by Ted Welch
Wed Jun 19th, 2013 at 06:37:41 PM EST
Monday the French BAC (A level equivalent) began as usual with philosophy - why begin with philosophy - perhaps because it's such a fundamental subject ? Not quite, more prosaically it starts with philosophy because all students have to take it so it takes time to mark all those papers. But then they all take it because the French do regard it as an important subject - they're all Cartesians now. This concern with philosophy is something I admire about French culture - even if they do sometimes think they can answer complex questions with a definition - see my cafe philo diary:
"In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn, than to contemplate." Rene Descartes
But, given the nature of the humanities in general and philosophy in particular, it's not something which can be evaluated with much accuracy and it's done in the form of one essay in four hours ! As one guy says, he got a respectable 12/20, but some of those in his class who were best at philosophy only got a 5: "It's a Russian roulette - or perhaps a Greek one."
Vincent Peillon, the current minister of education, also only got a 12, but went on to study philosophy, gained a PhD in it and became a philosophy lecturer. However, he was precocious and took the exam at 16 rather than 18.
The Bac was introduced by Napoleon in 1808 and in 1809 there were 31 candidates and 21 passed - having studied Greek and Latin authors, rhetoric - and philosophy.
Questions from the last few years, to get a sense of how another country challenges its students via Essential Questions:
Is man condemned to create illusions about himself?
Can we prove a scientific hypothesis?
Is it our duty to seek out the truth?
Would we have more freedom without the state?
Can natural desires exist?
Is the only purpose of working to be useful?
What does one gain from working?
Is every belief contrary to reason?
Can desire be disinterested?
Are we prisoners of the past?
This year the questions included:
Is language just a tool?
Can one act morally without taking an interest in politics?
Since ethics provides criteria for judging political actions as right or wrong rather than understandable or inevitable, Sartre appears to have changed his mind a number of times about political violence. Or is he, as Ronald Santoni argues, `curiously ambivalent'?
There are cafe philosophy meetings in many French towns; a philosophy lecturer, in a TV news discussion of the Bac philo (can you imagine this on Brit TV ?), said that the French go to cafe-philos not for answers, but for the pleasure of discussing ideas. So if a French person doesn't respond immediatly to your question, they're not being rude, they're thinking about it - and savouring the pleasure.
"Everything has been figured out, except how to live" Sartre