The starting point of the conversation at the conference La Culture Oui, But Why? that took place on Saturday, October 28, at the Cultural Center of Lycée Francais de New York, was the idea of culture générale, a French concept, imperfectly translated as general knowledge or otherwise, as suggested by Dr. Kennedy from Montclair University who attended the morning panel on Raising Citizens of Culture in the Digital Age, by cultural literacy.
In the Renaissance, a perfect intellectual named Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, at age 23, could defend 900 thesis on multiple themes from philosophy to magic. This "honnete homme" is not relevant to our times. Yet, the French defend their "culture genérale', a body of knowledge or a base on which the statue of Marianne would rest peacefully. Pico della Mirandola was an aristocrat and, as Dr Kennedy pointed out, it was a class thing: the aristocracy or later the bourgeoisie was able to access this general knowledge while blue collars were trained for overspecialized tasks in chain work. In fact, this body of knowledge is undermined in the diverse country that France has become today. As Emmanuel Kattan, Director of the Alliance program at Columbia University, rightly pointed out during the afternoon panel on General Knowledge in Higher Education, the French culture générale, encompassing fields from history to literature, from Jules Ferry, the founder of free education to all in France, to Marcel Proust, the well known writer inspired by the decadence of haute bourgeoisie, is the foundation of the French Republic. And today these core values are challenged by a population coming from diverse backgrounds that does not care much about Proust.
With no evolution comes political risk.
And culture is political. Even when France as a member of Unesco and a major actor in the field of cultural diplomacy, weighs in to defend the massive destruction of works of art in Syria, some may interpret this as a one-sided understanding of the situation.
Because of its meaningful power, culture "which is not just entertainment" as pointed out Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counsellor for France in America at French Cultural Services , who introduced the Day conference in a remarkable speech, can also be of great help for future generations. "If culture générale does not lead to action, it is useless " said Dr. Christian Monjou, a philosophy professor and adviser to many in the French political circles, who attended both panels as a guest of honor.
So, what can culture do? It can help understand the times we live in. For Christian Monjou, art history is a great way to start. All have been already said and done; you just need to know. An interesting example could be the questioning of Jean Michel Basquiat around the Mona Lisa, symbol of western civilization. In other words, as panelists from La Culture Oui, But Why? kept saying in different ways, culture can help you choose a 'philosophical' reading of the world, questioning and using critical thinking to look at events. At Moshi, Caroline Murgue instill critical thinking at a very young age in the brain of children who follow her workshops on philosophy.
And this can be done even in our digital age where culture is available to all on the Internet. In that regard, Juliet Barbara, Director of Communication at Wikimedia Foundation, the non for profit foundation that oversees Wikipedia, was an interesting voice in the debate. At Wikimedia, much is done to include more diversity and lower biases by looking at the world from different points of view, by refining what is a collective approach to culture. In fact Wikimedia organizations from all around the world just agreed on a shared strategic direction for the future. So Wikipedia which is culture by the people for the people , is moving in that inclusive direction. Hopefully others will as well.
It was relevant that such a conference be organized at the Lycee Francais de New York, as bilingual or trilingual education giving access to more than one culture help open the minds. Relantly defended by Fabrice Jaumont, an officer overlooking the Dual Language program at the French Embassy who participated to the discussion on saturday and also signed his new book the "Bilingual Revolution", this multicultural education should be accessible to a larger number of children and open to the public system. In the field of bilingualism ( in all different languages), much has still to be done in France, and we can only rejoice to the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron who, last month, in New York signed a protocol to sustain this Dual Language inititiave. Indeed, in his political program, Macron put the emphasis on bilingual classes also called classes bilangues (and not bilingues).
Knowledge of culture can be of great help to young generations who enter the workplace. Of cultures, would probably add Katherine King who at Invisible Culture tranforms a work place into a world map. As Emmanuel Kattan prophetically emphasized, who knows what work will be tomorrow? Robots, artificial intelligence, a redistribution of world powers, not to mention climate change, will profoundly transform what we today call work. In that moving context, choosing a speciality becomes more and more irrelevant, understanding the world does not. As a Lycee student gracefully put it: Discovery of literature, art, culture can pull us out of our ignorance. We could add: and learn how to navigate fake news.
Lets think about you could do that robots wont be able to do" (Emmanuel Kattan). In other words, lets learn to think with imagination to ride the wave of the future.
I will conclude with two quotes that rang a bell for me.
"The more material you have in your head, in your heart, the more material you have to reinvent with" (Dr. Monjou)
Or as Emmanuel Kattan puts it: "The idea of culture générale is a moral compass. It is how you orient yourself and find your way in the world.