From the enchanting beginnings during the Liberation, to the start of the 5th République : an examination of public education and cultural action in France

by Guy Saez, research supervisor, CNRS


Saez claims that often the concepts of public education and cultural action are grossly misconstrued as they are defined in function of one another. He proposes to examine these concepts distinctly, so as to highlight their unique dimensions and modulations, varying with time and political structures. Furthermore, Saez justifies his choice to end this first part of his presentation on public education in the framework of the May 68 revolution in France. It is at this moment in time that all cultural sectors come at a standstill, rejecting traditional reference points and leading figures. This period marks a shift between a pedagogical society (knowledge as social emancipation) and a cultural society. Finally, Saez specifies that his discussion is in direct reference and homage to Geneviève Poujol’s book, “Public education, the 1970s: a turning point”. Saez will discuss the major differences between cultural action and public education on three levels: a symbolic one, a structural one (different systems), a material one (infrastructural).

Symbolic differences :

1944, a post-war era: a moment when the concepts of nation, democracy, culture, and civilization are in desperate need of being redefined. The public education movement defends that “culture” should be able to reconstruct and reunify a nation. Saez briefly introduces the debate between the understanding of arts and culture, as put forth by the public education movement, and the conception that claims the arts should be an end and not a means. This latter understanding would have Men change society, and not the inverse. Though pre-war theorists conceived the construction of a nation based on an erudite culture, post-war interest is turned to popular culture. Culture must be intimately connected to social life (a conception already articulated by Baudelaire, Futurists, and other avant-garde artists of the XXth century). Saez contends that in this case “popular culture”, as defended by the Front populaire, is not understood as a proletarian culture. Rather, returning to Baudelaire’s painting of modern life, Saez claims that “popular culture” is a new anthropological conception of culture that takes into account all dimensions of life in society.

Saez also puts into question the perpetual distinction drawn between public education as a pedagogical mission and cultural action as an aesthetic experience. Public education and popular culture are also often associated with sociocultural initiatives. However, Saez questions the legitimacy of this connection, as the “sociocultural” concept was not necessarily defined with the same anthropological intentions as popular culture. In addition, Saez draws the distinction between two different types of cultural policies. On one hand, that which was defended by André Malraux, namely cultural democratization, as explained by Saez: an elitist art for all, “art as an anti-destiny. On the other hand, the public education movement perceived the necessity of a destiny, of progress (through art); this cultural policy initiative was thoroughly rejected by the Ministry of cultural affairs in the 1960s. Saez proposes that this divide is due to a different understanding of “popular culture”: the Ministry viewed these emerging cultural practices as synonymous to “pop culture”, mainstream, proletarian productions.

Structural differences :

Saez observes that the advocates for public education are distinct from those defending cultural action at the Ministry of cultural affairs. Indeed, Saez attributes this difference to timing: the public education movement preceded the creation of the Ministry. The Ministry of Youth established the “Haut Comité à la Jeunesse” which regrouped representatives from both parties and served a consulting function to the public education movement. Its administration was managed by the “Haut Commissariat à la Jeunesse et aux Sports”. In 1964, the FONJEP (Fond de Coopération de la Jeunesse et de l’Education populaire) was founded. Again, members from both parties were represented in this association; together, they managed the budget allotted to sociocultural animators. This same year, the Ministry of cultural affairs abandoned all supervision of public education organizations, unable to provide jobs or professional development sessions for their employees. Between 1956 and 1964, the budget granted to the public education movement was multiplied by four and its employees gained full autonomy from the Ministry. Finally, Saez notes that the French government provided the arts specialists attached to the public education movement an official status, through a recognized degree. However, the purpose of this recognition was to then hire these specialists as consultants to the Ministry, as the government institution did not yet have the brainpower to produce external assessments.

Material differences :

Saez briefly explains that the public education movement and the cultural action movement never shared common infrastructures – be it pedagogical or sociocultural equipment. The maisons de la culture never became focal points for the two movements. Furthermore, the democratization missions carried by sociocultural animators and cultural mediators at the Théâtre National Populaire or decentralized art centers (cultural institutions funded by the Ministry) were never harmonized.

Saez concludes by emphasizing perhaps the most striking problem at the heart of the tension between these two movements: memory. The historical antecedents of the public education movement have been forgotten. Joffre Dumazedier, founder of the Peuple et Culture network of public education organizations (created right after WWII), had previously signed an agreement with the French Resistance to launch a popular culture movement in Grenoble during the Liberation. In Grenoble, Dumazedier was a member of the Commission départementale de Libération, an official branch of the restored République, and named the education commission of the Commission départementale Peuple et Culture, in honor of a communist Resistance group. As such, Peuple et Culture was once affiliated with a governmental body. This ambiguity between government affiliation and autonomy is central to the public education movement, and might provide an explanation regarding any hostility toward the Ministry. Finally, Saez recalls that Peuple et Culture wanted to establish maison de la culture in Grenoble. Nonetheless, the local mayor, a Socialist, denied the project, fearing the potential “revolutionary” effects of such a project led by a popular culture movement. The mayor did not want provocative productions to disrupt the petty bourgeois cultural agenda structured by local venues. However, it is true that the public education and popular culture militants perceived themselves as such rabble-rousers; this self-perception did not last long, claims Saez, but that is another story…


[Read the full text in french]


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