A Kind of Human Fervor

“I have ample proof, unfortunately, that the teaching of literature in the Sorbonne and the Universities has become pathetic. The abuse of history, of the footnotes of history, has destroyed all critical sense and taste. I know a professor who spent a whole year giving a commentary on Lamartine’s ‘Le Lac.’ He traced the history of a little pink or blue notebook in which Lamartine had scrawled a few stanzas of his poem. He related what hands it passed through, he counted the pages, analyzed them… That required several lectures. When the last one came around, neither he nor his students had read the poem yet. To these so-called historians, it seems that all the artists of the past suffered, wrote, and lived only to provide matter for a few bibliographical index cards. They have confused research with education. We must have researchers. But ‘researchers’ are not professors. Let the researchers do research and the professors teach. They are two distinct functions. No one has more admiration for scholars than I do. And yet I would wish them never to lack a sense of quality, a more global approach, and never forget that there is a hierarchy of values, ideas, and facts. But it’s up to the École des Hautes Études and the scientific institutes to train them. It’s not up to the Sorbonne or the Universities. They have to train teachers who will then make men. They should awaken a great sense of curiosity in students, a sense of what is universal and human, so that later, when those students will themselves have become teachers, the fever of knowledge and a kind of human fervor become the driving force even in the smallest schools of the nation. But in the best of cases we train bookworms; from the age of twenty on, we accustom them to remain inside one drawer of index cards, we train them to compile notes and work their way through it. We cultivate petty vanity in them. For them, knowledge will always consist in adding a card to their file, like a gram to a kilo. Knowledge will distract them from their life, which it should rather enrich and govern. Their curiosity about small things will dispense them from being curious about great ones. Without critical sense, without taste, without ardor, mediocre researchers and worse teachers, they can only maintain our society of quantity in its vain illusion of being a civilization.” (Jean Guehenno, Diary of Dark Years, 1940–1944)