I am a French journalist living in
London and - more relevant for the purpose of this email - an avid listener of
I enormously enjoyed all your
appearance on that show and was recently reminded of the last one while re-reading
a passage from the autobiography of the French philosopher Jean-François Revel.
This anecdote, I feel, vividly
illustrates your ideas on education as signalling.
A few words of context first: in
1943 Revel, aged 19, was admitted to France's elite Ecole normale supérieure.
He also joined a resistance network as a part-time courier. The next
spring the commander of his partisan group urged him to take his end-of-year
exams ("I don't want to be responsible for ruining your
studies.") But by June, the world was collapsing around Revel.
The Nazis had arrested most of the network, and he had to flee to the relative
safety of Lyon.
But he had one last oral exam to
take at the Sorbonne before leaving. To expedite his exit, he left his suitcase
a nearby restaurant (called Capoulade) so that he could head straight to the
Gare de Lyon afterwards.
So on 6 June 1944, he sits down
for his philosophy oral; his examiner, a then-prominent professor named Étienne
Souriau, asks him: "Is matter capable of thinking?"
"I found it difficult
not to giggle (...) As we were talking, Allied and German forces were
slaughtering each other on Normandy beaches and our future depended on that
battle; Grappin [his partisan commander] and other friends were being
interrogated by the Gestapo; I could hear the distant sound of bombs falling,
probably on Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, a railway hub the Royal Air Force was
destroying every few days (ending all chances of a swift departure for
Lyon). And in those times of tribulation and fear, I was being asked
whether matter was capable of thinking! I succeeded in silencing my own
amusement, summoned all the resources of my verbal and intellectual virtuosity,
and improvised a frenetic monologue in which philosophers were slugging it out,
from Hegel to Democritus, Helvetius, Spinoza, Engels, Empedocles and...
Souriau. For historical objectivity demanded, in an exam, to always
remember to mention the contribution to universal thought made by the maestro
quizzing you (...) In the hours following my summing-up, I successively
picked up a good mark, an honorable mention, and my suitcase at
(Jean-François Revel, Le Voleur dans la maison vide,
Plon, 1997, pp. 117-118)
The signalling nature of Revel's
education is put into stark relief here. The skills he was able to
demonstrate were not just useless in the short term: the act of demonstrating
them increased the risk of catastrophic capture. Yet in the long
run the signalling effect proved effective. Being an alumnus of the ENSmeant being recognised as part of France's intellectual elite; ultimately
his formidable rhetorical talents and encyclopaedic knowledge would earn him
Incidentally Revel - who died 10
years ago - was France's most pro-American thinker since Tocqueville. He
is the author of Without Marx or Jesus (1970) and Anti-Americanism