Démocratie et éthique sociale

Jane Addams’s Democracy and Social Ethics is a fascinating book. Although it was written in 1902, it has a surprising relevance for today.

A major contribution to philosophy, the book develops a theory of social ethics, which extends classical theories oriented toward individual virtues and actions. For social policy it offers ways to think about issues such as racism, immigration, economic injustice, democracy, and social improvement. The abstract ideas are linked to Addams’s own concrete work with Hull-House in Chicago.

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Is Blanc the center?

Hamlet of Blanc

Hamlet of Blanc

In my last post, I speculated that İstanbul was a good candidate for the center of the world.

But now, I’m sitting in İstanbul’s antithesis, the hamlet of Blanc sur Sanctus, France, wondering whether the center might instead be here. Where İstanbul is large and hyperactive, Blanc barely hangs on and wonders about its future.

Moss near Blanc

Moss near Blanc

Blanc sits above the valley of the river Sanctus, whose early traces form a boundary between departments of Aveyron and Tarn. It’s in the Langedoc region, where names still resonate in Occitan. It’s also in the Parc naturel régional des Grands Causses, a lush region of limestone plateaus, cascading mountain streams, beech and pine forests, and family-scale agriculture.

Blanc was settled at least a millennium ago. A chateau was built in the 10th C. The place changed over the years, growing and prospering, especially in the 17th C. But by the mid 19th C, there were only 54 inhabitants, and the last two left in 1960. The combination of a the general rural exodus and WWI were too much for it. Today, it and its environs are protected by an association, Sauvegarde du Rouergue, and by two men who operate a set of guesthouses on the site.

Forest primeval?

Forest primeval?

We’re staying in what used to be the school and post office. It’s restored to protect it and to provide modern conveniences, but with the perfect weather we had, we could have lived outdoors.

Some would say that Blanc represents well the past for France, and the world. Small-scale agriculture is uncompetitive and too difficult. People are drawn to the cities–the good jobs, shopping, culture and night life, automobiles, new technologies and modern conveniences. Wherever the center may be, it certainly can’t be in Blanc.



And yet, in Blanc you can take long walks through forests and meadows to reconnect with nature and your own body. You can drink pure water from mountain streams. You can feel how rocks were carried to form walls and houses, rather than to read about them or see them in a museum. You can understand how water and topography have always shaped human lives and continue to this day.

Enfant Sauvage

Enfant Sauvage

Moreover, you can see that the life in Blanc is not so different from that in similar places in Turkey, the US, China, or elsewhere in the world. Few people would choose to re-enter that rural lifestyle, but many people seek the kind of peace and wholeness that it promises. There’s a solidity to life here that is more than merely the fact everything seems to be built out of rock. Nearby, the “wild child” of Aveyron perplexed early 19th C villagers with his back to nature existence.

Blanc affords an opportunity to find one’s individual center in a way that the intensely social world of İstanbul does not.

Pleyel in Paris

Ignace Pleyel

Ignace Pleyel, composer & piano builder

It was nearly two centuries ago (1830) that Frédéric Chopin came to Paris. There, he met Franz Liszt and other musicians; he also began his famous relationship with George Sand.

In Paris, he discovered the Pleyel piano, his lifetime favorite, and performed his first and last concerts at Salle Pleyel, which remains a major, active concert hall.

Shiny Pleyel

Chopin’s waltz on a Pleyel

It’s beyond presumptuous to put myself in that tradition, but still, there’s something very pleasant about playing one of Chopin’s a minor waltzes on a Pleyel in Paris. The piano is new; it’s so shiny that you can see the reflection of the Père Lachaise cemetery (where both Chopin and Pleyel are buried) from across the street.

This apartment has a good collection of Chopin, Bach, Debussy, and other classical composers. There’s a late 19C edition of Beethoven’s Sonatas, as well as Monty Python, Frank Sinatra, and Jacques Brel. There’s even a guest book, specifically for musicians, which was provided by a previous guest in the apartment.

Héloïse and Abélard


In 1971, I was fortunate to see an excellent play at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. It was Abelard and Heloise, by Ronald Millar. Keith Mitchell and Diana Rigg(!) had the title roles. The play was moving and the acting was superb. I can still visualize scenes, not so much from the stage setting, which was fine, but because the story caught my imagination.

Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love, and learning held out to us the secret opportunities that our passion craved. Our speech was more of love than of the books which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. –Abélard

Over the years I would read whatever I could find by or about Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abélard, including biographies, fictionalized accounts, children’s stories, poetry, song, and of course the letters themselves. I saw several movie versions, some better than others. I began to learn how the story had inspired copies, re-mediations, satires, and endless allusions in a wide variety of artforms.

Père Lachaise Cemetery from apartment
Père Lachaise Cemetery from apartment

Héloïse had seen this coming, with her own perceptive reflections on pictures, letters, talk, and physical presence. For example,

If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present; they have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it. –Héloïse

My obsession with the topic became worse in 2004, when we lived not far from Notre-Dame de Paris, where Abélard had studied and taught. I found an English translation of Régine Pernoud’s book in a used book store. Pernoud lists Héloïse first, which makes sense. Abélard was a great orator and writer, one we might revere even more if most of his works hadn’t been destroyed for his heresies. Yet, Héloïse (a great scholar herself) is the one who makes their story come alive, whether you interpret it as a love story, a theological debate, an example of 12th C patriarchy, or an invention of later writers.  His letters are fascinating to read, but hers leap to the heights of the written art, even in translation from the original Latin.

One thing that comes through in every retelling is the tragedy of it all. There is of course the castration and the subsequent separation of Héloïse and Abélard. But there is also the tangible agony of struggles between possibility and reality, spirituality and desire, trust and betrayal. Their love always entailed suffering with happy moments that became recollections before they were fully realized. Even their son Astrolabe appears as a shadow of a world they imagined, but never had.

Monument to Ablard & Héloïse
Monument to Abelard & Héloïse

Later, when their connection was only through letters, Héloïse seeks a way to share the loss, to find meaning in the emptiness:

Let me have a faithful account of all that concerns you; I would know everything, be it ever so unfortunate. Perhaps by mingling my sighs with yours I may make your sufferings less, for it is said that all sorrows divided are made lighter. –Héloïse

You can read one version of this in Alexander Pope’s poem, Eloisa to Abelard. Eloisa is in anguish over her powerful feelings for Abélard, especially as manifested in her dreams:

Black Melancholy sits, and round her throws
A death-like silence, and a dread repose:
Her gloomy presence saddens all the scene,
Shades ev’ry flow’r, and darkens ev’ry green,
Deepens the murmur of the falling floods,
And breathes a browner horror on the woods.

She realizes that Abélard, now as a eunuch who is free from the “contagion of carnal impurity” cannot return her feelings even if he wants to. And so she begs, not for forgiveness, but for forgetfulness.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

Today, one can walk near Père Lachaise cemetery on rue Pierre-Bayle. Bayle was a 17C philosopher. Where Abélard committed the heresy of seeing reason as a path to faith, Bayle advocated a separation between the spheres of faith and reason. He wrote about Héloïse and Abélard in his Historical and Critical Dictionary, a forerunner of the encyclopedias. One can also walk on the rue du Repos, which, were it not for the cemetery wall, would lead directly to where they lie in “repose” at their monument.

Héloïse d'Argenteuil
Héloïse d’Argenteuil

Cynics will point out that the monument was placed there in 1817 simply as a marketing ploy to convince Parisians to be buried among the famous; that the bones of the famous lovers are probably at the Oratory of the Paraclete, or the church of Nogent-sur-Seine, or most likely, just lost; that their love, if it existed at all, was no more than an expression of medieval structures of religious oppression, patriarchy, abuse of position, class, and power; and that the famous letters themselves were a literary concoction made long after the actual events.

Abélard would disdain these worldly concerns, and urge the cynics, along with Héloïse to

Strive now to unite in yourself all the virtues of these different examples. Have the purity of virgins, the austerity of anchorites, the zeal of pastors and bishops, and the constancy of martyrs.

But Héloïse would know that “the truth is more important than the facts.” She’d recognize that the Père Lachaise monument shows their eternal love, which endured politics, religion, castration, and even Abélard’s pomposity and coldness. She’d also see that just like Keats’s youth, they can never touch, so encased in granite, their suffering also endures forever.


Journal series on progressive education

The International Journal of Progressive Education (IJPE) has now published a series of three special issues on “Progressive Education: Past, Present and Future”:

  1. Progressive Education: Antecedents of Educating for Democracy (IJPE 9.1, February 2013)
  2. Progressive Education: Educating for Democracy and the Process of Authority (IJPE 9.2, June 2013)
  3. What’s Next?: The Future of Progressivism as an “Infinite Succession of Presents” (IJPE 9.3, October 2013)

I worked on these journal issues with John Pecore, Brian Drayton, and Maureen Hogan, as well as article contributors from around the world. We’re now exploring options for developing some of the articles along with some additional material into a handbook. The series is timely given current debates about the purpose and form of education in an era of rapid technological change, globalization, demographic and political shifts, and growing economic inequities. It asks, “What have we learned about pedagogy that can support democratic, humanistic, and morally responsible development for individuals and societies?”

Progressive education is a pedagogical movement that emphasizes aspects such as learning by doing, student-centered learning, valuing diversity, integrated curriculum, problem solvingcritical thinking, collaborative learning, education for social responsibility, and lifelong learning. It situates learning within social, community, and political contexts. It was promoted by the Progressive Education Association in the US from 1919 to 1955, and reflected in the educational philosophy of John Dewey.

But as an approach to pedagogy, progressive education is in no way limited to the US or the past century. In France, the Ecole Moderne, developed from the work of Célestin Freinet, emphasizes the social activism side of progressive education. Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education demonstrates the importance of art in learning, a key element of the holistic approach in progressive education. Paulo Freire’s work in Brazil on critical literacy, highlights the link between politics and pedagogy. Similarly, influenced by his experiences in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi’s conception of basic education resonates with progressive ideals of learning generated within everyday life, cooperation, and educating the whole person, including moral development.

It is worth noting that progressive education invariably seeks to go beyond the classroom walls. Thus, the work of Jane Addams and others at Hull House with immigrants fits, even if it is not situated within a traditional school. Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School focused on social activism with adults, exemplifying the progressive education ideals. So too is the Escuela Nueva in Spain, Colombia, and elsewhere. The informal learning in museums, libraries, community and economic development, and online may express progressive education more fully than what we see in many schools today.

We hope that these issues will prove to be a useful resource for anyone interested improving education for a healthier world.

The bottom line in health care

healthIn my previous post on Single-payer health care: Why not?, I talked about our family’s experiences with health care in France, UK, Ireland, Italy, China, Australia, and other places in comparison to that in the US. This included health care for children and the elderly, and both minor (blood donation, physicals, skin growth removal) and major (broken hip, eye infection) procedures.

Thinking a bit more about this I realized that there were four essential facts that emerged from this wide variety of experiences. In every industrialized country except the US,

  1. Equitable: Everyone has the right to health care.
  2. Effective: People live longer, healthier lives.
  3. Economical: They spend less on health care, as much as 50% less.
  4. Efficient: There is much less bureaucracy, fewer forms, less running around, less waiting.

dollarI might add a fifth point, too: The scare stories that we hear (“you have to wait forever!” “you can’t choose your doctor!”) are simply false, or they index issues that are the same or worse in the US. The information we get about health care promotes profit, not health.

There are many issues–changing demographics, new technologies, new medical knowledge, changing standards, globalization, and more–which affect health care. But the fundamental difference in the current US situation is that health care is driven by the bottom line. Insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, media corporations, hospitals and clinics, doctors and other health care professionals, and all others involved in health care operate in a system in which rewards bear little relation to the overall quality of care or efficient use of resources.

One can debate each of the points above, but the evidence from OECD, UN, WHO, WTO, and other international organizations is overwhelming in support of them. Other systems offer health care that is more equitable, more effective, more economical, and more efficient.

So, why is single-payer, or national health care not even worth discussing? Why does the Obama plan dismiss it? Why does even public broadcasting ignore it?

In This World

in this world-2There are times when a movie just grabs me, despite technical flaws, my low expectations, and even a boring DVD case cover. In This World is one of those. The political message is clear, but understated, conveyed instead by an intimate look at the consequences of war and greed on the lives of decent people.

The movie presents a fictitious journey that conveys disturbing truths of life “in this world” we inhabit. Although it’s low-key and rough as cinema, it produces an intimate connection to its characters, Afghan refugees Jamal and Enayatullah, as they travel from Shamshatoo refugee camp near Peshāwar, Pakistan, across Pakistan, through Iran, Turkey, Italy and France, towards London.

ITW_trailerLike thousands of others every year, their desperation feeds the multibillion dollar human smuggling business, an unconscionable stain on any of our pretensions to justice. The smuggling fuels crime, violence, corruption, illegal drug trade, and too often leads to death, no longer being “in this world.”

The actors are Afghan refugees themselves, and the encounters in the movie elide life and art. I was fascinated by the places they moved through, and their resourcefulness in learning how to cope with diverse languages and unscrupulous people.

The camps near Peshāwar are filled with people displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and later, US bombing. UNHCR says that there are currently “1.7 million registered Afghans in Pakistan, with 45 percent residing in refugee villages and the rest scattered among host communities.” But the total, including children born to refugees, may be several million. The humanitarian crisis is compounded now by two million civilians fleeing the fighting in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier.

Even though the story is depressing about our institutions, I finished it feeling hopeful about our human capacity. I wanted to travel the modern silk road and more still to learn about the world of these refugees and the policies that lead to their plight.

Single-payer health care: Why not?

180px-Roma_-_FatebenefratelliI’ve been fortunate to have traveled many places, and to have lived for extended periods in China, Australia, France, and Ireland. During those travels, my family has received health care on many occasions, including for our small children in China and Asutralia, my wife in Scotland, and my 87-year-old mother in Ireland.

This health care has come in a variety of forms, including treatment for my ten-year-old daughter’s eyes at the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God or Fatebenefratelli (see left), located on San Bartolomeo, the only island in the Tiber River in Rome. That hospital was built in 1584 on the site of the Aesculapius temple.

clontarfWe also faced emergency surgery for my mother’s hip at Beaumont Hospital in Dublin, Ireland and subsequent rehab at the Orthopaedic Hospital of Ireland in Clontarf (right). In China, we were served in medical facilities with separate queues for Western medicine (our choice) and traditional Chinese medicine (below left). I donated blood many times at the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, founded in 651 on the Ile de la Cité (below right). I’ve also observed, though not had to depend upon, health care in Russia and even in economically oppressed places such as Haiti.

beida_hospitalOn the whole, I’ve received excellent care in a variety of conditions. Individual health providers have been courteous, knowledgeable, and dedicated to their professions. For myself and my family, the experience of care did not depend on the setting or language, but rather on the ailment or the specific people providing care.

And yet, one thing stands out: Among the industrialized nations, the United States is the only one without universal health care. All of the others provide health care for all. They also do it primarily through single-payer systems.

The United States operates instead through a complex bureaucracy of insurance policies, doughnut hole prescription drug coverage, forms and regulations galore, massive administration, unnecessary and excessive procedures, complex and confusing tax codes, leading to escalating costs and unfair coverage. The inequity of care actually costs all of us more in the end, because of lack of preventative care, inefficient delivery (e.g., emergency rooms), and lost productivity. Our system costs much more, even double that found in other countries.

hotel_dieuIf we were to find that spending a few dollars more gave us better care, there might be little room for argument. But in comparable economies, people spend much less, yet have longer, healthier lives (American Health Care: A System to Die For: Health Care for All). Why then, is the system that works in Canada, Japan, Europe, Australia, etc., not even under consideration here?

The answer is unfortunately all too obvious: Americans, unlike citizens in other countries, have ceded control of their own health care to profit-making insurance companies, hospitals, clinics, laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, and other entities. The best we can do is an occasional feeble cheer when someone asks why our government can’t even consider a single-payer system. Then we listen to an answer that mostly obfuscates and lays the blame for it back on our own timidity:

Louise Michel, the Paris Commune, and Learning

The Women IncendiariesLast Monday night, we visited Square Louise Michel at the foot of Sacre Coeur in Paris. The park and the nearby streets of Montmartre are a living history book, with every cobblestone suggesting times of struggle, hope, fear, and disillusionment. Staying there for a few days makes me feel that I just have to share some thoughts about the Paris Commune and Louise Michel.

There was a time when I knew very little about the Paris Commune, which held Paris for two months in the spring of 1871. It wasn’t part of my history lessons in school, nor did it enter into political debates or everyday conversations. As I read, I began to see references to it—”the democratic and social republic!”, the petroleuses, the horrible siege prior to the commune, which led to the eating of zoo animals, the Federales’ Wall, early establishment of rights for women, why Sacre Coeur was built—but these references were disjointed, so that much what I did know was confused and contradictory. It took living in Paris for a year to help me understand more of what it was about.

I knew even less about Louise Michel, one of the heroes of the Paris Commune, and as I’m learning, much more besides. But I feel a shiver now whenever I think of her. I’m amazed by her passion and ideals, the violence in her life, her writing, her work as an educator in many senses of that word, and her life fully lived.

Louise MichelFor a long time Michel was the only woman other than saints to have a Paris métro named after her. The recent renaming of the Pierre Curie métro to Pierre et Marie Curie makes two (or one and a half). Schools all over France bear her name as well. She comes alive in books such as Édith Thomas’s The Women Incendiaries (reprinted by Haymarket Books, 2007; original in French in 1963). I think of her when I play Le Temps des Cerises, a song often associated with the commune and with Michel, even though it was written five years before the Commune.

I’ve also learned that she was an early practitioner of what I’d call inquiry-based teaching and learning. She was a continual learner, inspired by the works of Charles Darwin and Claude Bernard. As a school teacher, she used methods promoted in the progressive education movement (which came much later): interaction with objects such as flowers, rocks, and animals, studies outdoors, and scientific methods. She declared,

The morality I was teaching was this: to develop a conscience so great that there could exist no reward or punishment apart from the feeling of having done one’s duty, or having acted badly.

After the Commune fell, Michel was deported to New Caledonia. Unlike her jailers and many of the other Communards, she befriended Polynesians. She gave lessons to one in “the things whites know,” while he taught her his language. Later, she ventured deep into the forest to work with and study groups still practicing cannibalism. She collected their legends and music as a modern ethnographer might do. When there was a native revolt, Michel joined the side of the Polynesians. Throughout, she wrote poetry, prose, and letters on behalf of prisoner rights.

Later, she opened a school in London for the children of political refugees (The International School). There was a statement in the prospectus taken from Mikhail Bakunin’s God and the State:

All rational education is at bottom nothing but this progressive immolation of authority for the benefit of liberty, the final object of education necessarily being the formation of free men full of respect, and love for the liberty of others.

As infed says, there were no compulsory subjects, teaching was in small groups, and there was an emphasis on rational and integral education. Often, groups of children would bring their own ideas about what to study. Michel wanted students to learn to think for themselves, just as she did herself and encouraged others to do throughout her life.

Louise Michel was a complex person whose every year might fill the life for someone else; a blog post feels totally inadequate. Moreover, one might criticize both the Commune and her participation on many grounds. Nevertheless, her commitment to social justice, her caring for all life, her passion for learning and teaching, her striving for women’s rights and democracy in general, her unselfish work on behalf of others, her strong moral stance, and her unfailing courage set a mark to inspire anyone.


  • Michel, Louise (2004). Louise Michel [Rebel lives series, Nic Maclellan, ed.). New York: Ocean.
  • Saudrais, Hélène (2005). Louise Michel. Amsterdam: International Institute of Social History.
  • Thomas, Édith (2007/1963). The women incendiaries. Chicago: Haymarket Books (reprinted in 2007; original in French, Les Petroleuses, in 1963).

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Buffon’s plaqueAfter being inspired by George Reese’s work with Buffon’s needle, then seeing the movie, Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf), then Buffon’s statue in the Jardin des Plantes, I’ve kept an eye out for Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. He did amazing work in natural history, mathematics, biology, cosmology, translation, and essays. He also examned alleged specimens for the beast of Gévaudan, which provided the basis for the movie.

On Sunday we saw his house in Dijon (where he lived from 1717 to 1742), on naturally, rue Buffon.

From his Wikipedia entry you can follow links to Buffon’s needle.