- The Pedagogical Imagination: the Republican Legacy in 21st-Century French Literature and Film by Sachs, Leon
Leon Sachs’s The Pedagogical Imagination: the Republican Legacy in 21st-Century French Literature and Film sets out to examine the “parallels in the discourses of modern pedagogy and modern literary and artistic production and reception” (25). The ways in which the author draws those parallels constitute a heuristic tour de force. Sachs compellingly shows how contemporary films and narratives, a priori unrelated to supposedly obsolete Third Republic debates on education, provide the attentive reader with a critical commentary on the politics and ethics of education in contemporary France. Sachs’s research is dedicated to reading pedagogy and to the pedagogy of reading. Hence, for example, the surprise of finding the theory that the Nouveau Roman and structuralism (Roland Barthes included) are new avatars of the “leçons de choses,” the civic importance of reading, the priority of interpretation over imitation, and of reading creatively over writing mimetically.
Likewise, through an outstanding intuition in his cornerstone chapter, Sachs draws a parallel between Agnès Varda’s film Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (often seen as a critique of the capitalist and consumerist culture of waste and consumption) and the tradition of the aforementioned “leçons de choses” grounded in Third Republic pedagogical ideology. His book shows that if we want to understand the literary and visual formalism that constitute an essential feature of French artistic modernity, we must first take a detour through late 19th-century debates on education, and revisit the founding fathers of the Third Republic’s philosophy of education.
If the portrait of the filmmaker Varda as a schoolteacher, a lover of words and natural things, is entirely convincing, no less convincing are Sachs’s readings of François Bégaudeau’s novel and film Entre les murs, Abdellatif Kéchiche’s film L’Esquive, and Erik Orsenna’s La Grammaire est une chanson douce, a tale that Sachs reads in dazzling parallel with the famous Third Republic textbook Le Tour de la France par deux enfants. Sachs successfully shows that these works all pose the stakes of the school debate (“querelle de l’école”) in France between “Républicains” and “Pédagogues.” Read by Sachs, these books and films provide a critical, dialectical reading of the debate that has been tearing French intellectuals and politicians apart since the late 1970s.
As is often the case with compelling arguments, once one reads Sachs’s book and his essays, it becomes impossible to read the films and literary works he examines without hearing a century (or more) of pedagogical [End Page 188] debates in France. I, for one, am convinced that we must go back to school—not just any school, but the school of the Third Republic—to learn how to see, and how to read. Sachs persuades his reader that the school of the Third Republic, with its notions of laïcité and of scientific method, is much more complex, much more ambitious, and much less reductive than either its detractors or its zealots portray it as. It took an American eye with a particularly acute sense of nuance to highlight such complexity and to comprehend the French modern pedagogical project in all its paradoxes and limitations, but also in all its grandeur.
What is most striking in Sachs’s book is its breadth, both in disciplinary terms and in terms of periodization. The author is acquainted with the literature and the history of education of the latter part of the 19th century (with impressive flashbacks to Erasmus, Rabelais and Rousseau). He is no less acquainted with contemporary literature and the history of education, including current pedagogical debates. He draws an arc that goes from the pedagogical debates that animate the Third Republic to recent films and novels. By so doing, he shows himself as rigorous a reader of historical, archival or ideological texts as of visual media and literary fiction. One of the most inspiring aspects of his...