shakespeare has been displaced from France's national qualifying exam for future teachers of English in secondary schools. The word on the street is that this is the first step towards removing Shakespeare from the syllabus altogether.

This loss of Shakespeare is accompanied by a contraction of the core texts for the postgraduate technical teaching certificate ( Capes ) - in 2002 it will comprise two 20th-century novels and Gulliver's Travels . The implications are clear. Literature is prose, and it is modern prose. A familiar vicious circle threatens French higher education: if hard texts (old books, poetry, plays) are no longer required for major national examinations, they will slowly disappear from the syllabus.

The annual rhythm of national examinations has long been defended as a guarantee that French research remains rooted in teaching. Since the exams also drive intellectual study and exchange for university teachers, a cohesive and stimulating experience will soon vanish for them, too. Contraction will restrict the grounding of France's future academics and further concentrate graduates on 20th-century prose. When "mobility" is the matter of the moment, this deliberate downgrading of teacher education threatens the parity of French diplomas with other European qualifications.

Very few French universities now teach any medieval English literature, and it is easy to get through an English course without reading any 16th or 17th-century literature either. In fact, it is not difficult to avoid the 18th century and all poetry. Shakespeare has hung on, but only just.

Part of what is so puzzling about the move in teacher education is that the requirement to study Shakespeare has long produced enthusiasm at every level.

France is not the only country where recruitment examinations are being made easier, particularly in English. The broader subject suffers from the language's world dominance and the widespread assumption that it has no content. But everyone has to have it.

Like a British student's experience of A level, candidates live with set texts for months and those texts stay with them for years. Variety of set texts introduces students to authors, genres and periods that they may not have studied. If they have studied them, they can deepen their knowledge and understanding.

Most French students fail their qualifying exams; some take them two or even three years running. One of the compensations of such examinations for the vast majority of students who will certainly fail is that those books nourish the spirit. The experience is just as crucial a period of study for the 8,000 who fail as for the 2,000 who pass one or other of the exams in English.

By reading and rereading great authors, students learn that literature is where languages show their subtleties and complexities. Good choices give most pleasure and create confidence. Shakespeare never fails.

It is a paradox that everyone wants a gifted teacher who will inspire children, yet everywhere teachers as a caste are despised. The worrying trend is that the erasure of history, of old books, of Shakespeare, is part of a larger attack on teachers. In France, almost every university teacher has passed the Agrégation and spent a period teaching in the upper levels of secondary education, teaching not only vocabulary, grammar and syntax, but also culture and literature.

The number of teaching posts is determined by the education ministry, and students sit competitive exams in their chosen subject knowing that the highest possible number of successful candidates corresponds exactly to the number of posts available.

The route to the coveted title, Agrégé , is demanding. This acme of educational examinations has the hallowed aura of an Oxbridge first (with the terror of public numerical ranking). It begins with the Licence (the third-year exam, which corresponds to a BA), then the Capes (for teachers in middle schools), the Maîtrise (the fourth-year diploma, which corresponds to an honours BA plus a long thesis), then, at last, to the rite of passage - the year of the Agrégation . There are ten times as many posts for Capésiens as for Agrégatifs . The Capes has traditionally been one of the steps by which French students reached the Agrégation - downgrading it is a blow to social mobility in the name of mass-production of teachers for inner-city schools.

Future teachers will need no more than to convey basic grammar: not to keep themselves going or to innovate in difficult schools, not to motivate or open doors to the imagination, not to share their own discoveries, not to inspire - not to teach.

Ruth Morse is professor of literature in English at the University of Paris VII.

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