Let it be said: Céline Alvarez, it works. On children? Without a doubt. In bookstores? Certainly. The one who sold 220,000 copies of Natural laws of the child (les Arènes, 2016), an account of his prodigious experience of three years in a nursery class in Gennevilliers (Hauts-de-Seine), returns with A year to change everything (the Arena, again). The same thing but on a large scale. As a reminder, the essayist “Revolutionizes education”. It was the banner across the bestseller. Already before the holidays, she was announced as “The back-to-school event”. Such an event, mediatically speaking, it would be a shame to miss it. Kind of like raising children.
Who doesn't want to have “Free, serene, motivated children, at school and at home”, as promised by the red banner wrapped around the new book? The principle ? Children are demotivated, suffer from behavioral problems, attention problems, because they are bored, are not stimulated enough. In other words, we underestimate their skills. So Céline Alvarez goes into the classrooms and clears the air, keeping only a few simple games and activities that the children will handle around. It's about letting the child do it all alone, repeating the action, going all the way without interrupting him to develop his autonomy.
All shots are winning, says Céline Alvarez. It’s neuroscientifically proven. Children are born with brains stuffed with“Potential”who only ask to be developed and a personality who only asks to be “Revealed”. They “Will persevere”, “will achieve their goals”, will all succeed. How? 'Or' What ? To find out, we rush to a bookstore. And this rush, which produces the Alvarez phenomenon, is itself a phenomenon. Analyzing the springs of this bookshop miracle undoubtedly allows us to learn more about children, about us, about our relationship with school, its place in society and the contradictory injunctions that tug at us. We tear the “last Alvarez” out of school like hot cakes, like the unexpected response to our individual anxieties and fantasies.
Alvarez, “You can't say it's a scam”, recognizes François Dubet, a sociologist at the school. And it’s more than just a successful marketing campaign. It’s a guaranteed success, it’s “the jackpot”, he lets go, “Because it mobilizes everything that can be expected”.
Among the many videos posted on Céline Alvarez's website, one is particularly striking: that of Gennevilliers' parents. They tell, with sparkling eyes, their transformed children. Children who devour books, help at home, and frantic not going to school on weekends. The same words keep coming back, in essays as in films. And then Céline Alvarez announces live that National Education no longer supports her, that the experience stops, that she leaves. She films their reaction. Suddenly, they have no more words, decompose. The dream is over, the ideal becomes just an ideal, distant, abstract … That of a happy child who succeeds in school. “The complete individual”, summarizes the sociologist François de Singly: “The balance between development and academic competition has always been very tense. Sometimes the resolution is observed within families: there are the siblings who get into the race, towards the preparatory classes, science, commerce, etc. and the others, who will go into the cultural, literary, social sectors, where we emphasize personal expression, take care of it. ” Céline Alvarez, it is the promise of an all-in-one child: fulfilled and efficient, cooperative and competitive, creative and productive. “The parents' dream would be for their toddler to tell them about themselves and quite naturally: I want to do Polytechnique. But no child has ever bought Okapi with his pocket money “, remarks this family specialist.
An essential place for the game
The child promised by Alvarez is a child of synthesis, who contains and holds together the great educational paradigms of recent decades. The fruit of our entrails becomes in a way a “Historic compromise” between the new education of the post-1968 period, “Marked by the idea that the child, repressed by the family and the school, has an identity to express”, and the “Nostalgic, disciplinary wind” which blew in the late 80s and the following decade describes François de Singly:“The child deserved to be told no, he needed a school that kept him going and a tough family.”
The trend was still reversed at the turn of the century. And it is in this pendulum movement, at the crossroads of the precedents, that the Alvarez phenomenon takes place. New education is making a comeback, rid of its libertarian side and combined with the contributions of Montessori or the vogue for positive education … A set that gives play an essential place, because it reassures: learning while having fun while being limited by its rules. But the Alvarez phenomenon is not just a promise of fulfillment and well-being, it is above all “Productive benevolence”, according to François de Singly's formula. Because the imperative of academic success is a general anxiety today: “Until the 1990s, this anxiety was socially marked, internalized by the middle and upper classes. But now, all parents, including in working-class backgrounds, are very concerned about academic success “, describes Marie-Clémence Le Pape, sociologist of parenthood. From the 2000s, the figure of “the performing child” imposed itself in a society of general competition, fascinated by precocity. Céline Alvarez’s watchword, the one that hits the bull's eye, is “autonomy”, a value that is constantly increasing among parents in the field of education, according to the barometers of the vast European Values Study research program. But what autonomy are we talking about? Material, intellectual? Ditto for the politeness, the docility of the children, other qualities obtained by the experiences of Céline Alvarez. “For parents in lower-level jobs, executing orders, respecting hierarchy, is a sought-after professional skill. In the eyes of the middle and upper classes, these are interpersonal skills that make a difference in the race for success “, notes Marie-Clémence Le Pape. These words are catch-all and this is an advantage for those who handle them: they “Allow to reach a large audience”, remark Marie-Clémence Le Pape.
Academic success is achieved “obsession” according to François Dubet, and with it the conviction or the observation that fate is played from an early age, that after school there will be no second chance. “It is all the more strong now among the middle classes who derive their social level from their academic and professional qualification, and whose children will not inherit a building but will have to rely on their only ability to succeed in school . “
“A protected, private space”
At home, as the educational strategies sharpen, the shelves are stocked with books to find the best recipes to apply and reassure themselves. “These works are part of an assistance and counseling process in which the mothers are the main readers but which have a perverse counter-effect: it stresses, guilt, reinforces the injunctions to be a good parent and even more, to be a good mother “, testifies Marie-Clémence Le Pape. And as these injunctions are contradictory, the tension increases further: “You have to listen to your children, take quality time, and also be an active woman, because female inactivity is frowned upon.”
It is imperative to succeed. And therefore, to succeed better. “Because success is relative, it's cruel, recalls François Dubet. We succeeded, if we succeeded better than the others. Parents ask two things: what grade did you get, what grades did others get. ” Everyone's success would be an antilogy. However, this is the flagship promise of the Céline Alvarez school: “Failure at school is not inevitable. Maybe it's just a huge misunderstanding. ” It is also and above all the obligation that the school has given itself, that of the Republic, that of everyday life. “Everyone's success is now a fundamental educational belief in France, which has not always been the case”, notes François Dubet. Belief that the Alvarez phenomenon strengthens. These Gennevilliers parents marvel at the change at home too. Proof that school can do anything. “It’s an extraordinary French belief, almost messianic, confirms François Dubet. Whenever we have problems that touch on inequality, ecology, sexuality, security, we think that school is the solution. The day after the terrorist attacks Charlie, we turned to her. It has replaced the Church by taking on the duty to save the world. ”
But with its broad spectrum, the Alvarez phenomenon satisfies even those who reject school. “His vision is revolutionary only if you build an imagination in which all the teachers are more or less cheesy and incompetent, where the school is brutal and wants to get everyone into the mold without taking into account the singularities”, remark Dubet. Even though the Alvarez experiment concerns public education, it nourishes “The aspirations for alternative private schools, a place in which we find ourselves among people of the same conviction, a protected, private space. Each child is an exceptional being, so it is justified to deviate for him from the rules of public school “, said educational researcher Philippe Meirieu.