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Paul Valéry on Diplomas and the Baccalaureate

Excerpt from Le bilan de l’intelligence (1935)

I never hesitate to declare that the diploma is the mortal enemy of culture. The more important diplomas have become in life (and this importance has only increased because of economic circumstances), the lower the performance of education has been. The more control was exercised and extended, the worse the results became.

Bad for its effects on the public mind and on the mind itself. Bad because it creates hopes, illusions of acquired rights. Bad by all the tricks and subterfuges it suggests; the recommendations, the strategic preparations, and, in short, the use of all expedients to cross the dreaded threshold. This, it must be confessed, is a strange and detestable initiation of intellectual and civic life.

Moreover, if I rely on experience alone and if I look at the effects of control in general, I find that control, in all matters, results in vitiating the action, in perverting it… I have already told you: as soon as an action is subjected to control, the deep purpose of the one who acts is no longer the action itself, but designing the forecast of the control, the defeat of the means of control. The control of studies is just a special instance and a striking demonstration of this very general observation.

The fundamental diploma in our country is the baccalaureate. It has led to the orientation of studies towards a strictly defined programme and in consideration of tests which, above all, represent, for examiners, professors and patients, a total, radical and uncompensated loss of time and work. From the day you create a diploma, a well-defined control, you immediately see a whole system organised around it, no less precise than your programme, whose sole aim is to conquer this diploma by all means. The purpose of teaching is no longer to train the mind, but to acquire the diploma, it is the minimum required that becomes the subject of the studies. It is no longer a question of learning Latin, or Greek, or geometry. It is about borrowing, not acquiring, borrowing what it takes to complete the baccalaureate.

That’s not all. The diploma provides society with the shadow of a guarantee, and graduates with the shadow of rights. The graduate is officially considered as knowledgeable: he keeps all his life this certificate of a momentary and purely expedient science. On the other hand, in the name of law, this graduate is inclined to believe that we owe him something. Never before has a convention been established that is more harmful to everyone, to the State and to individuals (and, in particular, to culture). It is in consideration of the diploma, for example, that the authors’ reading has been replaced by the use of abstracts, textbooks, extravagant science tablets, collections of ready-made questions and answers, digests and other abominations. As a result, nothing in this altered culture can help or suit the life of a developing mind.

Paul Valéry, Le bilan de l’intelligence (1935), in Variété, Œuvres, t. 1, Gallimard, Pléiade, p. 1076.

Source (French): Revue (

NB: Paul Valéry’s work is in the public domain since 2018 January 1st

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