2016 French Education Reform: An Ideological Rewriting of History in School Manuals?

*French-to-English translations by the author*

World War I Decree in Dunkirk ordering to turn out the lights at night. http://bit.ly/2dEXc8T

The start of the school year would not be a French one without another uproar sparked by the Ministry of National Education. After the spelling reform of last February (simplifying a total 2400 words and notoriously boycotted by the Académie française), the alternative grading system project, the controversy in May about the teaching of Arabic in primary schools and the promotion of the Montessori pedagogical methods by Celine Alvarezmany teachers consider that the new content of history manuals gives “a lenient view of Arab-Muslim civilization” while it disregards major French events such as the Age of Enlightenment.

Dubious Biases 

In an interview with FigaroVox, Barbara Lefebvre, a history high-school teacher in the Hauts-de-Seine region and co-author of Les territoires perdus de la République (Éditions Mille et Une Nuits), declared that four of the main editions of 5th grade history textbooks (Hachette, Belin, Bordas and Hatier) were concealing crucial facts about Islam. According to her, the emphasis is laid on the most pacific contacts between the Christian and the Arab-Muslim civilizations (e.g. commerce and science in Andalusia) rather than on their usually violent relation, as would show the omission of the emblematic Battle of Poitiers (732) in a couple of the manuals. Ms Lefebvre also denounces the use of ambiguous vocabulary, such as the conquest of Mecca called a “retaking” or the invaded populations designated as “nomads” when in fact they had built the cities of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Damascus, Yarmouk, Cairo and Mosul before Mahomet’s arrival. She then adds that the manuals exclusively quote Arabic sources concerning how the conquered populations were treated, thus showing only one side of the events and obscuring the violence behind forced conversions (cf. the public mutilations and crucifixions in Toledo, 713). The governmental program nevertheless insists on underlining the “awareness of the diversity of historical sources” and promotes the critique of these sources. Critical thinking is praised, yet hardly applicable due to the one-sidedness of the excerpts quoted in these books.

Sensitive Histories

Overall, it appears to Ms Lefebvre that the manuals outline an idealized view of the medieval Islamic world because it more than once oversimplifies reality: the Arabs who colonized Andalusia were not the ones who resurrected the Antique treaties about astronomy, medicine and anatomy; rather, these texts were translated into Arabic by a majority of Jews and Syriac Christians. What about more sensitive issues such as the harsh conditions of the dhimma according to which non-Muslims had to live? What about the “closing of the gates of Ijtihad dating back to the 9-11th century that punished personal interpretations of the Koran regarding legal matters, beside the sharia and some of Mahomet’s hadiths ? What about the treatment of women in the medieval Islamic society? And last but certainly not least, what about the Arabic human traffic that started in the 7th century and still goes on today? As usual, school manuals ignore these hot topics, expanding instead on Occidental slave trade (the name of not one, but two mandatory teaching units being: A European-dominated world: colonial empires, commercial exchanges and black slave trade” and “Colonial conquests and societies”). Meanwhile, the unit on the Age of Enlightenment has become facultative.

What is more, key French figures such as Clovis, Louis IX (Saint Louis) and François I will not be covered in this program, whereas the absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV will be. Initially, the unit dedicated to Islam was mandatory, while the one on Christianity was not. Following the numerous criticisms that this plan kindled, the Ministry produced a second version of its educative program, this time making both of these units mandatory as well as extending the time allotted to the Nazi regime, which previously had to be restrained to one hour for the whole year. As a response to the inquiries regarding a simplification of the educative program, the government’s statement is: “The programs are neither ‘reduced’ nor ‘weighed down’” The programs are redesigned in their style.”, which basically means everything and nothing.

“Know about the past, understand the current world”

This flattering formula does reassert the ambition of any historical program, yet how are we to interpret these specific changes to the teaching of history, regarding today’s issues in France? Not reducing Islam to obscurantism surely is an effort worthy of praise, and high school manuals are no vitrines for the latest in-depth scholarly discussions. Admittedly as well, time is a factor that forces both reformers and teachers to choose between historical periods, although the selection appears specifically targeted at the expense of more positive French events. Is it then the role of the Ministry of National Education to alleviate specifically infamous, albeit historical facts of Islam, without even consulting the teachers? The President of the Association of the History and Geography Teachers (APHG) declared that “what is embarrassing is the valorization of these dark chapters that [my] colleagues are forced to address, while at the same time, fundamental subjects such as the Age of Enlightenment, essential in order to understand the French Revolution, or the History of Christianity, are being relegated to mere options…It would be better to give to the teachers a global annual schedule and [a choice of] themes to deal with, so that they adapt by themselves the content of their class, according to their audience.”

In France, patriotism and the praise of past heroic deeds are frowned upon as nostalgic chauvinism; the mere mention of national identity automatically affiliates one to the Republicans, if not to the Front National. In a collective article published in Le Monde, several history professors thus write that criticisms concerning the reform futher exemplify the “growing stigmatization of Islam” and that “the indoctrination of patriotism has stopped being the primary goal of the Republican school.”

Whichever way one looks at it, whoever shapes History with the intention of mass educating does possess the key to the memory, and thus to the future of thousands of young citizens.