Bellamy, F.-X. (2018). Los desheredados: por qué es urgente transmitir la cultura [The disinherited: why transmitting culture is urgent]. (Esteban López-Escobar )
Bellamy, F.-X. (2018).
Los desheredados: por qué es urgente transmitir la cultura [The disinherited: why transmitting culture is urgent].
Madrid: Encuentro. 171 pp.
This essay by a young French teacher and politician covers a French problem and alludes to some negative results from the PISA report for France, but it goes beyond this country. It is worth reading because it provides a warning and stimulus, and because of how well written and articulated it is, even if some nuances could be added to it.
When reviewing this work, I will include some reflections inspired by reading it. My perspective is, essentially, communicative. Harold Lasswell, a well-known author in our field, wrote an essay in 1948 on the structure and functions of communication in society. For him, the basic functions of communication were surveillance of the environment, correlation of the components of society or response to novelty, and transmission of cultural heritage. This last idea, in the academic setting, is represented on the campus of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid by the group sculpture Los portadores de la antorcha (The torch bearers), by Anna Hyatt Huntington, in which a youth, leaning from the back of the horse he is riding takes a torch from the hands of a worn-out old man who is lying face-down on the ground. With these references, I suggest that transmitting culture is a plausible and obvious idea, with everything this could entail for openness and conditioning.
In 2014 François-Xavier Bellamy published, in Editions Plon of Paris, the book Les deshérités ou l’urgence de transmettre. The text now published in Spanish corresponds to the 2015 French edition, which includes an epilogue regarding that year’s terrorist attacks in Paris and other places in France, and which with their violence —largely the product of a cultural void (an abyssal metaphysical void, he says, adopting the idea of Emmanuel Todd)— confirmed the gloomy presentiment the author expresses in the book. Such a presentiment does not entail backing down, nor is it a gloomy complaint; on the contrary, the author pushes for sensible action to try to overcome what I would call a drift towards cultural Alzheimer’s. Bellamy, born in 1985, teaches literature and philosophy at the École Blomet in Paris, he is a professeur agregé, and he has been one of the deputy mayors of Versailles since the 2008 elections. The book’s title is intended to contrast with that of the work published in 1964 —half a century earlier— by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, Les heritiers: les étudiants et la culture, but it is more than just a response to that work.
Bellamy suggests that the abandonment of transmission of culture in France is a conscious step. He recalls the moment when a general inspector who was welcoming a group of teachers, including him, told them: «You have nothing to pass on». Teachers are asked to educate children by freeing them from the previous culture. Therefore, as Bellamy notes, this is deliberate and even explicit behaviour. «Children should set off on their own in search of their knowledge, their moral decisions, and their destiny» (p. 20).
In the first part of the essay, Bellamy specifically mentions three authors whose ideas have contributed to the rejection of transmission of culture in his country: Descartes, Rousseau, and Bourdieu. This crisis «is not the result of a random accident, but rather of a very deep critique, the ancestry of which stretches back for several centuries» (p. 25). Descartes suggested «dispensing with all previously held opinions». Rousseau believed that culture perverted the human being, separating it from nature, «the only source of wisdom, virtue, and happiness». And Bourdieu denounced the guilty privilege of «the inheritors» whose social and family environment prepares them to be the elite that will wield power. «Knowledge» is seen as anti-egalitarian because it favours the self-reproduction of elites.
Consequently, deconstructing culture is proposed. Even language, described as «fascist» by Barthes in 1977, becomes the object of suspicion, «because fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech». The French language itself is then regarded as suspect, and is seen as elitist and discriminatory.
Fifty years after Bourdieu’s denunciation, France faces the pitiful situation of «the disinherited», which Bellamy presents: «We wanted to denounce legacies; we have made disinherited people» (p. 21). This rejection of cultural transmission results in a world that deprives generations of the inheritance that makes it possible to have a true identity and roots, turning human beings into undifferentiated and indifferent individuals, the perfect agents and product of the consumer society. It is not possible to read these reflections without recalling the mass-man described by Ortega y Gasset in his famous essay The revolt of the masses; even though in the drift of the French school, as Bellamy presents it, the erosion of any reference, the deliberate planning of the loss of identity is more obvious.
«In Emile (by Rousseau)», Bellamy writes, «one finds the founding charter of contemporary education, which shapes, down to its details, our shared vision of pedagogy» (p. 64): «I teach him to be ignorant more than to know,» Rousseau said about his student. Emile, separated from his parents, respected as though he were the teacher, and protected from books, becomes the educational model that has been predominant. And, Bellamy notes, «today the millions of Emiles who fill our classes are, according to the PISA report, among the most anxious, least disciplined, and most often absent in the world.»
From respect for difference, there has been a move towards generalising indifference, to insensitivity when distinguishing the differences and nuances that —to a great extent— are something obvious. And this, in my view, is one of the contradictions of the pedagogical disorientation revealed in this essay, as it is a manifestation of a cultural situation with two poles, which seeks a contrived equality while pursuing refinement in details in many fields. Therefore, Bellamy’s reference to oenology seems very relevant to me. Let us take the specific case of a particular universe: oenology; wine is most certainly culture in the simplest sense of the word because it is, in first place, agriculture. To the uninitiated, all wines seem much the same. They can be divided into red, white and rosé, and they are more or less pleasant, but beyond these basic categories, the differences between them are imperceptible. To find them, it is necessary to be initiated in a body of knowledge, to enter a culture, develop experience, receive the necessary details so that the unique effects of each harvest, the always specific echo of a region, of a stock, of the hours of sun, of the aging, and so on can eventually appear to the palate (p. 133).
The idea of depriving human beings of their national and family heritage, forgetting who they are and why, and inviting them to create themselves and take shape in accordance with their own tastes, desires, and appetites reminds me of a comparison I have often used with my students: the difference between an orchard, park, or wood here the trees and plants have roots binding them to the soil from which they draw nourishment and enabling them to bear fruit despite their apparent lack of liberty, and the desert where those balls of tumbleweed roll, rootless and bearing no fruit.
Bellamy insists that without culture, people do not know their own humanity and this again reminds Ortega and, in particular, his well-known observation that while the tiger cannot stop being a tiger, it cannot de-tiger itself, humans live with the constant risk of dehumanisation.
The author of the essay does not believe that there will be a clash of cultures, but rather of lacks of culture. And for his country he does not call for a universal, abstract humanist culture, but rather a particular culture: French culture. And he urges people to react, «if we still have time». Hope —arduous— which is open to the future, including expectations, should not be an excuse for giving in to amnesia, nor should it soothe forgetting. Therefore, this essay, even if it focusses on contemporary France, can be taken as a warning for those navigating the global world we inhabit.
Bellamy underlines the error of linking liberty to indifference, and suggests a process of surmounting, which requires an authority to «help distinguish truth from falsehood, the better from the less good, what is worth seeking from what deserves to be abandoned» (p. 142). The deconstruction of authority that preceded us, with the aim of having «all options open before us without distinction» —onthe lines of more choice means more freedom— so we are supposedly protected from any influence, does not mean liberty; the same lack of distinction would prevent us from desiring anything. As Bellamy says, «the retreat of culture will leave behind a shapeless and monotonous world, in which neither roughness nor uniqueness will be seen». And perceiving differences requires both culture and authority (p. 142).
I want to end the presentation of this essay, even though this may seem like a paradox, by mentioning what Bellamy describes in his opening pages. He recounts what happened on 12 March 2011 at the opera in Rome, when Ricardo Muti —breaking with his usual habit— decided to agree to an encore of Va, pensiero, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, after receiving enthusiastic and lengthy applause. Muti, who was still recovering from surgery, returned to the auditorium: «I agree, but…,» he started:
As an Italian who has travelled around much of the world, I am ashamed of what is happening in my country. This is why I agree to your request for an encore of Va, pensiero. Not just for the patriotic joy I feel, but because this evening, while the chorus was singing ‘Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!’, I thought that, if we continue in this way, we will destroy the culture on which the history of Italy was built. And in that case, our country will truly be beautiful and lost —and us with it.
Recalling the gratitude Albert Camus showed in his book The first man towards the teacher who accompanied him during his school years in Algiers, a teacher who fed in his pupils «a hunger even more essential for the child than the adult; the hunger for discovery» (pp. 145-146), Bellamy ended the original text in the 2014 edition with «my infinite thanks to the parents, teachers, and educators of yesterday, today, and of tomorrow, involved in this magnificent and difficult mission of transmitting the culture of which they are the legitimate heirs to children» (p. 161).
Esteban López-Escobar ■