Reform angers philosophers

August 3, 2001

French education minister Jack Lang has bowed to pressure from philosophy teachers to neutralise reforms due to start in lycees in September, despite claims by an opposing group of philosophers and teachers that the proposed changes are essential.

Philosophy is introduced in terminale , the third and final year of lycee, and is a compulsory subject in the baccalauréat . When the programme was established in 1973, it was assumed that the nature of the subject required that teachers be free to choose content and approach. Uniquely in the French curriculum, philosophy had no detailed syllabus. Teachers had to cover only a list of concepts, such as "freedom" and "truth".

But despite the loose programme, the bac philosophy exam follows a rigorous formula.

While philosophy teaching has remained the same, society has changed. The proportion of young people sitting the bac has risen from one-fifth to more than three-fifths.

Jean-Jacques Rosat, professor of philosophy at the Collège de France and chair of philosophy teaching association Acireph, which supports the proposed reforms, said that expansion meant that many pupils arrived in terminale poorly equipped to study philosophy.

In 1999 former education minister Claude Allègre appointed a committee of inquiry - the fourth into teaching philosophy in the past decade - headed by Paris philosophy professor Alain Renaut. Presenting the findings a year ago, he recommended that the programme be lighter and more structured, with the "concepts" taught in pairs, such as "history and progress" or "desire and need". The proposals were approved by the Conseil Supérieur de l'Éducation and were due to start this September.

Many teachers, notably those represented by the Association des Professeurs de Philosophie de l'Enseignement Public, condemned the Renaut proposals for removing teacher autonomy and making the subject too light - even though candidates do worse in philosophy than other subjects.

Protests from the APPEP and other teachers' bodies persuaded Mr Lang, Mr Allègre's successor, to set up a consultation.

After months of fierce public debate, Mr Lang has backed down. While the reforms will still be introduced in September, they will be "optional" - which means that for most pupils the programme will remain unchanged.

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