Émile Faguet.

The cult of incompetence online

. (page 9 of 12)
Online LibraryÉmile FaguetThe cult of incompetence → online text (page 9 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

magistrates, that is, the _Cour de Cassation_ by the magistrates and the
magistrates in turn by the _Cour de Cassation_, I was of course accused
of being paradoxical, as is always the case, when one suggests
something contrary to the usual custom. I was, however, only carrying a
little further the principle which is already applied to officials. In a
certain sense and to a large extent officials recruit their numbers by

It is true, they do not actually choose the officials, but they
eliminate the candidates whom they do not wish to have. Examination is
ostracism of the inefficient. The Government, of course, has to decide
who may be candidates, but its selection for employment is limited to
those of whom other officials (the officials who conduct the
examination) can approve. It is in fact co-optation.

The committee of examiners which admits a candidate to St. Cyr appoints
an officer. The committee which admits a candidate to the _École
Polytechnique_ appoints an officer or an engineer. A committee also
which refuses a candidate at either of these places is encroaching on
the National Sovereignty, because it is forbidding the National
Sovereignty to make of this young man an officer or an engineer. This is
co-optation. This is a guarantee of efficiency. Here a wall is raised
against incompetence, and against the jobbery under which incompetence
would profit.

It is hardly necessary for me to add that this co-optation is limited to
a very narrow field of operation. It is confined in fact to the
threshold of a man's career. Once the candidate has been consecrated
official, by a board of examining officials, he belongs, both as regards
advancement, promotion and the reverse, to the central authority alone,
except in certain cases. The co-optation of officials is merely a
co-optation by elimination. The elimination is made once and for all,
and the non-eliminated (_i.e._, the successful candidate) steps at once
into the toils of the Government, that is, into the toils of popular
electioneering and party politics, when all the abuses which I have
enumerated can and do arise. To be fair I had of course to point out
that we had tried to invent some slight barriers against the omnipotence
of incompetence, which prevent it being absolutely supreme.

Unfortunately these prophylactic measures are very badly organised, and,
far from being capable of amendment, ought to be completely

The examination system in our country is founded on a misconception, I
mean on the confusion between knowledge and competence. We search
conscientiously for competence or efficiency, and we believe that we
have found it when we find knowledge, but that is an error. An
examination requires from a candidate that he shall know, and
competition demands that he shall know more than the others, but
that is almost all that examination and competition require of him.
Therefrom results one of the most painful open sores of our
civilisation, - preparation for examinations.

Preparation for examination is responsible for intellectual indigestion,
for minds overloaded with useless information, and for a system of
cramming, which at once takes the heart out of men, perhaps with good
ability, just at the age when their mental activity is most keen; which,
further, as the result of this surfeit, disgusts for the rest of his
life and renders impotent for all intellectual effort, the unfortunate
patient who has been condemned to undergo this treatment for five,
eight, and sometimes ten years of his youth.

I am satisfied, if I may be allowed to speak of myself in order to
support my argument by an instance well known to me, that, if I have
been able to work from the age of twenty-five to that of sixty-three, it
is because I have never succeeded except very moderately, and I am proud
of it, in competitive examinations. Being of a curious turn of mind I
have been interested in the subject set in the syllabus, but in other
matters also, and the syllabus has been neglected. I sometimes passed,
more often I failed, with the result that at twenty-six I was behind my
contemporaries, but I was not overworked, broken down, and utterly sick
of all intellectual effort. I admit that some of my contemporaries who
never failed in an examination, and who passed them all with great
brilliance, have worked as hard as I have up to sixty, but they are
extremely few.

The curious thing is that the results, not perhaps disastrous, but
obviously very unsatisfactory, of this examination system do not lead us
to abandon it (that perhaps would be an extreme measure), but make us
aggravate and complicate it. Legal and medical examinations are much
"stiffer" than they used to be, and they require a greater physical
effort, but without requiring or obtaining any greater intellectual
value. In truth, one might say, examination is nothing more than a test
of good health, and it is a very searching test, for it often succeeds
in destroying it.

Here is an example which I know well. It is necessary, if a man desire
to gain distinction as a professor of secondary education, that he
should be a bachelor, a licentiate, an _agrégé_ or a doctor. This is a
qualification that counts, and it means ten examinations or
competitions, two for the first half of the bachelor's degree, two for
the second, two for the licentiate, two for _agrégé_, two for the
doctor's degree. This, moreover, does not appear to be enough. Between
the second part of the bachelor's degree and the licentiate's degree
there is normally an interval of two years; between the licentiate and
the _agrégation_ two years, and between the _agrégation_ and the
doctor's degree there is generally three or four years. You perceive the
danger! Between the _licence_ and the _agrégation_, to go no further at
present, the future professor has two whole years to himself. That is to
say, that during the first of these two years he will work alone. He can
work freely, he can study in what direction he pleases, without thinking
of an examination at the end of twelve months; he has escaped for the
moment from the servitude of the syllabus. The prospect makes us shudder
with apprehension. It is sadly to be feared that the young man may take
a rest and draw breath, or worse still he may be carried into some
extraneous study by his personal aptitudes or tastes. The personality of
the candidate has here an opening, a moment at which it has a
possibility of asserting itself. That must be stopped at all costs.

The authorities, therefore, have put in an intermediate examination
between the _licence_ and the _agrégation_. The examination, it is true,
is on a subject chosen by the candidate himself; so much it is only fair
to admit. The subject chosen, however, must be submitted to the
professors. Their advice and indeed assistance must be invited. The
result, if not the object, of this examination is to prevent the
candidate, during this perilous year of liberty, from developing
original ideas of his own and acting on them.

_One examination every year for ten years_ - that is the ideal of the
modern professor for the future professors who are in course of being
trained. Between the second part of the bachelor's degree and the
licentiate, as there is there an interval of two years, they will
presently perceive that there ought to be an examination at the end of
the first year, and we shall have certificates of study in
intermediate, secondary, higher subjects. Between the _agrégation_ and
the _doctorat_, there are four years, and naturally we shall want three
examinations just to see how the future professor is getting on with his
theses, to encumber him with assistance and to prevent him doing them
alone; first examination called the _Bibliography of the Theses for the
Doctorat_, second examination called the _Methodology of the Doctorat_,
third examination called the _Preparation for the Sustaining of the
Thesis_, and then the examination for the doctor's degree itself.

In this way the desired object is attained. Between the ages of
seventeen and twenty-seven or thirty the examinee will have had to
undergo sixteen examinations. He will never have worked alone. He will
always have worked, for periods of twelve months, on a syllabus, for an
examination, with a view of pleasing such and such professors, modelling
himself on their views, their conceptions, their general ideas, their
eccentricities, aided by them, influenced by them, never knowing, and
feeling he ought not to know, not wishing to know, and running a great
risk if he did know, and forming habits for his whole life so that he
may never know what he thinks himself, what he imagines himself, what he
seeks and would like to seek of his own motion, or what he ought himself
to try to be. He will take up all this after he is thirty.

Not a vestige of personality or original thought till the moment when it
is too late for it to appear, that is the maxim!

Whence comes this frenzy, this _examino mania_? When one comes to think
of it, it seems to be a simple case of _Dandino-mania_. Dandin says with
great determination "I mean to go and judge." The professor of a certain
age means to go and examine. He no longer loves to profess, he loves to
be always examining. This is very natural. Professing, he is judged;
examining, he judges. The one is always much pleasanter than the other.
For a professor, to sweat in harness, to feel oneself being examined,
that is, criticised, discussed, held up to judgment, and chaffed by an
audience of students and amateurs, ceases at a certain age to be
altogether pleasant; on the other hand to examine, to sit on the throne
with all the majesty of a judge, to have only to criticise and not to
produce, to intervene only when the victim stumbles, and to let him
know that he has made a slip, to hold the student for the whole year
under the salutary terror of an approaching examination, to remind him
that he may need help and must by no means displease his professor - all
this is very agreeable and makes up for many of the worries of the
teaching profession. The examination mania proceeds partly from the
terror of being oneself examined, and partly from the pleasure of
examining others.

All this is true, but there is more than this. The precocious
development of early talent and originality is the thing which strangely
terrifies these examination-maniacs. They have a horror of the man who
teaches himself. They have a horror of any one who ventures to think for
himself and to enquire for himself at twenty-five years of age. They
want, like an old hen, to mother the young mind as long as possible.
They will not let it find its own feet, till very late, and till, as the
scoffer might well say, its limbs are absolutely atrophied. I do not say
that they are wrong. The man who has taught himself is apt to be a vain,
conceited fellow who takes pleasure in thinking for himself, and has
an absolute delight in despising the thoughts of others. It is, however,
no less the fact, that it is among these self-taught men that we find
those vigorous spirits who venture boldly beyond the domain of human
science and extend its frontier. The question then is which is best, to
favour all these troublesome self-taught people in the hope of finding
some good ones among them, or by crossing and worrying them to run the
risk of destroying the good as well as the bad. I am myself strongly in
favour of the first of these alternatives. It is better to let all go
their own way, even though pretenders to originality come to grief, a
thing that matters very little. Minds that are truly original will
develop themselves and find room for the expansion of all their powers.

But here, - take note how the democratic spirit comes in everywhere - the
question of numbers is raised. Ten times more numerous, I am told, are
the pretenders to originality whom we save from themselves by discipline
than the true geniuses whose wings we clip.

I reply that, in matters intellectual, questions of figures do not
count. An original spirit strangled is a loss which is not compensated
by the rescue of ten fools from worse excesses of folly. An original
spirit left free to be himself is worth more than ten fools whose folly
is partially restrained.

Nietzsche has well said: "Modern education consists in smothering the
exceptional in favour of the normal. It consists in directing the mind
away from the exceptional into the channel of the average." This ought
not to be. I do not say that education should do the opposite of all
this. Oh no, far from that. It is not the business of education to look
for exceptional genius, or to help in its creation. Exceptional genius
is born of itself and it has no need of such assistance. But even less
is it the business of education to regard the exceptional with terror,
and to take every means possible, even the most barbarous and most
detailed, to prevent it as long as possible from coming to the light.

Education ought to draw all that it can out of mediocrity, and to
respect originality as much as it can. It ought never to attempt to turn
mediocrity into originality, nor to reduce originality to the level of

And how can all this be done? By an intervention that is always
discreet, and sometimes by non-intervention.

At the present moment its policy is equally distant from
non-intervention and from an intervention that is discreet.

It is in this way that the very institution which we have invented to
safeguard efficiency contributes not a little to the triumph of its
opposite. These victims of examination are competent in respect of
knowledge, instruction and technical proficiency. They are incompetent
in respect of intellectual value, often, though perhaps not so often as
formerly, in respect of moral value.

As far as their intellectual value is concerned, they have very
frequently no mental initiative. It has been cramped, hidden away, and
trampled down. If it ever existed, it exists now no longer. They are all
their days merely instruments. They have been taught many things,
especially intellectual obedience. They continue to obey intellectually,
their brain acts like well made and well lubricated machinery. "The
difference between the novel and the play," said Brunetière, "is that in
the play the characters act, in the novel they are acted." I do not
know if this be true, but of the functionary we might say as often as
not, he does not think, he is thought.

The official also is incompetent, though less and less often, in respect
of moral worth. By the exercise of intellectual obedience, he has been
trained to moral obedience also and he is little disposed to assert his
independence. Observe how everything tends to this end. This method of
co-opting officials by means of elimination, as I have said, operates
only, as I have also shown, at the outset of the official's career. From
this moment onwards the functionary must depend on the Government only,
his whole preparation during ten years of education has been calculated
to ensure his absolute dependence on his official directors. So far
good, perhaps a little too good. It would have been well if the
education of the functionary had left him, together with a little
originality of mind, a little originality of character as well.

* * * * *

We have sought, very conscientiously also, and, I may even say, with an
admirable enthusiasm, yet another remedy for the faults of democracy,
another remedy for its incompetence. It is said: "The crowd is
incompetent, so be it, it is necessary to enlighten it. Primary
education, spread broadcast, is the solution of every difficulty, and
provides an answer to every question."

From this argument aristocrats have derived some little amusement. "How
is this?" they exclaimed, "what is the meaning of this paradox? You are
democrats and that means that you attribute political excellence,
'political virtue,' as we used to say, to the crowd, that is to
ignorance. Why then do you wish to enlighten the crowd, that is to
destroy the very virtue which, on your own showing, is the cause of its
superiority?" The democrats reply that the crowd, even as it is, is
already very preferable to aristocracy, and that it will be still more
so when it has received instruction. They resolve the apparent
contradiction by the argument _a fortiori_.

At all events, the democrats set to work most vigorously on the
education of the people. The result is that the people is much better
educated than formerly, and I am one of those who regard this result as
excellent; but the further result is, that the people is saturated
with false ideas, and this is less comforting.

Ancient republics had their demagogues, their orators, who inflamed the
evil qualities of the people, by bestowing on them high-sounding names
and by flattery. The great democracy of modern times has its demagogues.
These are its elementary school teachers. They come of the people, are
proud to belong to it, for which of course no one can blame them, they
distrust everything that is not the people, they are all the more of the
people because among the people they are intellectually in the first
rank while elsewhere they are of secondary importance; and what men love
is not the group of which they form a part, but the group of which they
are the chief. They are, therefore, profoundly democratic.

So far nothing could be better. But it is a narrow form of democratic
sentiment which they hold, for they are only half-educated, or rather
(for who is completely educated or even well educated?), because they
have only received a rudimentary education. Rudimentary education may
perhaps make us capable of having one idea, it certainly renders us
incapable of having two. The man of rudimentary education is always the
man of one single idea and of one fixed idea. He has few doubts. Now the
wise man doubts often, the ignorant man seldom, the fool never. The man
of one idea is more or less impermeable to any process of reasoning that
is foreign to this idea. An Indian author has said: "You can convince
the wise; you can convince, with more difficulty, the ignorant; the
half-educated, never."

Now no one ever convinces the elementary schoolmaster. He is confirmed
in his convictions by defending, and still more by discussing them. He
is the slave of his opinion. He does not possess it always quite
clearly, but it possesses him. He loves it with all his soul, as a
priest his religion, because it is the truth, because it is beautiful,
because it has been persecuted, and because it means the salvation of
the world. He would enjoy its triumph but he yearns still more to be a
martyr in its cause.

He is a convinced democrat and a sentimental democrat. His conviction
forms a solid basis for his sentiment, and his sentiment kindles to a
white heat his conviction. His conviction makes him turn a deaf ear to
every objection, his sentiment inspires him with hatred for his
adversary. For him the man who is not a democrat is wrong, and further,
to him an object of hatred. In his eyes the distance between himself and
the aristocrat is as the distance between truth and error, nay between
good and evil, between honour and dishonour. The schoolmaster is the
fanatic vassal of democracy.

Then, as he is a man of one idea, he is single-minded, narrowly logical,
and logical to the utmost extreme. He goes straight forward where his
argument leads. An idea which admits neither qualification nor question
can go far in a very short space of time. And the schoolmaster drives
all his democratic principles to their natural and logical conclusion.

He develops these principles and all that they imply by the sheer force
of what he calls his "reasoning reason," and it appears to him to be not
only natural but salutary to seek their realisation. Everything of which
the principle is good is good itself, and no one but Montesquieu could
ever believe that an institution could be ruined by the excess of the
principle in which its merit consists.

The schoolmaster, therefore, deduces their logical consequences from the
two great democratic principles, the sovereignty of the nation, and
equality; he deduces them rigorously, and arrives at the following

The people alone is sovereign. Therefore, though there can be individual
liberty and liberty of association, there ought to be only such
individual liberty and liberty of association as the people permits.
Liberty cannot be and ought not to be anything more than a thing
tolerated by the sovereign people. The individual may think, speak,
write, and act as he pleases, but only so far as the people will allow
him; for if he can do these things with absolute freedom, or even with
limitations which are not imposed by the people, he becomes the
sovereign power, or the power which fixed the limits of his freedom
becomes the sovereign, and the sovereignty of the people disappears.

This brings us back to the simple definition that liberty is the right
to do what we please within the limits of the law. And who makes the
law? The people. Liberty is then the right to do everything which the
people permits us to do. Nothing more; if we attempt to go beyond this,
the sovereignty of the individual begins, and the sovereignty of the
people disappears.

- But to have liberty to do only what the people permits, this is to be
free as we were under Louis XIV. - and that is not to be free at all!

So be it. There will indeed be no liberty unless the law permit it.
Surely you do not wish to be free in opposition to the law?

- The law may be tyrannical. It is tyrannical if it is unjust. -

The law has the right to be unjust. Otherwise the sovereignty of the
people would be limited and this must not be.

- Fundamental and constitutional laws might be devised to limit this
sovereignty of the people in order to guarantee such and such of the
liberties for the individual. -

And the people would then be tied! The sovereignty of the people would
be suppressed! No, the people cannot be tied. The sovereignty of the
people is fundamental and must be left intact.

- Then there will be no individual liberty? -

Only such a measure as the people will tolerate.

- Then there will be no liberty of association?

Still less; for an association is in itself a limitation of the
sovereignty of the nation. It has its own laws, which from a democratic
point of view is an absurd and monstrous incongruity. The right of
association limits the national sovereignty, just as would a free town
or sanctuary of refuge. It limits the nation, and pulls it up short in
face of its closed doors. It is a State within a State; where there is
association, there arises at once a source of organisation other than
the great organism of the popular will. It is like an animal which lives
some sort of independent life within another animal larger than itself
and which, living on that other animal, is still independent of it. In
fact there can be only one association, the association of the nation,
otherwise the sovereignty of the nation is limited, that is, destroyed.
No liberty of association can then exist.

Associations of course will exist which the people will tolerate, but
their right of existence is always revocable and they are always liable
to be dissolved and destroyed. Otherwise the national sovereignty would
be held to abdicate and it can never abdicate.

- Ah! but there is one association, at least, which to some extent is
sacred, and which the sovereignty of the people is bound to respect. I
mean the family. The father is the head of the family, he educates his
children and brings them up as he thinks best, till they come to man's
estate. -

Nay, that will not pass! For here again we have a limitation of the
sovereignty of the nation. The child does not belong to his father. If
this were so, at the threshold of each home the sovereignty of the
people would be arrested, which means that it would cease to exist
anywhere. The child, like the man, belongs to the people. He belongs to
it, in the sense that he must not be a member of an association which
might dare to think differently from the people, or perhaps even harbour
ideas in contradiction to the thought of the people. It would indeed be
dangerous to leave our future citizens for twenty years outside the
national thought, which is the same thing as being outside the
community. Imagine five or six bees brought up apart, outside the laws,
regulations, and constitution of the hive; imagine further that of these

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12

Online LibraryÉmile FaguetThe cult of incompetence → online text (page 9 of 12)