If Claude Allegre, the education minister, has his way, future teachers of English, Spanish or Italian will be able to get by without ever having read Shakespeare, Cervantes or Dante.
Following a meeting between ministry officials and university representatives last month, a draft reform of recruitment exams for language teachers is circulating among academics and reactions are beginning to emerge. Adolphe Haberer, the president of the Association of English language teachers in higher education, considers that "the future of our academic field is at stake".
Under the present system, students wishing to become secondary-school teachers must, after graduating, stay on at university for one more year to prepare the Certificat d'aptitude pedagogique a l'enseignement secondaire. A minority go for the more selective agregation. In addition to testing students on a literature and civilisation curriculum, the CAPES assesses written and oral linguistic skills. Successful students then spend a year at teacher training colleges.
What the ministry wishes to do is downgrade the literature and history content of the CAPES - which some officials consider too difficult and irrelevant to teachers' needs - to a "general culture" paper which would include questions on the previous year's events.
Academics worry that a reform of the CAPES will in turn affect the degree curriculum. Traditionally, the content of French university degrees, especially in the humanities, were designed with the CAPES in mind, regardless of whether graduates will actually go on to become teachers. The incentive for in-depth reading of the classics will be undermined if this is no longer required for the CAPES.
Some teachers see in the reform a contempt for the pupils. English teachers bring lessons to life by getting pupils to enact some of the slapstick humour in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Spanish teachers wow teenagers with excerpts from Federico Garcia Lorca's powerful drama. "Language is not just a set of phrases, it is a culture. Literature gives you a knowledge of people that is at least as important as mastering the language they speak," observes Jeanne Mota, a secondary-school teacher.
If the reform goes ahead, the gap will widen between the majority of schools, which will have teachers with the new CAPES and a few prestigious lycees, which will ensure that their teachers have the agregation.