Archéologie pédagogique

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In 2005, on the initiative of the Ardennes association Périple en la Demeure, a Belgian group of teachers, educators and researchers in philosophy set to work on the relationship between school and democracy, pursuing a double objective. On the one hand, to explore from the inside the school experiences that put in place a real democratic practice between teachers and students (France, Italy, Rajasthan, Costa Rica, among others). On the other hand, to report and analyze these experiences, in order to transpose them to the particular context of the French Community. 

During the winter of 2006–2007, the Pédagogie Nomade collective wrote a « Project for a different school in the French Community », which articulated practical proposals inspired by the experience of the Lycée Since 1981, theexperimental school of Saint-Nazaire has been making theoretical remarks, based on a paradoxical crossing between Joseph Jacotot’s anti-pedagogy — according to Jacques Rancière’s reading of the presupposition of equality of intelligences — and Deleuze and Guattari’s institutional theory of desire, territories and futures. The « Different School Project » was based on three major axes. It decreed a principle of equality between teachers and students. It proposed to institute a participation of all members of the school in the daily management of the school. He sought to transform the relationship of students and teachers to knowledge. The first of these principles purges the school of everything that hierarchizes it and therefore infantilizes its « captive » public (sanctions, authority, obligation, surveillance, numerical grading, etc.), the second implies that part of the time will be devoted to something other than so-called school work, the third that the pedagogical devices are multiple, the rhythms individualized, the variable geometry, the border between the teacher and the pupil partially dissolved, learning is everyone’s business These three principles, even a distracted reader will note, strongly imply that the rules in force in education, insofar as we can speak of vigor, will be, if not shaken, at least resolutely questioned. 

In September 2008, the school Pédagogie Nomade opened its doors in Limerlé, in the Belgian Ardennes, in the buildings of the association Périple en la Demeure. For a little more than three years, within the framework of the official education system of the French Community, Pédagogie Nomade has proposed an experimental study program for the upper secondary cycle to a dozen teachers and sixty students who are not at ease with school (repeating grades, exclusion, various pathologies, dropping out, revolt or deep boredom). In November 2011, the Minister of Education decided, by authority, to terminate the agreement. 

The closing of the school did not interrupt the journey of Periplus en la Demeure, started more than 10 years ago. Since February 2012, she proposes, among other things, a place to live for those she calls « the neighbors », whom another had named « efficient vagabonds » or « seeds of scum »: the Maison Deligny(1). Anyone who knows the life and work of Fernand Deligny knows what a struggle it is… 

a question of seNs 

It is said that the school suffers from a lack of meaning. That it would be necessary to rediscover learning, relationships between teachers and students, and goals that make sense. But what sense are we talking about? The one that gives students their market value in the job market? Of the one who makes life at school happy? Or of the meaning that some would like to see return beyond the throes of modern pedagogy that destroys culture? The problem is not to reconnect with meaning — there is always meaning, and always too much of it — but to have some idea, some grasp, of the ethical, political and social stakes of the meanings that « play » the school, or on which the school plays itself. 

Pédagogie Nomade did not seek to reconnect with the meaning of school. For two reasons: firstly, because it would be wrong to assert that the so-called « traditional » school is devoid of meaning, and that the educational paths that take place there are full of absurdity. Perhaps it is even an overload of meaning that the school suffers today. Secondly, and above all, because Nomadic Pedagogy worked upstream, where the evidence that school should make sense is decided. The pedagogical relationship that justifies the relationship maintained by the teacher with his students is already loaded with meaning: meanings and purposes, sharing of reality, vectors of orientation giving the experience a horizon, even a goal. Pédagogie Nomade proposed to question the institutional consistency of the pedagogical relationship. 

This is the Crisis… 

A growing number of students are said to be bored or tired of school, indifferent to the educational process, or at odds with the values it promotes, or even in a hostile relationship with them. The school, and education with it, would be in crisis. The diagnosis is not new. Socrates deplored the poor quality of education nearly twenty-five centuries ago: it was better before! The historical value of the judgment is not important here. It is more interesting to ask if it is not a symptom, which tells us something about education, sending the ideal school back to mythology. 

Is not the very idea of a crisis implied in that of education, more exactly in the idea according to which it would be necessary to educate men(2) ? Because after all, if education is judged constitutive of the man, it is well because at the beginning the small of man is in crisis: without this supplement of being that is the adult, it remains in defect with regard to what is necessary to him for its existence. Well-known thesis of the prematurity, which is anchored in a critical nature of the man, by which he must give sense to what he lives, to what he is. The meaning is not given to him in an already regulated and completed experience, or by instincts thanks to which he would receive it « naturally ». Education is justified as the framework through which individuals become human beings and conquer a relative or provisional autonomy. 

The variants of this fundamental pedagogical scheme can differ and be combined in any way: authoritarian model based on the structure of meaning to which the individual must submit in order to constitute himself as a subject; medical model of the care necessary for fragile beings; pastoral model of the herd that needs benevolent guides; psychologizing model that bases the educational act on a primary understanding of the needs and desires, the imaginary and the necessities of the child in order to better construct his own path; a naturalizing model which bases the educational relationship on the « natural » or elementary activities of the children from which their interest can be mobilized, likely to be more or less finely diverted towards the necessary future stages of learning. Whatever they may be, these variants remain inscribed in the spectrum opened by the pedagogical scheme, which marks some as dependent on others, as the very condition of their future relative independence. 

However, what justifies this pedagogical relationship is also what threatens it with failure and sometimes impossibility. The first critical situation is not suppressed: it is worked on, conjured, pushed back, even repressed; it can always return. The constructed meaning is never guaranteed. A deviation of the student from the orders of meanings and purposes in which he is inscribed remains possible; better, it is precisely the meaning of the educational act itself to make it possible within certain limits, thus allowing the conversion of the critical element into energy of transformation of the structure. What we call the crisis of education is less its external dismantling or the decay of its organization than this paradoxical counter-effect of the pedagogical scheme that gives meaning. 

What does such a return of the repressed mean? That there is no fundamental reason for the educational path, since it is justified by the possibility of its own absence (it is because there is none that it is necessary). It is the finality of education itself which lends itself to this return of the nonsense without which the sense would not be: it is the world of the adult which is affected by the setting in crisis of the education. And it is its own order of meanings and its own finalities that are thus suspended, removed from the evidence that one was trying to see. Before wanting to give meaning to a school and a process that have lost some, we can ask ourselves if the remedy is not also the cause of what it is supposed to cure, if the potion is not the poison. Sense and nonsense are in a relationship of reciprocal presupposition, so that by overemphasizing the necessity of the former, one makes the presence of the latter more striking, which insists and produces its effects to the extent that the effort to ward it off becomes imperative. That there is a multiplicity of meanings at work in what is called the school is undoubtedly due to the need to give it meaning. But let this multiplicity grow, let it harden and segment to the point of placing some in what Maud Mannoni called an « institutional destiny ».(3) is a problem. Excess is not preferable to lack.

Equal iNtelligeNCe

The famous idea of equality presupposed by Nomadic Pedagogy as the point of problematization of the teacher/student relationship was not born of the desire to achieve democracy in the school, nor of the charitable will to consider denigrated students as equals, but of the need felt by some to get out of the movement of contradictory oscillation between an overflow of imposed meanings and the nonsense of a situation that is precisely saturated with meanings and finalities which, in order to succeed, required that each person seek the places and moments where he or she can suspend, question the different meanings that « play » on him or her, escape the injunction made to him or her to be on one side or the other of the dividing line between major and minor, and feel or experience his or her own capacity to have a hold, in his or her own way, on the situation, its determinants and its outcomes. This movement of withdrawal is a real work on oneself and one’s relationship to the world which seems to relegate school activity in the strict sense to the background. Is the student who is busy (re)becoming a student (or something else), and the same goes for the teacher, misusing time? And what traces does it leave of this concern for the future to the one whose concern is to verify and validate? 

In a structure that remains a school structure, subject to its legal prescriptions and its official founding myths, this attempt to face the nonsense in order to test the different meanings of the school always risks being folded back on some of them, carried by the teachers themselves: authority, empathy, compassion… Nomadic Pedagogy did not present a miracle cure for these more or less repressed returns to the school structure, and no doubt played on them. Precisely, everything was based on this « game ». It was not a question of proposing an experience outside the purposes and meanings that structure the school world, but of moving away from their obviousness: to seek to « unglue » the role played by one or the other from his or her own person and to make it circulate among the collective that makes up the institution, teachers as well as students; and from there, to create temporalities and spaces so that, in this disruption of the identification of role/person, can be said and put into play the relationship to the contingency of the presence of one another in the school institution; finally, by relying on collective or more intersubjective times, to bring possible solutions to the problems posed by the confrontation of the relationship to the nonsense that affects the subjects and their respective positions. All of these devices only have a chance of functioning on the additional condition that they themselves are subordinated to the rule that « what happens » in the settlement of the relationship to nonsense can always take place elsewhere than where it was planned, anticipated, formalized. 

This is why Nomadic Pedagogy was joyfully confronted with its own impotence: for it is indeed the impotence of the senses of any school structure that it set out to consider, to confront and to treat. It is less a matter of discursive reflection on one’s acts and past than a return on oneself which is a transformation of one’s relationship to others, to the world and to oneself. Nomadic Pedagogy, striving to move the school institution from its critical point to this analytical point, was as much a machine for « disturbing the system » as a place for experimenting with solutions to its problems and paths to profound transformation. The dysfunctions of the said system, which could have perceived it as such, will probably not let the illusion that it really exists as such last long, at least not for everyone. 

epilogue, in the form of an epitaph 

Far from being a restful experience, the Nomadic Pedagogy adventure has been a striking one for all those who took part in it, students in dispute with the school institution, teachers anxious to explore the margins of pedagogy. Its brevity, but also its abundance, did not give way to routine. Visitors, sometimes unexpected in a secondary school (Jacques Rancière, Raoul Vaneigem for example) followed one another, educational thinkers, curious teachers, social workers, whose testimonies of interest or support remained without effect on the inspired decision-makers, and Pédagogie Nomade, in three years, was invited to tell its story in ten different countries. Incognito, of course, and without the knowledge of those who order or control: and if something happened, who would be responsible? The school has been the subject of extensive media coverage, radio and film productions. In addition to being picturesque, the project seemed promising and challenging: there was a lot of talk about it, and students who were deemed unteachable were getting back into it. This, together with a certain impertinence, was probably what hurt him. 

In the three years of its existence, PN has had three ministers of education, which is both a symptom and a cause of the mixture of inertia and fickleness of educational policy in French-speaking Belgium. M. Aréna was interested in the idea, C. Dupont in the experiment, M.D. Simonet in the destruction of this UFO. In three years, PN has worked with a veritable administrative armada, hierarchical and compartmentalized, an inflexible and fussy collective guarantor of a fussy immobilism. 

This school, which assumed its imperfection and made it its fundamental pedagogical object, was inundated with inspections that were never satisfied: not enough failures, unorthodox management of attendance, unusual titles and functions of teachers, vagueness of the organization, unfair privilege of those students who were less harassed and subjected to less pressure than in a « good school »… Paradoxically, PN’s great fault lay in its resolute practice of pedagogical recommendations that are unanimously applauded at pedagogical fairs and conferences: project pedagogy, contract pedagogy, differentiated pedagogy, success pedagogy, opportunity pedagogy, reading « in the spirit and not the letter » of the programs, interdisciplinarity, consistent editorial activity, natural rhythms… The implementation of the objectives of the Missions Decree was clearly pushed too far. It would have been necessary, undoubtedly, to tend to emancipate only half, to promote only a partial confidence in oneself… 

We didn’t want Nomadic Pedagogy? No matter: three years have been enough to show that it works, that the dominant model could be nourished by experiences that go beyond it, that it will lose nothing if it tolerates that the margin works with those who are discarded, or who deviate from it. Who is this « we » subject? The on of institution, of direction, of inspection, of sanction, of obligation, of hierarchization… It’s nobody, but it’s everywhere. 

The brutal closure, after various and trying events, will surprise only the distracted, who read La Fontaine only at face value, or take Kafka for a pleasant joker. Those who are interested in the history of pedagogy remember that Freinet was fired from the National Education before his ideas were given a posthumous recognition, along with their degradation? Rabelais’ Abbey of Thelema is only mentioned in literature classes to neutralize its subversive force by classifying it in the catalog of utopias.

the leçoN

As for the lesson, since it is a story of lessons, which can be drawn from the experience, it seems multiple, as always: 

- the teaching machine, although regularly informed with great precision of what it produces, despite what it costs, is by nature resistant to questioning. Like everything that is, if we can speak of being in this case, it organizes its own survival. It is therefore content with micro-touches, presents as the height of pedagogical audacity the reduction of 5 minutes of « hours » of classes, the height of audacity the outings planned a month in advance, publishes a dismaying company newspaper which owes much to the ideas of the pharmacist Coué… 

- the Missions Decree, as an administrative jumble with an extremely tight mesh, prevents the achievement of its own objectives, by depriving the educational teams of room for maneuver, of confidence, in other words. A school can only claim to work towards the emancipation of its students if it is itself emancipated. As soon as the smallest paragraph of the smallest regulation (possibly recognized by everyone as absurd) is not respected to the letter, the anguish of responsibility arises: what if something happened! To base a pedagogy, precisely, on the hope that something will happen is not bearable. 

- repetition (the cost of which, more than 400 million per year, corresponds strangely to the amount of the annual deficit of the French Community) remains perceived as a necessity, as the guarantor of the famous level of studies. It is a pity that this requirement only concerns the students: wouldn’t we have the right to expect the institution to be as demanding with regard to its own results? A quarter of the students have to repeat a year, redirect themselves as a regression, or be excluded; what would we say of a craftsman who only makes three quarters of the pieces he makes? And what about the obligation, until the age of eighteen, to risk this random adventure? 

- the « public/confessional » divide still has a long way to go: the original sin of Nomadic Pedagogy was to be animated, in part, by teachers from the « free » sector. A kind of Trojan horse, probably. Is it not incongruous, moreover, that public education is managed, when the lottery of elections and then government coalitions so decides, by a faction that defends free education tooth and nail? 

- It is in the margin of teaching that Nomadic Pedagogy, with a methodological naivety, but not without lucidity on its probable future, has chosen to try its ephemeral experiment. Now, the margin, confirms Deligny, is not on this side of the limits, but beyond. We know the rest: past the limits… 

- paradox of experimentation: since it is different, in essence, from the established model, whose imperfections are hushed up or denied, it must be irreproachable in all respects, including in the norms, practices, and habits that it has the mandate to question. Intense. Curtain. 

Antoine Janvier (FNRS/ULg) and Benoit Toussaint 

Co-designers and executors of Pédagogie Nomade 

Notes et références
  1. Sur la maison deligny, et sur l’expérience Pédagogie nomade, le site s’efforce de rassembler, à condition de les chercher un peu, les informations utiles.
  2. car si l’homme « a donc besoin d’un maître qui brise sa volonté particulière et le force à obéir à une volonté universellement valable, afin que chacun puisse être libre », « où prend-il ce maître ? »,
sinon chez un autre homme qui, en tant qu’homme, a tout autant besoin d’un maître : « Mais ce maître est, tout comme lui, un animal qui a besoin d’un maître. » (emmanuel Kant, Idée d’une histoire universelle au point de vue cosmopolitique (1784).
  3. Bien que dans un autre cadre, celui de la folie, de sa détermination et de son « dépistage », voir maud mannoni, Éducation impossible, Seuil, 1973, p. 11 : « Il arrive ainsi que l’on porte sur un enfant
de trois ans un diagnostic qui fige les parents dans une attitude d’impuissance – et enferme l’enfant dans un destin institutionnel. »
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