The goodly Sepoy sent me a NY Times article that, essentially, reports the controversy I already mentioned here. More than before, I think that the political issues are being confused with the pedagogical.

President Nicolas Sarkozy dropped an intellectual bombshell this week, surprising the nation and touching off waves of protest with his revision of the school curriculum: beginning next fall, he said, every fifth grader will have to learn the life story of one of the 11,000 French children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

“Nothing is more moving, for a child, than the story of a child his own age, who has the same games, the same joys and the same hopes as he, but who, in the dawn of the 1940s, had the bad fortune to be defined as a Jew,” Mr. Sarkozy said at the end of a dinner speech to France’s Jewish community on Wednesday night. He added that every French child should be “entrusted with the memory of a French child-victim of the Holocaust.” …

there is something else. Mr. Sarkozy is shattering another barrier in French intellectual life: religion. His public statements on the subject seem to reflect a deeply held belief that religious values have an important place in everyday French society — an iconoclastic position for a French politician.

When Mr. Sarkozy was made an Honorary Canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome last December, he proposed a “positive secularism” that “does not consider religions a danger, but an asset.” He was even more provocative in declaring that “the schoolteacher will never be able to replace the priest or the pastor” in teaching the difference between good and evil.

In Saudi Arabia last month, he infused his speech with more than a dozen references to God, who, he said, “liberates” man. He also said last month that it was a mistake to delete the reference to “Europe’s Christian roots” from the European Constitution.

In France, a country where one’s religion is typically kept private, Mr. Sarkozy heralds his religious identity, referring publicly to his Jewish grandfather and wearing his Roman Catholicism on his sleeve.

“I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic belief, even if my religious practice is episodic,” he wrote in a book of essays in 2004. “I consider myself as a member of the Catholic Church.”

Sarkozy attempts to revalue religion in French political life that boils the blood of the left. What tends to be odd about Sarkozy’s somewhat Gaullist approach is that is at odds with the Catholic Church’s own attempts to put religion into the EU, or the EU’s own attempts to encourage religious groups to forge a common European identity. Creating new symbols for emotional reflection (like Sacré Coeur and the Pantheon) is, well, very French, often dividing those who prefer more secular government from more religious.

But as idiotic as the proposal seems, it is a working basis for personalizing history. As I wrote Friday:

It seems logical to make the subject more personal, especially by encouraging students to personalize the subject.

This trend is already well established in education, offering young children ways of reflecting on difficult issues of the past. Indeed, I read Home of the Brave to my son. Sarkozy’s idea is over the top, turning children themselves into mnemonic devices. It’s like something out of a Philip K Dick novel, or perhaps a throwback to an ancient hermeneutics. The question of how to make pupils and students respond to the past in a meaningful way is hardly trivial.

Is there anything particularly political, though, about Sarkozy’s idea? The context is obviously rife with partisanship. However, if this dubious plan were to become permanently part of the curriculum, it could easily serve as a tool of resistance. According to the article, some fear that other events in history could be subjected to the same treatment:

[Gilles Mondroit:] “If you do this with the memory of individual Jews, you’d have to do it with the victims of slavery or the wars of religion. We can’t have this approach.”

Again, on Friday:

… it could be applied to other areas of history, as well, like the French empire in Africa.

The children of Arab immigrants could demand that French children commit to memory the atrocities committed in Algeria. West Africans can deal with the empire’s perpetuation of slavery. (G-d forbid we ask American children to remember lynched black men!) If the recent wars over legislated memory are an indication, France could use more critical and personal reflection on its past as it welcomes more people of non-European ancestry.

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