Contemporary French Civilization

Does laïcité translate to the American classroom?

Contemporary French Civilization (2021), 46, (4), 439–461.

Abstract

This essay reflects on the relevance of French laïcité for the American college classroom. It begins with a discussion of philosopher Catherine Kintzler’s radical interpretation of laïcité as a theory of political association that takes the classroom as its model. According to this view, the autonomous learning contingent on doubt and self-correction that ideally occurs there is the basis for an egalitarian and collaborative production of knowledge, a model of a res publica. The essay then turns to legal scholar and philosopher Anthony Kronman’s analysis of classroom conversation and the “ethics of depersonalization.” It considers the extent to which these notions can be viewed as American translations of Kintzler’s laïcité. The essay concludes with a reading of American essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates’s bestselling 2015 memoir as an endorsement of the autonomous abstract individual, the linchpin of republican universalism, laïcité, and liberal education.

Cet essai s’interroge sur la pertinence du concept de la laïcité française dans le contexte de l’université américaine. Il commence par une discussion de l’œuvre de la philosophe Catherine Kintzler: elle conçoit la laïcité comme une théorie de l’association politique dont la communauté intellectuelle se formant dans la salle de classe sert de modèle. Selon ce point de vue, l’apprentissage autonome (résultat de l’épreuve de doute et de l’autocorrection) qui s’y produit par principe est la base d’une production égalitaire et collaborative du savoir: un modèle de la res publica. L’essai se tourne ensuite vers l’analyse par le juriste américain Anthony Kronman de la conversation en classe et de “l’éthique de la dépersonnalisation.” Il examine dans quelle mesure ces notions peuvent être considérées comme des traductions américaines de la laïcité française telle que Kintzler la présente. L’essai se termine par une lecture des mémoires de l’essayiste américain Ta-Nehisi Coates (best-seller de 2015) comme un éloge du concept de l’individu abstrait et autonome, socle de l’universalisme républicain, de la laïcité et de l’éducation libérale.

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Sachs, Leon