As I explain every July, every June every French student in the final year of secondary school takes a long, difficult standardized test called the baccalauréat. For most of them, this exam is the biggest academic milestone in their lives. Its outcome determines whether they can, in order of increasing importance: graduate, get into a good university, land a good job, have a successful career, achieve fulfillment in life and finally hear the end of their parents’ incessant nagging to study harder.
The test lasts for days and covers every scholastic discipline that you can think of. Including how to think: it always begins with a philosophy section.
Note to American teenagers: yes, that’s philosophy, as in “We’re gonna tietzsche little Nietzsche.” While you’re busy snapping towels in the gym shower and making stash boxes in shop class, your French pen pals over here are pondering the influence of causality chains on deterministic volition.
Their idea of a prank is to call a library and ask, “Do you have No Exit and The Flies? You do? Then you must have Nausea!!”
I have a deep admiration for the French population’s devotion to philosophy. This is because it provides two things:
1) A formidable intellectual challenge for every student starting at an early age, and
Perhaps because they can’t cut class, or corners, during the weeklong test, the students, wishing to cut something besides their wrists, compensate by referring to the baccalauréat as the “bac” and to philosophy as “philo.”
And because philosophy is a veritable national obsession, after the bac philo every year, the questions are published in the media.
And because ridiculing the national obsession is a personal obsession of mine, every year I channel my teenage self, imagining how I would have addressed those thorny topics if I had had to take the bac back when I was in high school. (Cue the harp glissandos, here comes the flashback…)
These are the actual essay questions from the 2015 bac philo.
1) Do we have a moral obligation to respect every living thing?
YES! Yes we do! All of us! Please tell that jerk who blew the spitball into my ear at assembly last Thursday!
Oh wait – “every living thing” could also mean plants and bugs and stuff. And cows that end up under melted cheese on a bun.
With reflection, I would posit that our moral obligation to respect other life forms follows a sliding scale: in the biological kingdom, the further away a given species is from homo sapiens, the less respect we owe it. After all, how much “respect” are we showing the bacteria in our intestines?
So it’s okay to trample blades of grass, carve up trees for lumber and hold our breath when a mosquito’s biting us to watch it explode, but we shouldn’t do any of those things to a buffalo, for example, which is on a closer branch to humans in the “tree of life.”
Ergo, gorillas, our closest biological relatives, deserve essentially as much respect as our fellow man. Maybe more, as a famous but anonymous philosopher once pointed out, if they weigh 500 pounds and are getting sleepy.
2) Is a given individual’s conscience only the reflection of the society to which that individual belongs?
In my experience, yes. Let’s take the example of my lockermate. He has no friends, meaning that he belongs to no society, and he seems to have no conscience at all: he’s always stealing my pencils, chemistry notes and rolling pa… Oops — I mean, ahh, rolling pin. (We both like baking.)
I asked the vice principal to change my locker assignment and he refused. I thought that this showed a remarkable degree of insensitivity on the part of a guy whom no one seems to like and who sits by himself in a private office all day. Once again, no society = no conscience.
Similarly, you know how almost every time a mass murderer goes on a killing spree, his neighbors say afterward that he “kept pretty much to himself”? This is the same mechanism at work, but with even sadder consequences.
This leads me to my main proposition: I am being exposed on a daily basis to two loners who, given the parallels here, could snap at any minute. In my opinion, both of them ought to be put away before they commit the irreparable.
I propose this out of conscience, reflecting my concern for the threat that they pose to society – which only further proves my point. Which I would back up even more if my lockermate hadn’t “accidentally” taken my CliffsNotes on Dialectical Methodology for Dummies.
3) Am I only what my past has made me?
My current state of being is indeed largely forged by my past, but not entirely. My future, or rather my vision of my future, also affects my mindset and behavior.
For example, I hope one day to get at least to second base with my girlfriend, but so far she refuses to consider any such hypothesis unless I promise that we’ll get engaged as soon as we graduate.
I refuse to do this because I think we’re too young to get that serious. Our past discussions of the issue have made me chronically dissatisfied, which would seem to uphold the “yes” position on this question.
But I say no: I remain optimistic due to my hope that I will change her mind sometime in the future — without lying, of course.
As an aside, I could mention that my recent past has also made me aware that it’s better not to play loud music, for example in your girlfriend’s bedroom, when you need to be able to hear if someone, like her father, is coming up the stairs. Unless you want to hear a half-hour speech about his philosophy of life.
4) Does the artist offer something to be understood?
Speaking of being influenced by my future, here I am taking this test at age 18 but being reminded of an incident that I am going to witness in real life six or seven years from now, when I’m in my mid-twenties.
I happened to be at MoMA in New York City one day when a busload of high school kids who looked and talked like extras from “Jersey Shore” arrived, obviously on a class trip intended to give them what for some was a much-needed dose of culture.
They were turned loose to roam the exhibition rooms at will, and I noticed many of them staring at the artworks with a look that I’ll bet the museum staff has a name for: the dazed, uncomprehending expression of the less cultivated person confronting abstraction for the first time. I could almost see the thought balloons over their heads saying, “My [two/three/four]-year-old [sister/brother/cousin] could have painted that!”
At one point I was looking at Ad Reinhardt’s “Abstract Painting,” when one of the bridge-or-tunnel boys wandered by and stopped in front of the all-black canvas. He stared at it for a moment, looking as though he suspected it to be a “Candid Camera” gag, then broke into a big, relieved smile and suddenly bolted from the room.
About a minute later, he came rushing back with four or five classmates in tow, hurrying them along and saying, “Wait till you see this – it’s in here!” Then he gathered his friends in front of the painting, pointed at it proudly and crowed, “There! Now that’s…” (followed by the eight-letter word that you would expect from the mouth of such an innocent).
So in that particular case, Reinhardt offered both that young man and myself something to be understood. Both insights were based on the same expletive, except that he was looking at the painting and thinking “bull” and I was looking at him and thinking “head.”
5) Does politics escape the exigency of truth?
Webster defines “exigency” as “an imperious, unignorable need or requirement.” Not Noah Webster – I mean my classmate Ricky Webb, who’s sitting across from me and holding his paper so that I can see it. Everybody calls him “Webster.”
So if Rick is right, then what we’re asking here is whether political activity is exempt from the need for truth. After careful deliberation, my answer to this question is: in theory, no, but in practice, yes.
Ideally, in a democratic system like we have in the United States, various political parties would announce their policies, one would be chosen by majority vote, and the elected officials would serve as true “public servants,” taking action for the greatest benefit of the general population.
But the way our two-party system actually works, the Republicans and Democrats do everything imaginable to screw each other over, as though Tom, Jerry and Wile E. Coyote were their head strategists, and whoever gets elected takes action for the greatest benefit of themselves and their bankers. This results in all manner of dissimulation, exaggeration, misinformation and just plain lying.
In fact, some government officials seem to think that they are above the law entirely. I’m not naming any names here, but Richard Nixon.
Applying this principle on a more local scale, as a member of Student Council, I am myself a politician, and therefore, I now realize, under no obligation to adhere to the truth. Having reached this logical, philosophical conclusion, I am going to turn in my paper and go see my girlfriend. I have something very important to tell her.
© 2015 Paris UpdateFavorite
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.