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Fields of Knowledge: French Academic Culture in Comparative Perspective, 1890-1920.

Fields of Knowledge: French Academic Culture in Comparative Perspective, 1890-1920 is a wide-ranging discourse concerning the clientele and culture of secondary and higher education at the turn of the century in France and Germany. The focus is on the academic culture of France, conceived as an "intellectual field," with implicit and explicit assumptions that, in turn, reflect and are reinforced by the social composition and roles of those attending institutions of higher study. By comparing the situation in France with that in Germany, with occasional asides about England, Ringer argues that one can discern both commonality of experiences and national uniqueness.

Ringer is to be commended for his comparative approach and breadth of knowledge. Too many historians wallow in a national torpor. He correctly chides historians for testing other nations against an English model of a rising middle class with ascendant liberalism, which is better conceived as uniquely English than employed a developmental model. Chapter 1 updates his Education and Society in Modern Europe (Bloomington, 1979) which was, unfortunately, published just before a host of studies examining the social origins and careers of graduates of "higher schools" appeared. Carefully incorporating the latest research, this survey shows a marked similarity between the social groups attending schools in both states but a greater propensity for those of families whose positions were owed to schooling sending sons to schools in Germany. New elites were more likely in France than in Germany to pass through "professional schools," although these too required a base in classical education for admission. Most importantly, he contrasts the German notion of Bildung, which stressed self-development, with the French notion of culture generale and even education, both of which de-emphasized individual uniqueness. Finally, French scientific academics envisioned in the specialization of disciplines an affirmation of the unity of the science at the same time that German elites conceived such specialization as disintegrative of the "whole man" and their intellectual ideal. These are important comparisons, put too succinctly here to do justice to the author. If these comparisons were the sole aim of the discourse, I could end my review here. But, then, this review would not have been written, for a long article would be at issue.

In a tendentious chapter defining what an intellectual field is or should be, Ringer relies heavily on Pierre Bourdieu and Erwin Panofsky. Neither are easy to read, but they are easier to read than are Ringer's explications of them. In a book imbued in German philosophic traditions, there should be clearer distinction between actuality and the ideal.

From this we move with tenuous links to the "social field" (origins and careers of graduates of schools) wherein minute comparisons are made betmeen Prussian schools at the beginning of the nineteenth century, French secondary schools in mid-century, and German schools at the end of the century. Exactitude in percentages are meaningless if the original sources are diverse in time and categorization as these are. The general findings noted above are appropriate, but Ringer attempts to make fine distinctions that the evidence does not permit. Ringer emphasizes that "business groups" were more inclined to send their children to elite French schools than were German ones, but shopkeepers are the main component of French "business groups."

Chapter 3 relies primarily on testimony to the famous Ribot Commission, convened in 1899; chapter 5 selects four disciplines as exemplary. Local notables, bureaucrats, teachers, and others appeared before the Ribot Commission by invitation. Their testimony has been analyzed by a variety of French historians, none of whom have claimed such to constitute an "intellectual field." Catholic educators were underrepresented, many of whom construed "education" in a light approximate to Bildung. Although many recommendations of the Ribot Commission were implemented, many were not. There is commonality between this testimony and the ideas of Charles Seignobos and Emile Durkheim, isolated in chapter 5. Commonality does not establish an "intellectual field."

Ringer is meticulous in his research and careful in making sure that the reader follows each step on the road to his conclusions. Unfortunately, the book is not well written and some digressions are indulgent. The comparative approach is the major contribution because the French universitaires who appear in this book have been studied before.
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Author:Harrigan, Patrick J.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Words:703
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