How to do away with school
Atlas – Air France n°69 – March 1972
I agree, Sir, one must democratize education. And I can only heartily approve your argument. In the first place, because I always side with my opponents. It is a matter of principle with me. Secondly, because I have adopted the philosophy of Fontenelle on the subject of knowing right from wrong: whenever he got tired of arguing with people, he would leave the room declaring that after all everything is indeed possible and that everybody may be right. This enabled him not only to keep his soul serene and his stomach free of ulcers, but to live well over a hundred and bury all his contemporaries, friends or enemies, with the same kindness. Without flattering you, I am not afraid to assert that the method you advocate is simply brilliant. It reminds me of Columbus’ egg: nobody thinks of it because it is too simple. What you are saying in fact is that to democratize education, on must make it easier. That’s what I call thinking. I am sure, Sir, that you must have been a very bright student.
For it is obvious that the difficulty of today’s education creates a segregation between the supporters of the System — the eager and intelligent students — and the others. It is no less obvious that this segregation is simply scandalous. One must therefore suppress its main cause. You have perfectly identified it as Difficulty. Let our Ministers set up at the earliest a Commission on the Segregation of Learning in Universities. I shall take it upon me to point out to them the most glaring cases of injustice.
Let us not even mention spelling: it is on its death-bed. Needless finishing it off. Let us not consider reading either: there too, the best is to abandon things to their sad fate since, according to American psychologists, reading is no longer a must to enter college. Let us stick to one abuse, the most obvious and undisputable: the multiplication table.
Do you remember, Sir, the slyly triumphant expression on the faces of your third grade favorites reciting at one go, without taking a second breath, the table of eight? Do you recall the contempt of these aristocrats for their poor friends defending, on the remote benches of the classroom, the undeniable right of man to ignore that eight times seven is fifty six? (Provided of course that this dubious assertion is not purely and simply an invention of the oppressive teaching body.)
I therefore put forward the motion that all tables dealing with numbers above two be abolished as alienating and reactionary.
I must admit, however, that this very demand is the cause of many headaches. My friend Jacques Bergier, who often calls upon me in my barrel and whom I acquainted last night with my project of a new arithmetics curriculum, looked at me with sadness.
— Racist! he called me. Is it to witness this that I once destroyed the Nazi base of Peenemünde? That I endured three years of concentration camp? What about those who deny that two by one is two? What do you make of them? Aren’t they men all the same? Aren’t they entitled to happiness?
And as I remained silent at the sacred words of right to happiness, wondering what could be included in a curriculum respectful of the dignity of the working man, Bergier, who can read in men’s thoughts, added:
— There is only one valid reform of curriculum: mine. I simply do away with it. I do away with everything, except exams.
— Heavens forbid! How can you take exams without preparing them?
— You just learn to manage. I start with the eminently democratic principle that nobody has got the right to compel a reluctant student to learn or will ever prevent someone determined to learn from studying. In the old Russia, young Jewish girls who wanted to study had to wear the badge of prostitutes. And they wore it. Such obstacles have stimulated the Jewish people so much that to this day, they still form a large part of the world’s scientists. Believe me, to save education, one must do away with the curriculum and make exams more difficult. And do not wait too long. Otherwise, you’ll be driven to such desperate solutions as the stake or the strappado.
— The stake? To oblige students to study?
— You must be joking! On the contrary. To make studies clandestine (therefore fascinating), one should take to the bush. And to stimulate zeal, one should burn, from time to time, a graduate of the “École Polytechnique”.
Here you are, Sir: this is what one of the most erudite men in France told me, a man whom nobody has been able to prevent so far from reading four or five books a day. This adds up to many, many books in the course of half a century, if one takes into account 365 days in the year plus leap-years. I am ready to bet that with a multiplication table, I could figure out exactly how many books it adds up to.■