Teaching Diderot at schools and universities
The place of Diderot in teaching, curriculums, and textbooks is a complex question. The history of the presence or absence of the author in the educational institution is indeed rich in twists and turns reminding us that, in many ways, Diderot is not or has not been considered as an author like the others.
If literary history and the French school curriculums have for a long time given a significant place to Diderot, one remembers that, in their important anthology, Lagarde and Michard (who were literature professors and later general inspectors of the French national education system) devote much fewer pages to Diderot than to Voltaire and Rousseau, with a presentation which is biased to say the least (Textes et littérature : les grands auteurs français du programme, Bordas, t. IV on the 18th century, 1953). As Jean-François Halté and André Petitjean have shown (“Pour une théorie de l'idéologie d'un manuel scolaire. Le Lagarde et Michard : le cas Diderot”, Pratiques, n°1-2, 1974, p. 43-64), in addition to the methodological tendencies of the textbook’s designers, the presentation of Diderot is the result of more or less assumed ideological choices. For example, instead of looking at the specific meaning of sensibility in Diderot and its materialist scope, Lagarde and Michard prefer to relate it to temperament, to an era, following a trend that would announce Romanticism. This case, among others, reminds us that to make a place for Diderot, while other authors are forgotten, is to determine this place and, sometimes, to arrange it to defuse what is considered subversive.
As far as philosophy is concerned, the one called by his contemporaries “the Philosopher” was for a long time forgotten or repressed. From the end of the 18th century, at a time when his materialism earned him condemnation in favor of Rousseau or Voltaire, the presence of our author in the new educational institutions remained obscure. Thus, as Caroline Warman has shown (The Atheist’s Bible. Diderot and the Eléments de physiologie, Cambridge, Open Book Publishers, 2020), if the manuscript of the Eléments de physiologie is used in their courses by Garat (at the École Normale) or Destutt de Tracy and Cabanis (at the Institut), it is in a roundabout way, without explicit mention of Diderot.
For the contemporary period, we note that Diderot only made his entry among the authors of the high school senior curriculum in 2003 - he is already present in the curriculum proposals of the years 2000-2003. It is probably not surprising that, during the 19th century, the teaching of philosophy structured according to the principles of Victor Cousin made little room for Diderot, who was absent from the list of authors in the official curriculum. But this absence remains striking when one sees that, in the 1902 curriculum, the names of Hume, Condillac, Montesquieu, and Rousseau appear, but still not that of Diderot!
This is all the more significant since, around the centenary of the philosopher’s death in 1884, a philosophical, scholarly tradition interested in materialism and empiricism, often marked by positivism, had promoted the figure of Diderot. If our author is often made a precursor of Lamarck, Darwin or contemporary medicine, or even, like E.-M. Caro (“Diderot inédit, d'après les manuscrits de l'Ermitage”, first part: “L'idée du transformisme chez Diderot”, Revue des Deux Mondes, 3e période, tome 35, 1879, p. 825-860), a thinker with “prophetic” theories, he remains in the background of the philosophy curriculums.
These few milestones suggest that the presence and absence of Diderot in educational institutions and the resources that accompany it constitute an interesting project, to which this section would like to contribute by cross-referencing texts and references to works on the subject.
The Société Diderot is currently considering the constitution of a survey on “The place of Diderot in school textbooks”, whether they be literature or philosophy textbooks. It invites secondary school teachers of literature and philosophy, students, educational inspectors, academics, and researchers to participate.
To be continued!