Teachers relive the French Revolution
New York — AS momentous events go, the French Revolution has a lot of staying power. It was only in the last decade that historian Fran,cois Furet announced with finality, ``The French Revolution is over.'' And as a spate of recent scholarship shows, the end of the revolution is by no means the end of the debate and study about its meaning.
Next year's bicentenary of the French Revolution promises to give renewed vigor to the topic, and 37 high school teachers in New York City are prepared to make the most of the occasion.
They have been living and breathing 18th-century France during a four-week Summer Institute at New York University. In addition to the predictable exposure to the key events - the guillotines and bread riots, the storming of the Bastille, Marie Antoinette's comment ``Let them eat cake'' - the course focused on the role of the arts in the revolution, and on the revolution's political legacy.
``You're giving so much out when you're teaching. It's a luxury to sit back and learn,'' says Artemis Stamatopoulos, who teaches social studies at Buckley, a private school in Manhattan.
``They've given you resources so you can follow through on your own,'' she adds, referring to the scholars who lectured to the group each morning.
One such resource was a collection of some 300 songs that Prof. Philippe Roger brought with him from Paris. Mariette Bermowitz, a French teacher at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, plans to use about 20 of them with her students in the coming year.
``The tune carries the language,'' she explains. The music will implant language patterns, but it will also give students a sense of the changing attitudes in 1789 as the Third Estate - the middle class - rose from political weakness to transform French society.
``The songs get more and more revolutionary as time passes,'' Ms. Bermowitz says.
These songs were just part of the banquet of French history that was spread out for the participants. Each teacher was exposed, through extensive readings as well as lectures and workshops, to a range of material that could be adapted to his or her own classroom.
The participants, who were drawn from all five boroughs of the city, included seven teachers at private or parochial schools. Their subject areas range from social studies and history to English, French, and art.
Each afternoon they divided into workshops to discuss what they were learning and how the material could best be taught. Although the teachers made no effort to reach a consensus, many of them said the opportunity to talk with other teachers was a welcome change from the typical school day.
``As a teacher you're atomized, each in your own classroom,'' says Vincent Brevetti, who teaches social studies at Humanities High School in Manhattan. ``There's no time created to talk with colleagues,'' he complains.
The Summer Institute helps bridge the gulf between university professors and high school teachers, which is refreshing for both groups, says Leslie Berlowitz, who directed the program for New York University. She said the university intentionally sought participants from the local area, rather than trying to attract teachers from other parts of the country.
The university's plan was one of about 60 enrichment programs for teachers nationwide to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) this year. Other programs focused on topics that ranged from ``The World of Leonardo da Vinci'' to ``The Islamic Historical Experience.
``The whole idea is to emphasize the content of education, not just the process,'' says Lynn Cheney, chairman of NEH. These programs are ``absolutely the best way of giving teachers renewal.''
A second grant from the National Endowment will allow New York University to extend its commemoration of the French Revolution through a series of lectures and other events over the next year and a half.
French President Fran,cois Mitterrand will kick off the lecture series when he addresses New York University's inaugural convocation in September. There will also be theater productions and special courses on the revolution.
An exhibition of 190 prints from France's Biblioth`eque Nationale will put the revolution on display in New York early next year. The exhibition opens at the University of California at Los Angeles on Nov. 1, then travels to New York in January and February of 1989. It will return to France well before Bastille Day next July.
UCLA is playing host to a West Coast version of New York University's commemoration. It is Louisiana, however, with its strong French heritage, that will probably outpace everyone but the French themselves in outright celebration.
But in looking back on France's daring and bloody experiment, the best commemoration may be a thoughtful one. As New York University president John Brademas suggested, the Summer Institute should help ensure that the revolution is ``not just celebrated, but cerebrated.''