Wednesday, May 28, 2014


The Deadly Enemy of Culture

Paul Valéry (1871-1945), The Outlook for Intelligence, tr. Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews (New York; Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 149-150:
Let us confess: the real object of education is the diploma.

I never hesitate to declare that the diploma is the deadly enemy of culture. As diplomas have become more important in our lives (and their importance has done nothing but grow as a result of economic conditions), the less has education had any real effect. As regulations have multiplied, the results have grown worse.

Worse in their effect on the public mind and on the mind generally. Worse because a diploma creates hopes and the illusion that certain rights have been acquired. Worse because of the stratagems and subterfuges it gives rise to: the recommendations, the strategic "cramming," and, indeed, the use of every expedient for crossing the redoubtable threshold. That, we must admit, is a strange and detestable preparation for intellectual and civic life.
Id., pp. 150-151:
The aim of education being no longer the development of the mind but the acquisition of the diploma, the required minimum becomes the goal of study. It is no longer a matter of learning Latin, Greek, or geometry. It is a matter of borrowing—not of acquiring—of borrowing what is needed to get the baccalauréat.

That is not all. The diploma grants to society a phantom guarantee; and to the diploma-holders, phantom rights. The diploma-holder is officially considered to know; all his life he keeps that certificate of some momentary and purely expedient knowledge. Moreover, the holder of a diploma is led in the name of the law to believe that something is owed to him. No practice ever instituted was more fatal for everyone, the State and the individual (and, in particular, for culture). It is with a view to the diploma, for example, that the reading of authors has been replaced by the use of summaries, manuals, absurd digests of knowledge, ready-made collections of questions and answers, extracts, and other abominations. The result is that nothing in this adulterated form of culture can be helpful or suitable to the life of a developing mind.
Id., pp. 151-152 (ellipsis in original):
Let us not go into the question of Greek and Latin; the vicissitudes in the history of these studies is a mockery. By ebb and flow, a little Greek, a little Latin, is added to or withdrawn from the program. But what Greek and what Latin! The quarrel about the so-called "humanities" is merely a fight over the semblances of culture. When we see the use to which those unhappy, twice-dead languages are put, we have the impression of some strange fraud. They are no longer dealt with as real languages or literatures; these tongues seem never to have been spoken but by ghosts. For the immense majority of those who make a pretense of studying them, they are bizarre conventions that have no function but to make up the difficult part of an examination. No doubt Latin and Greek have greatly changed within the past century. Antiquity, nowadays, is no longer at all what it was for Rollin, any more than the "Apollo Belvedere" and the "Laocoön" have been considered, for the past hundred years, the masterpieces of ancient sculpture; nor is there any doubt that no one now knows the Latin of the Jesuits or that of the doctors of philology. Some know a sort of Latin, or rather make a pretense of knowing a sort of Latin, whose final and only use is in the translation required for the baccalauréat. For my part, I believe it would be better to make the teaching of dead languages entirely optional, with no examination required, and to give only a few students a solid knowledge of them rather than force all of them to swallow indigestible scraps of languages that never existed....I shall believe in the teaching of ancient languages when, in a railway carriage, I see one passenger out of a thousand take a small Thucydides or a charming Virgil from his pocket and become absorbed in it, trampling under foot the newspapers and the more or less pulp stories.

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