The school seen by the media

The treatment of school problems by the media is most often reduced to a fairly sterile debate between progressives, who aspire to change school by reforming it, and reactionaries who want to restore a previous order for save the school.

For more than fifty years, the question of what school should be, what it should teach and how it should operate, has agitated the public space. From controversies over reading methods in the 1970s to current concerns about the massive use of contract workers, the topics of controversy continue to multiply. If these discussions can take on the magnitude they are known for, it is thanks to the media coverage they benefit from. For the journalist, the conflictual approach to current affairs makes it possible to guarantee the objectivity of his remarks by highlighting a plurality of points of view rather than imposing an arbitrary editorial line. In this way, the media offer the public access to debates which, in their absence, would probably remain confined to the restricted circle of specialists.

However, underlines Yann Forestier, the capacity of the media to make certain subjects visible to the greatest number of people does not mean that what they offer to the public is an accurate reflection of reality. The journalist's work of transmission always involves an operation of selection and staging. Based on the study of a corpus of 8,500 articles on education published in France between 1959 and 2008, mainly from the Worldof Figaro and of The crossForestier proposes to study, from a socio-historical point of view, the way in which this work of filtering and remodeling of information is constructed and transformed, while questioning its consequences on the formation of public opinion.

An education that has become everyone’s business

Media treatment of education issues has not always had the polemical form that it has today. Until the end of the 1960s, newspaper columns mainly relayed academic discussions and government announcements. For Forestier, the events of May 1968 marked a turning point by giving education issues an unprecedented political scope. The news of education is accelerating, having to conform to the rhythm of reforms, controversies, strikes and demonstrations. In this context, the university columnist yesteryear gives way to education journalist concerned with reporting public opinion. Reporting and polling then become the privileged instruments of journalists. Education is no longer a matter reserved for intellectuals. We are now giving the floor to the people who are directly affected by the school experience, first and foremost the teachers and the parents of the students. In this new dynamic, new themes emerge. Among them, school failureoften presented as the symptom of a school that fails to be a school for all: in 1971, the GFEN (French New Education Group) makes academic failure a school failure.

At the same time, the theme of teacher discomfort develops: the same year, the suicide of three teachers opens the controversy. Becoming the subject of short-term media coverage, education must cause a sensation. Journalists do not hesitate, for example, to use catastrophic, provocative or catchy headlines. being a teacher becomes the most dangerous profession of our time Or Teachers in turmoil, headline newspapers where we wonder about teacher malaise. (p.59) Are teachers privileged? provocatively questions a file of the World of 1980 which tends, however, to put the advantages of the profession into perspective (p. 48).

A staging that exacerbates the ideological polarization of conflicts

Journalists, keen to reflect the diversity of opinions circulating in the public space, tend to favor a conflicting perspective when covering the news. According to Forestier, this approach polarizes the debates. From the 1970s onwards, newspapers depicted the clash of two perspectives: that of the progressives, who aspire change school through reform, and that of reactionaries who want to restore a previous order to save the school. One of the first controversies of this type emerged around the Rouchette map, report published in 1971 recommending methods of learning French which emphasize oral expression and non-literary written practices. This project, which is based on a series of experimental studies, intends renovate French teaching to limit the school delay. The media response is very violent: in Le Figaroacademician Pierre Gaxotte denounces the plan as the result of a communist plot which would aim to weaken French culture; In The worldthe writer Jean Guhenno castigates the pedagogismthat is to say, according to him, this refusal of any educational constraint that would justify the human sciences which he describes as science(s) of vague ideas. (p. 82-83) The controversies raised by the Rouchette Plan are entirely exemplary of the way in which pedagogical questions that are initially very defined tend to take on a more confused ideological dimension as the controversy swells: the debate on methods of learning French fades away. here for the benefit of another, much larger one, on autonomy, critical thinking, authority and culture.

Forestier shows that this staging favors the dissemination of reactionary ideas which, previously, remained on the margins of university chronicles. The focus on the conflict has the effect of enhancing the reactions of indignation, frustration, denunciation often adopted by those who want to save the school and allows them to be presented as an easily identifiable homogeneous group. For their part, progressives have difficulty finding a way to express their proposals in the public space and tend to fall back into the rut of union or association meetings only to appear very occasionally in the public space when a controversy gives them an opening.

A very recent example of this phenomenon is found in the way in which criticism of the ministerial orientations of Jean-Michel Blanquer barely broke through into the public space before the controversy broke out around the suspicions Islamoleftism expressed by the minister. The conflictual approach to current affairs, which mainly focuses on emotional reactions or overly general ideological debates, thus results in a media form which maintains controversies instead of encouraging the emergence of a consensus.

Public space and its transformations

The book is part of a broader reflection concerning the socio-historical transformations of public space that Jrgen Habermas inaugurated in 1962 in Public space. In this now classic text, Habermas showed how the press could become, at the end of the XVIIIe century, an essential element in the construction of representative democracies by becoming the relay for discussions in bourgeois salons on art and politics. For Forestier, the media treatment of education in the 1960s fueled a bourgeois public space composed of consensual debates between specialists. After May 68, public space took a new form. Renouncing the spirit of synthesis which characterized it, the Press seeks to be the mirror of a heterogeneous society which it stages as a circus where the confrontation of opinions becomes a spectacle that is self-sufficient.

In the first two thirds of the book, Forestier shows that this paradigm was consolidated until the end of the 2000s. In the last part of his presentation, the author looks at the transformations of the public space after the generalization of the internet and social networks. At this level, he offers analyzes which make it possible to refine that which Habermas was able to propose recently on this subject. In Public space and deliberative democracyHabermas argues that social networks establish a public space, free from the structuring influence of traditional media, which degenerates by allowing a multitude of individual opinions to be expressed without filter or perspective and by submitting to the commercial exploitation of GAFAM.

Forestier offers a more nuanced point of view. Certainly, web 2.0 undeniably establishes a public space which is no longer exclusively orchestrated by the press. But that does not mean it is excluded: the press continues to contribute to the public space, no longer as a director, but as an actor who actively participates in the development of debates. The blog, the tweet, the streaming are media tools that journalists have appropriated and we must not forget that, even online, traditional media remain followed, commented on and shared by Internet users. As Habermas also notes, in this new public space, the problem of false information is more worrying than ever. Forestier shows that, on this playing field, journalists redefine their role by striving to subject the speeches that cross the public space to the test of facts. In this sense, it appears that the role of rationalizing press debates that Habermas feared would disappear has in fact been maintained, although it has taken a new form more adapted to the current socio-historical situation.

At this level, the media treatment of education does not seem different from that reserved for other societal subjects. Although he illustrates his point with concrete examples from the field of education such as the controversies, in 2014, around L'ABCD of equality or that, in 2018, around the #Nodevague it is difficult to grasp what constitutes the specificity of the media treatment of education even though it is affirmed by the author.

The analysis of the socio-historical transformations of the press on education that Forestier develops here carefully avoids the naive idealization of the emancipatory powers of journalism, as well as the unilateral denunciation of the media instrumentalization of information. We can only hope that this study will be enriched by other investigations into the evolution of the media treatment of education in other countries.