Archaeology in French Education: Work in the Departement of the Drome

By Planel, Philippe | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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Archaeology in French Education: Work in the Departement of the Drome

Planel, Philippe, Antiquity

Key-words: France, Drome, schools, archeosites, education

The French have long been proud of their prehistoric sites. Lascaux and, more recently, Tautavel and la Grotte Chauvet are part of the national cultural consciousness. This interest in prehistory begins at primary school; Lascaux and Tautavel are specifically mentioned in programmes of study, even though the 1999 programmes have been pruned and `lightened' (alleges). French primary school children all know who `Lucy' was.

Contrary to the popular notion concerning the predictability of French children all studying the same thing at any point on any given day, French primary teachers can choose projects for their classes (sujets d'etudes). Prehistory and archaeology may feature in these projects and also be used to deliver transferable skills (competences transversales) such as, for example, the notion of time and the transition from time lived and experienced to time remembered (CNDP 1995: 88).

Programmes of study also emphasize what is perceived as a shared cultural heritage, discovering past and present worlds, and civic education, all of which encourage the study of the human past. This is particularly true in the upper primary school, the third cycle -- cycle des approfondissements (CNDP 1995: 67). In addition, the whole school may choose a project for the year --

the projet d'ecole (Education Nationale 1992). A recent example of a school project in the Drome was `Myths'.

In practice the amount of time a primary class in France will spend on prehistory and/or archaeology will depend on the interest and motivation of individual teachers, but teachers often dwell on this theme. First, and not least, children like prehistory. Secondly history and geography are combined as a single subject throughout French schooling, taught by the same teacher; hence the natural surroundings of prehistoric sites are also relevant to geography programmes of study as, in a more general sense, is humankind's long-term impact on the landscape. Thirdly, French schools also make full use of residential classes du patrimoine or classes vertes in which study and outdoor activities are closely interwoven, an excellent way of delivering French prehistory and archaeology. Some of these centres are archeosites or archeoparcs, with a joint agenda of education and experimental archaeology. At Samara (Somme), children can live in reconstructed Neolithic houses (Dieudonne 1999: 206-17). Over a period of several days in such an environment children can gradually strip away their preconceptions about past cultures and appreciate the prejudices of their own urban or suburban lifestyle. Administratively, such centres tie in well with schools, functioning as quasi-independent cost centres, administrative devices with a history reaching back to the Ancien Regime in France. Schools are invoiced by the centre and are in turn reimbursed by local and state grants, and parental contributions. The financial health of these centres stands in sharp contrast to the problems experienced by Butser (Reynolds 1999: 124-35) and Cranborne (Keen 1999: 229-44), offering similar facilities in England.

Is the French primary picture really that rosy for archaeology and education? The criticisms which can be levelled are relatively minor. Firstly, the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer and other important changes are still largely portrayed in textbooks as `civilizing' and a good thing -- a linear model of change and development. Secondly, there is an unwritten, and untested, assumption that the earliest part of mankind's story is best suited to the earliest stages of education. Thirdly, primary-school teachers only rarely get a glimpse of archaeology in their training. At the Valence (Drome) Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maitres (IUFM -- school of education) exceptionally, for example, a CNRS researcher on the Neolithic lectures the teachers in training.

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