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History in French Secondary School: A Tale of Progress and Universalism or a Narrative of Present Society?

Nicole Tutiaux-Guillon

Whereas primary school history tended—and still tends today—to pass on a narrative of the nation, in France, the general history framework in secondary school is rather different. It is more versatile and more potent. Since the seventies, more than eight new history curricula have been implemented, mainly in secondary education (Garcia & Leduc, 2003), but the school history aims have remained fairly stable. It will be argued, in this chapter, that French secondary school history is not nationalistic but supports, and is supported by, values taken to constitute an ideal for humanity, particularly human rights, democracy, scientific and economic progress, and openness to otherness. Since 1890, the institutional aims insist on the priority of these values over any national identity. The curricula are shaped through interpretations of historical currents, events and changes from a universalistic perspective. History narrates how politics, society and economy have developed from archaism and barbarity to modernity and political and social rights, even through acute crises. This provides an opportunity to teach both the history of France and of Europe or the World, interpreted through the same values, and to change the contents of the curricula, implementing global perspectives without changing the core structure of the narrative. Nevertheless, this chapter suggests also that the chosen topics, and the chronological context in which they are set, result in and from French or Western ethnocentrism. This might be problematic in a society more and more sensitive to ethnic and religious diversity. The explicit trend of the curricula seems, however, successful: several different inquiries stated that the students are probably more sensitive to the idea of

N. Tutiaux-Guillon (*)

Ecole superieure du professorat et de l’education (ESPE), COMUE Lille Nord de France, Villeneuve d’Ascq, France

© The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_15

universalistic citizenship associated to inclusive history than to ethnic claims, even if those are emphasized by the media. In France, “ethnic diversity” is not usually spoken of (the politically correct phrasing is “visible minorities”); the shared values and citizenship prevail. The teachers interpret the curricula in this light.

This general argumentation will be supported by the current analysis of twentieth and twenty-first centuries curricula in France, particularly of the recent 2008 (lower secondary school or college) and 2009 (upper secondary school or lycee) curricula, with glimpses at the textbooks as powerful professional resources. In this analysis, the focus will be first on the universalistic values underlying the curricula and second on the mise en intrigue (emplotment) organized by the tale of modernity. Thirdly, the tensions between openness to others and ethnocentrism in the French history curricula will be specified. Lastly, an attempt is made to question the relations to the students’ identities that represents an aim of prescribed school history, a justification of some teachings and a problem for some teachers.

The relations between school history, youth identities and social memories are presently of key importance for deciding what to teach and how to teach it (Jacquet-Francillon, 2008; Tutiaux-Guillon & Mousseau, 1998; Tutiaux- Guillon & Nourrisson, 2003). The terrorist attacks and murders of Charlie Hebdo journalists and Jews in January 2015 have probably reinforced the relevance of these relations. Committed in name of Islamist fundamentalism, these crimes have induced a collective demonstration of adherence to Human Rights and laicite (secularism). The government has prescribed more moral and civic teaching in school, and the association of history-geography teachers has produced an inquiry that underlined an important professional mobilization (APHG, 2015). The teachers indicated that they have organized debates and worked on historical issues such as the Dreyfus affair, the Enlightenment (particularly Voltaire), the separation of the Churches and the State (1905), and so on, as well as on the rules of Islam and the Koran, in order to focus on values as historical and political stakes. The idea is clearly to enforce universal- istic values and to avoid any stigmatization of Muslims.

As a specialist of history didactics, I have questioned for a decade the place allotted to diversity—cultural, ethnic and religious—in history curricula, textbooks and lessons as well as the place given to diverse and sometimes conflicting memories in school history. By now, it is a professional question and a disturbing one—for novice teachers and even for some experienced ones. Such issues are what we call questions socialement vives (socially acute questions, Legardez & Simonneaux, 2006): questions that are scientifically controversial, socially debated and potentially disturbing classrooms. Of course, the matter of identity is a socially acute question in a country with a population largely of migrant origin since the mid-nineteenth century. This immigration has resulted in a society more or less denying or deploring this fact until the present day, and in sporadic conflicts, whatever the positive contribution of migrants to economy and culture. Several European investigations have dealt with the links between youth identity and school history since the pioneering Youth and History research (Angvik & Von Borries, 1997). Those comparative investigations tend to assert both the specificities of French context—partly due to the universalistic model of citizenship—and the international similitude of the stakes and sociopolitical issues (e.g. Carretero, Rosa, & Gonzalez, 2007a; Grever & Ribbens, 2007; Tutiaux-Guillon, 2000b). Now arises a new possibility for research in didactics: connecting curricular changes introducing socially acute questions and youth attitudes toward history, in the context of apparently growing diversity. This chapter is meant as a first step in this direction.

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