Society

Quelle Horreur! Outrage At Plans To Teach French University Courses In English

A proposed bill that would allow the use of English in universities has set off an uproar among intellectual champions of the French language.

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris
Benoit Floc'h

PARIS - Is France about to sacrifice its own language on the altar of educational competitiveness? A proposed bill on higher education, which arrived in Parliament on Wednesday, has triggered a raging debate.

The new law would make it easier to teach classes in a foreign language (for instance in English), “in the case of a partnership with a foreign or international body, or as part of a European program.”

France currently ranks fifth on the list of study destinations, and remains an attractive country in its traditional sphere of influence – Maghreb and Africa –, but it is losing ground. Encouraged by universities and schools, the government now wants to attract students from emerging world powers: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia…

There is a lot at stake: France has a chance to shine internationally and to show it can educate the world’s elite. Even if the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (a higher education and research association of French-speaking countries) insists that there is an increasing number French Departments in universities around the world, the government considers it necessary to facilitate the use of English in French universities.

Paris - MPD01605

Thomas Piketty is “very concerned” about the issue. Piketty teaches at the Paris School of Economics, where lessons are taught in English, and is aware of what is at stake: “Either we do not teach these students, and they will go study in English-speaking countries, or we take part in the global political economy, and then we do what is necessary to attract them here.”

French Minister of Higher Education Genevieve Fioraso explains: “India has a population of a billion people, with 60 million engineers among them. Currently, there are only 3,000 Indian students in France. It's ridiculously low.”

On May 8, this newspaper published an opinion column written by eminent scientists (Nobel laureates Françoise Barre-Sinoussi and Serge Haroche, Fields Medal recipient Cedric Villani) in support of the minister’s initiative. “Scientists around the world use English to communicate,” they wrote. The bill therefore “allows France to get better integrated, by making it more attractive on the world stage.” Fioraso is quite alone in defending this law, and she hopes this prestigious support will bring the debate down a notch.

On March 21, the most prestigious institution for French language and culture, the Academie Française, published a rather abrasive declaration highlighting “the dangers of a measure that presents itself as a technical change, when it is actually marginalizing our language.”

The Academie is urging Parliament to vote against the bill. Next in line is renowned linguist Claude Hagege, professor at the prestigious College de France, who hurled a hawkish “We are at war!” to the minister. He used terms like “self-destructive urge,” “cancer,” and “suicidal project.”

Fears that French fizzles out

So is French really in peril? On March 31, philosopher Michel Serres, who teaches at Stanford University in the U.S., raised the alarm on national radio: “A living language is a language that can say everything.” His mother tongue, the regional Gascon dialect, from southwestern France, died because one day “it was not able to name everything anymore: things like polyhedron, DNA, computer, galaxy…”

“A living language is also an iceberg,” he says, “the part of it that we can see on the surface are the words that we use in our everyday language.” But for him, what counts is what’s under the surface: all the specialized languages that are vectors of specialized knowledge.

“A language is only the addition of all these specialized sub-languages,” he insists. “If a language loses two of these sub-languages, it is virtually dead. Teaching in English would induce the disappearance of these sub-languages, and therefore reduce our country to a colony, where the language cannot say everything anymore.”

His charge is brutal, but the minister does not seem shaken. Fioraso calls for calm, and insists that “only 1% of all university courses” would be taught in English. In elite business schools, the proportion varies between a quarter and a third of all classes. “The use of English will be limited to some specific courses, whose content justifies the use of the English language. This is what President Hollande and I wrote to the board of the Academie Française.”

Even if France loves a heated argument, most intellectuals who joined the debate are being more moderate in their remarks. “Banning the use of English would be as unreasonable as imposing it,” Piketty points out. As often, the issue is not black and white, it is mostly shades of grey. “We need to enable people who do not speak French to come to our country,” he says.

Antoine Compagnon, professor at the College de France and at Columbia University, is against the project, “but not completely opposed to a small proportion of classes being taught in English, as long as they are not lectures.”

For his part, Axel Khan, former President of the Paris-Descartes University, agrees with most of the bill, but declares: “We need to use French to conceptualize the world and design our future. I feel very strongly about keeping French as the only language during the first years of university, until students get their degree. But during Masters and PhDs, we should be able to use the language of international communication.”

In any case, in her letter to the Secretary of the Academie Française, Fioraso made it clear that “A perfect command of the French language would be a condition for foreign students to validate their diploma. Thus, we would not be relinquishing our language but, on the contrary, increasing the number of French speakers around the world.”

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
Ideas

Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.


In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.

https://thewire.in/culture/re-reading-rumi-in-the-time-of-the-taliban
Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ