Many alumni of a junior year abroad summarize their experience as “enjoyable,” “enlightening,” or even “empowering.” Others rely on their senses in recalling the niceties of life in another country: they remember the smell of warm bread wafting from a pâtisserie, the sight of a bustling and colorful Saturday-morning market, the sound of high-pitched horns coming from impatient Peugeots and Renaults. In writing about the year I spent studying at the Université de Provence in Aix-en- Provence, France, I could fall back on my promenades along the Cours Mirabeau or naps in the Mediterranean sun or climbs on Cézanne’s Mte. Ste.- Victoire. But just for the sake of novelty (and in order to fool my parents) I will focus instead on what I observed as a student.
In fact, one of my most memorable experiences abroad was an introductory literature course on “Les idées politiques et sociales du XIXième siècle,” or “The Political and Social Ideas of 19th century France,” as it was translated on my University of Michigan transcript. Held for an hour and a half every Wednesday evening, the course was somewhat less ambitious than its caption might indicate in that it treated the ideas of only two of the era’s political and social thinkers. Under the guidance of Professeur Bruno Viard (the very image of a French professor in his tortoise-shell glasses, moustache, and pea-green corduroys), our class of 30 students spent an entire school year examining and comparing small portions of the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and Pierre Leroux. While the first is known and admired for his incisive and prophetic views on American-style democracy, the second is no less incisive and prophetic in his own way, and he deserves a brief introduction.
A typographer and journalist who associated with the likes of George Sand and the Saint-Simonians, Pierre Leroux (1797-1871) contributed several key concepts to early socialist thought. In fact, he was the first writer to use the word “socialism,” which he contrasted with another recent addition to the vocabulary of the time, “individualism.” A good 15 years before Marx, in an 1834 essay called “De l’individualisme et du socialisme,” Leroux defined socialism as “the exaggeration of the idea of association, or of society.” He also beat Marx to the punch in defining “class struggle” as “the battle of those who do not possess the instruments of labor against those who do,” as “the struggle of the proletariats against the bourgeoisie.” One of Leroux’s main arguments was that both absolute liberty and absolute equality are dangerous. Whereas unrestrained individualism turns men into wolves and leaves them with an “imperceptible dwarf” for a state, untempered socialism gives birth to the guillotine and transforms the state into a “giant Hydra.” As Leroux describes it, the Scylla of absolute liberty and the Charybdis of absolute equality are the two political perils between which the social scientist must maneuver. Yet according to him, safe passage between them lies not in any political Utopia, but rather in the “sentiment of fraternity.”
Based as it is on the abstract republican triad of liberty, equality, and fraternity, Leroux’s philosophy of political and social progress is idealistic, to say the least. But his significance lies not in his proposed solution to the modern struggle between the individual and society, but rather in his definition of this struggle. As my professor wrote in an essay on the relationship between liberty and equality according to Tocqueville and Leroux, the latter’s contribution was “to designate two symmetrical chasms whereas both the right and the left had counted (for the previous two centuries) only one social scourge.” Leroux’s description of individualism and socialism as “two loaded pistols pointed in opposite directions” strikes me as one of the most vivid (and prophetic) images of the Cold War world.
More than any image or idea, however, what has stuck with me in the two years since I completed Professeur Viard’s course is an appreciation of the sheer amount of time we spent dissecting a mere portion of Leroux’s work. From the middle of November to the beginning of February, we concentrated solely on “De rindividualisme” and “De l’égalité,” a long essay on the evolution of the principle of equality. Never, in any of the history, literature, or Great Books classes I have taken in the United States, has a professor devoted so many class periods to such a small amount of reading, let alone by such an unknown figure as Pierre Leroux, Leroux is not even in the French history books, yet we spent hours scrutinizing four or five pages of his essays at a time.
My amazement stems not from a sense of being let off easy. On the contrary, this class was one of the most challenging I have yet taken. For, in requiring us to spend months searching out clues to Leroux’s system of thinking and evidence for his theses rather than allowing us to skim quickly for his overall meaning, Professeur Viard made us think—something most of the Americans in his class had never mastered during the “learning” by rote that is our undergraduate education these days.
His method was not that of a mad scholar impassioned about some marginal worker-philosopher, but rather that of the French professorate as a whole. For his was not by any means the only course in which I was required to probe passages of text. Time and again, on works of both fiction and nonfiction, for an oral presentation or for a written exam, I was asked to perform an explication de texte. The French center so much of their education upon this method that college-age students have the routine down pat: whether or not they have studied for an exam, they know how to go through an elaborate ritual of “drawing near to the text” at hand, picking out the main ideas and constructing paragraphs around them. The explication consists of concentrating on one short chapter or section of a work at a time; plucking adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors out of a passage for comment; examining the diction, syntax, and verb tense of a section; and noting changes in any of these elements throughout a text. All of these processes provide hints to an author’s tone and meaning, on which a student is prepared to comment only after extensive study.
With a line like “The principle of authority, even when disguised under the fashionable name of devotion, is no better than the principle of egotism, hiding under the fashionable name of liberty” from “De l’individualisme,” for example, a perceptive reader would comment on the parallel structure. Comparing “principle,” “disguised,” and “fashionable name” in the first half of the sentence with “principle,” “hiding,” and “fashionable name” in the second half, he would conclude that the two subjects, authority and egotism (or devotion and liberty), are equal evils. Indeed, our perceptive reader would probably remark that this line is consistent with the images of Scylla and Charybdis and of two loaded pistols that Leroux uses to show how socialism and individualism are the two political perils to be avoided in the modern world. A single sentence thus illuminates the deeper meaning of the whole work.
What is the goal of all this rigamarole? To improve the analytical skills and hone the thought processes of students. Students trained in this method can do more than regurgitate a professor’s predigested pabulum or spout forth “opinions”; they perform mental gymnastics, displaying both discipline and grace. In American university courses, students are coddled by professors who emphasize discussion at the expense of instruction, even as they are required by these same professors to ingest up to 500 pages per course per week. This is especially true of the so-called survey courses, where teaching assistants wander aimlessly with students through a maze of lecture notes and readings. Compare this with the French system, where even in introductory classes like “The Roman Empire From Augustus to Trajan” the focus is on confronting ancient inscriptions and primary accounts rather than on thumbing through chapter after chapter of textbooks and coursepacks. For me, an American student transplanted abroad and then back again, this method made me a better reader not only in French but also in English.
As the year went along, I began to see how the pace of my courses merely reflected the pace of life in France, generally. The French méthode de texte is all of a piece with the French méthode de vie: whether in education, in cuisine, or in conversation, the French attitude is to take one’s time. The haste that, in America, yields Cliff Notes, fast food, and empty promises like “Let’s do lunch” simply has no place in French classrooms, eateries, or relationships. While it takes longer to study a subject, prepare and consume a meal, or forge a friendship according to the French way of doing things, the result is ultimately more thorough, flavorful, and lasting. But this façon de vivre does not develop out of nowhere: French boys and girls imbibe their manners from the institutions of their culture, including the schools. The French educational system forms the character of the Frenchman.
To be sure, there are significant problems with the French educational system. Because students are started down a certain educational path early on and exercise little choice in courses, they sometimes lack drive or enthusiasm for their field of study. They also tire, as anybody would, of the structure and regiment of their assignments. But coming from a system in which both course and degree requirements are increasingly relaxed, a more rigorous academic routine made my year in Provence more than just a series of pleasures and amusements. It was the real beginning of my education.