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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.3 (2001) 239-257

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Individuality and l'Esprit Français:
On Gustave Lanson's Pedagogy

Mark Wolff

Roland Barthes once observed that the teaching of literary history in the French school system tends to equate the history of literature with national identity. Referring to the "classicocentrism" of his schooldays, Barthes recalls that "in the centered structure of the history of our literature, there is national identification. The [literary] history manuals perpetually promote what are called typically French values or typically French temperaments." 1 For Barthes, the history of literature is an object that has meaning only in the context of the school. He emphasizes the objectivity of literary history, claiming that students have lost touch with the vitality of literature because it is taught to them as a series of arbitrary, stale categories. Barthes may be right to rebel against a mind-set he finds stifling for literary studies, but he misplaces his attacks, focusing on what educators taught instead of how they taught. What he perceives as classicocentrism resulted from the efforts of Third Republic educators who, under the leadership of Gustave Lanson, used literary history to construct a French cultural identity. The secular curriculum Lanson helped establish promoted a pedagogy that transmitted a set of dispositions toward literature from teachers to students, and the effects of that pedagogy deserve closer scrutiny. [End Page 239]

Lanson's formulations present problems one cannot easily dismiss. The most glaring is his own language. When Lanson speaks of the "great man" in literature and explains how such a patriarchal figure represents the best in a nation's culture, he continues the long- standing French tradition of privileging men as the nation's most influential artists. Likewise, his effort to universalize French culture and embrace all peoples who want to share in his nation's glory echoes the "civilizing mission" of French imperialists during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When Lanson claims that the Frenchman recognizes the natural equality of Native Americans (whom he, like the rest of his countrymen, persisted in calling "Red Skins"), Chinese, and "Negroes," he clearly occupies a dominant position from which to make such a condescending statement. To suggest that Lanson may offer a model for the study of literature today entails risks that must not undermine the multicultural openness that many American colleges and universities have achieved during the last twenty or thirty years.

With that caution in mind, we can observe that Lanson's writings on literary history and pedagogy focus not so much on what students should read in literature classes as on how they should learn from literature. Lanson advocates building a scholarly community of neophytes and veterans out of the social practice of studying texts together. The text itself has secondary importance; what takes place outside the text, in the classroom, the conference room, and the library, matters to him most. The study of literature aims to inculcate specific cultural dispositions, that is, ways of knowing instead of things to know. The method by which students learn is the scholastic ritual of the explication de texte, which focuses the attention of the group on an excerpt and allows the teacher to model for students how to appreciate literary writing. Students learn from the example of their teacher's engagement with texts, not from literary manuals that present freeze-dried synopses of canonical authors and their two or three most important works. The emphasis on getting students to reproduce their teacher's response to [End Page 240] literature instead of regurgitating facts (a technique for which Lanson gained renown through the wide dissemination of his Histoire de la littérature française, the most "classic" of all French literary manuals) makes Lanson's pedagogy something we should reconsider, especially from the perspective of building cultural identities through a common social practice.

Lansonisme has been the object of recent debate among American scholars. Reflecting on the irony that Lanson's library, in the end, was transplanted into Duke University's, Naomi Schor notes the postmodern malaise endemic...


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pp. 239-257
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Archived 2004
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