- The Pedagogical Imagination: The Republican Legacy in Twenty-First-Century French Literature and Film by Leon Sachs
It is difficult to escape the words “school crisis” in contemporary French studies. With The Pedagogical Imagination: The Republican Legacy in Twenty-First-Century French Literature and Film, Leon Sachs draws from pedagogical discourses since the Third Republic as well as literary theory, particularly New Formalism, to emphasize “questions of language learning, reading and writing instruction, and literary studies” beyond the more familiar anxieties of underachievement, violence, and changing relationships to republican values (2). The historical threads underpinning his compelling readings of Agnès Varda, Erik Orsenna, Abdellatif Kechiche, and François Bégaudeau’s recent work enable Sachs to build a convincing argument that runs against the grain of dominant critiques of the republican school as a locus of creating compliant citizens. Instead, he offers a corrective to these “skewed” perceptions by showing how the pedagogical discourses of the Third Republic promoted intellectual autonomy (10–11).
Sachs reconfigures the republican school around the act of reading, which he argues is both the result and enactment of republican ideology. Several key phrases guide the reader through the overlapping historical and theoretical dimensions that constitute the book’s core. Intuitive learning, l’enseignment par les yeux, and above all object lesson pedagogy (la leçon de choses) enjoy pride of place as foundational pedagogical notions by means of which Sachs makes his central claim that the “critical reader is a republican reader” (3). Moreover, he fashions his attention to formal literary and artistic form so as to situate the reader in the place of the student. The reader/viewer engages in a careful process of reading designed around “observing, analyzing, and drawing conclusions about what he has observed” that is a cornerstone of republican pedagogy and educational reform (6). According to this logic, then, looking to literary and filmic representations of the classroom enacts and sustains the same techniques of formal instruction championed by the republican school.
It is in the first chapter that Sachs crafts his invitation to reassess the act of reading through a careful and erudite historical overview of several principles that guided education reform in the Third Republic. He concentrates to particularly good effect on object lesson pedagogy as the culmination of notions concerning the subjective experience of the student that continue to impact educational practices today. Chapter Two departs [End Page 162] from traditional interpretations of the ecological dimensions of Varda’s Les glaneurs et la glaneuse to present the film as a meditation on lexicology, a method of language and literacy instruction developed by nineteenth-century republican Pierre Larousse. Moreover, by establishing a correlation between gleaning as an activity centered on recuperating what others have left behind and the film’s metaphorical movement between center and periphery, Sachs places the film within longstanding debates in literary education about what deserves to be read, as well as arguments about how readers should be trained as to what information to gather and what to leave behind. The third chapter looks to Orsenna’s La grammaire est une chanson douce as a way to understand the binary relationship between “a traditional appreciation of literature and a modern, scientific analysis of literature” (83). Through the lens of Le tour de la France par deux enfants Sachs deploys a “language of suspicion” in order to illustrate how France’s literary heritage has attained an ambiguous status in today’s classroom precisely because of republican pedagogy’s objective to form intellectually autonomous citizens. Chapter Four represents the book’s first step into the embattled landscape of debates on multiculturalism and republican ideals. Sachs leads his reader through Kechiche’s L’esquive’s intertextual references to Marivaux, and more strikingly, through the film’s penultimate presentation of Farid al-din Attar’s Conference of the Birds, as primary examples of “how rereading literary classics is coterminous with rethinking republicanism” (114). According to Sachs, Kechiche artfully dodges endorsing either a version of republicanism that would adapt...