General culture: The French regret their shortcomings but who would dare question the dogma of equality that led them there?

Students sit in a classroom on back-to-school day at a Lyon high school, Sept. 1, 2022.

Atlantico: You conducted a study, General culture: the French decline?, for IFOP and The Elephant. What are the main subjects of your studies?

Gautier Jardon: Our survey shows the internalized feeling of a sense of decline in general French culture. It was not a test of general knowledge that we conducted, only feelings were questioned. And this decrease in the level of general culture, they feel it over time, for themselves as well as for the general level of France compared to other Western countries. Half of the French believe that the French have ‘less’ knowledge than 50 years ago, an increase of 17 points since 2012. And if about half of the French believe that the level of knowledge now equal to other Western countries, 31% of the French believe it is lower than the European average, an increase of 14 points, almost double, compared to 2012.

What we observe is a significant generational effect. Contrary to the idea that adults who criticize the youth may have, the youth are the most negative on these questions. They internalize more than others the idea that the French have less culture than Westerners.

Finally, we can see that there is a decline in the self-assessment of the general French culture. Only 58% believe they have a high level of general knowledge. There is a decrease of six points in this indicator compared to 2017. Only half of those under 35 think they have a high general culture compared to 66% of those over 65.

So we are in a situation where some French people are already ashamed of their own culture, in front of colleagues, friends and even family or a spouse. And here again it is particularly important to those under 25 years of age.

What could be causing this feeling of rejection? Is the role of general culture in everyday life perhaps one of the keys to the explanation?

Gautier Jardon: What we really measure is the importance of culture in everyday life. And the French have a less utilitarian view of culture. This is always something important, and especially for teaching children (67% of the French believe that a good level of culture is important for this purpose). But at the same time, culture is considered less important for understanding the world (only 53% of the French against 60% in 2017), less important for a successful professional life (39% against 53 % in 2017). We are moving from a utilitarian view to a more personal view of culture. This does not mean that the French believe that culture is outdated or reserved for an elite. There is an adhesion, an internalization of the French in discourses of cultural decline.

According to a survey published by the IFOP on Thursday, the French see a significant decline in their general culture, both personally and at the national level. Is this perspective recognized by the purpose of the data?

Erwan Le Noan: Various measures related to education have shown that the “level” of knowledge of the French has decreased, especially in mathematics and science (international surveys by Timss), but also in French (a study of the Ministry of National Education reported again in December) . The Minister of National Education himself was concerned last December that “levels are falling”.

What reasons can be identified for the real and perceived shortcomings of French general culture?

Erwan Le Noan: Many reasons can be triggered.

The first is objective: the quality of education has declined despite a growing budget; the level of requirements is likely to develop downwards, due primarily to the desire to increase the number of students obtaining uniform diplomas and a refusal to change teaching methods; the composition of the lessons also varied; the requirements for the recruitment of teachers perhaps also (according to the ministry itself, at the Academy of Versailles, the threshold for entering the school teacher competition is 8 out of 20. It is 6 out of 20 in Créteil), etc.

Seconds are subjective. If the level “dropped”, it is also not forbidden to think that the feeling of lack of general culture is also partly connected with the fact that there is more to know today than yesterday. In our connected world, where information is constantly circulating, knowledge is abundant and plentiful. In this context, the nature of our “general culture” is probably different: I know more about digital today than about ancient culture, which probably did not happen to our ancestors.

It is also possible that, in the face of so much knowledge within our reach, our sense of cultural inadequacy has increased: perhaps we now see better the extent of everything we still have to explore in a knowledge that, in theory, is extraordinary. accessible. Perhaps there is part of the frustration in our sense of lack of culture.

Can we really address the problem if we don’t question the dogma of equality, in this particular school, that has led to this?

Erwan Le Noan: The decline in the performance of the school led to this result, because it seems to have failed in its mission of imparting knowledge; therefore ‘new’ parents tend to have less ‘classical’ culture to pass on to their own children. However, if this “classical” culture is not the only one and it is good to mingle with others, it is important for the foundations of our humanistic culture.

The real problem with the dogma of educational equality is that by refusing to differentiate courses, teaching, methods sufficiently, it leads to leveling by concentrating on an average level . Children from “good” families manage however, because they benefit from the support of their parents: in practice, children from the richest backgrounds as well as children of teachers record better performance in academic (they show in this respect that what matters is cultural capital rather than financial capital). Those who come from less well-off backgrounds, i.e. socially disadvantaged or sometimes even geographically isolated, are “disadvantaged”. The dogma of equality in education breeds deep injustice, because even the most deserving are not certain to succeed.

What conclusions can be drawn from such a survey? What recommendations should this dark panorama encourage us to follow?

Erwan Le Noan: The conclusion is ambivalent. Admittedly, there is reason to be somewhat gloomy considering that “the level is falling”; but at the same time, thanks to the capitalist economy and digital technology in particular, knowledge has never been so abundant and accessible to knowledge. In France, anyone who wants, or almost, can learn, thanks to the school, thanks to their computer or phone connected to the Internet, the press, the books, the video, the podcasts. The success of this variety of content is a sign of optimism because a good part of them have an educational vocation, through popularization work: it shows that the French want to learn! And that’s good news! We live in an age of abundance and availability of knowledge.

If we must reform National Education, we must also always encourage inquisitive minds that explore.

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