Education and Identity in Rural France: The Politics of Schooling

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Education and Identity in Rural France: The Politics of Schooling. DEBORAH REEDDANAHAY. Cambridge University Press, 1996; 237 pp.

This book documents the ethnographic and ethnohistorical fieldwork Reed-Danahay conducted in a small village ("Lavialle") in the Auvergne region of France during the early 1908s. It will be of considerable interest to all those interested in issues of power and social/cultural reproduction in the school, as well as to those specifically interested in how local and national cultures interact within the French institutional framework.

Reed-Danahay challenges the view taken by Bourdieu (and others) that schooling reproduces dominant culture and social inequality by forcing members of subordinate groups to "buy into" (or at least "misrecognize") dominant ideologies promulgated in the school. She also uses ethnographic data to undermine a common assumption in the literature about French education, namely, that its centralization and uniformity has led to cultural homogeneity, turning "peasants into Frenchmen" across the country. Her work in Lavialle emphasizes the important point that local cultures in the context of the modem nation-state do not lose their originality; they become "modem" and "national" in uniquely local ways (see Rogers 1991, Shaping modern times in rural France). These local ways of being French include both strategies of resistance and strategies of accommodation to dominant models of citizenship and cultural membership embedded in the national curriculum. Because of the theoretical frameworks that Reed-Danahay was working within (and ultimately against), she chose a field site that was geographically and culturally "removed" from the "center." Ironically, of course, her work calls into question the very existence of a unified "center." It also shows that one could just as easily look for non-dominant cultures in a Paris suburb as in an Auvergnat village.

Chapters 3 through 5 describe Laviallois cultural norms and values as they reflected in everyday life and, in particular, in social rituals and socialization practices. She shows how children are socialized to be loyal to the region and to regional culture, with its emphasis on the kin group, social reciprocity, modesty, and the ability to "se debrouiller" (make do/make out). Since Auvergnats define their identity in contrast to a sophisticated (imagined?) French "center," this means that being a loyal Auvergat means "resisting" dominant culture. This resistance is not overt. Neither does it necessarily involve a full rejection of French identity and values. For example, local ideas about childhood and such issues as discipline and table manners contrast with bourgeois cultural values that are promoted in school, and people talk about this contrast. While adults do not encourage children to rebel at school, and may even praise some school-learned behaviors (saying "please," for example), they model a kind of passive compliance that never really calls into question local values and modes of behavior. And, one such value ("debrouillardise") endorses defending self and community against the "outside" rules and ideologies. Dinner table conversation in which parents criticize teachers shows children that teachers do not have unquestioned authority in the village. Schooling experiences are never talked about in the same positive light as farming, even as people acknowledge that farming can be "dur" (hard). And while the child's passage through the educational process is followed with interest, the major public coming of age rituals do not revolve around the school. In fact, family emphasis on preparation for the first communion conflicts with teachers' beliefs that children should not be distracted from the task of adjusting to middle school.

Chapters 6 and 7 trace the history of schooling in the Laviallois region. Reed-Danahay makes the "important distinction to be made between valuing literacy skills and valuing the school as an institution" (p. …