Monday, December 1, 2008

Entre les murs: a French film exploring the problems of multicultural education


The question of education is central to the current debate concerning multicultural societies. How can the state provide effective schooling to societies composed of so many cultures and languages. There are over 120 languages currently spoken in Irish schools, and many educational institutions have manifested significant difficulty integrating such a diverse range of immigrants. Many children entering Irish schools spend their first formative years speaking languages other than English or Irish. Thus, they are put at a considerable disadvantage when they enter school, having to learn all their subjects through a foreign language. But Ireland’s late arrival to the multicultural world gives it the advantage of learning from other countries, whose multiculturalism is now in its second or third generation. It is in this context that Laurent Cantet’s new film Entre les murs adapted from a novel by Francois B├ęgaudeau should be of particular interest in Ireland. Cantet’s film is filmed in a school in the 20th district of Paris, and documents the progress of a multicultural class during the school year. Francois is a teacher of French literature, whose job is to impart the finer points of French culture to a motley class of students of varying cultural, national and intellectual backgrounds. The film was shot in an actual school and Cantet uses real pupils for his lead actors. Winner of the Palme d’Or in Cannes this year, Entre les murs has animated vigorous debate since its release in France a few weeks ago, perhaps more due to the pertinent questions it raises concerning the French education system than the magnificence of its cinematography. Cantet’s cinematic style in this film contrasts with some of his more subjective previous films. Entre le murs attempts to take the temperature of a modern French school; in other words, the camera simply observes events as they pass creating an impression of cold objectivity. This documentary form of film-making draws the viewer into the virtual world of the modern school, a world which is in very much a replica or microcosm of modern societies, with its own rules and regulations. During the school year Francois is confronted by a myriad of problems; many of his students come from poor immigrant families, whose parents don’t speak French. These are the children of the infamous ‘banlieux’, the suburban youth, the forgotten of French society. The film has many poignant moments subtly suggestive of a deeper, though understated philosophical problematic. Francois’s attempt to explain the use of the imperfect subjunctive tense to a class whose perplexity borders on downright anger is, despite its comic aspects, indicative of the gulf that divides official France from many its citizens. The imperfect subjunctive tense is never used in French speech; it is a purely formal, written grammatical construction, often used in high French literature. Yet one gets the impression that the director is using this example to serve as a metaphor for the contradictions of French society, and one gets the impression throughout the film that there is a conflict between two dimensions of expression or meta-languages, that of the teachers on the one hand and the meta-language of the students on the other. Francois’s informal dialectical method of teaching his students, in which he invites them to express their opinions, enabling them to clarify their own ideas, is a modern form of the Socratic method called maieutics, that which gives birth to ideas. However, this dialectical and perhaps more democratic form of teaching does not always succeed. Suleiman is a disruptive student from a poor African family who don’t speak French. His confrontation with the school authorities and eventual expulsion is particularly poignant. As his mother only speaks an African language, Suleiman has to translate for her in front of the school board. His perfect bilingualism, a sign of considerable intellectual ability, seems to go unnoticed by the school authorities debating whether or not to expel him from the school. The inflexibility of the school’s regulations, their obdurate refusal to take his difficult familial circumstances into consideration despite the impassioned plea of his mother, is a moving example of how the education system often fails its students. Entre les murs is the French expression meaning ‘ between the walls’, a title suggestive of what happens within the world of the modern multicultural school but also perhaps, of how certain individuals can fall through the cracks between the walls of the education system. It will be in selected Irish cinemas soon. Anyone interested in the philosophy of education in a multicultural context should make an effort to see this film.

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