The Weight of History


This past Wednesday and Thursday, the Commission Franco-Américain brought together all the American Fulbrights and Chateaubriand Fellows working and studying in France so that we could learn about each other’s work, and share our research and our perspectives.  The first day we were treated to a full day of visits at the Chateau of Chantilly, accompanied by the curators and docents who work at the Chateau preserving the Domaine’s stunning collection of paintings, drawings, books and objets d’art amassed by the Chateau’s owners over the years.  This cultural and historic feast served as an extraordinary backdrop for the presentations of the Fulbright Exchange teachers and Exchange Assistants, who were in France either teaching or assisting with the teaching of English.  A common theme was the differences between the French and the U.S. educational systems; but as we gazed out upon the grounds of the Chateau de Chantilly and exchanged experiences, it struck me that one element that will always separate France and the United States is the tremendous weight of history that exists in the former. 

Several of us, including myself, swapped stories of our encounters with French primary and secondary education.  We noted the use of fountain pens (required), the absence of computers (ubiquitous), the tradition of memorizing verse, long school days during which children return home, sometimes for one and one-half hours for lunch, paper with squares instead of lines, and cohiers (notebooks) of all kinds that needed to be signed by parents exactly comme il le faut.  Things change much more slowly here than in the States; yes, French ados use facebook, and cell phones are everywhere, but traditional educational methods remain very near and dear to the French heart.  

As a lawyer, this is important to understand for law, as Rousseau noted, is not just about rules:

               “The most important law of all is engraved not on marble or brass but in the hearts of the citizens . . . It preserves a people in the spirit of their founding, and it imperceptibly substitutes the force of habit for that of authority.  I am speaking of mores and customs, and above all of opinion, a subject which is unknown to our political theorists, but on which the success of all the other laws depends.”

               This, Tocqueville referred to in Democracy in America as “habits of the heart.”