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Le Quaternaire dans l'enseignement secondaire français : sa disparition aujourd'hui à la lumière des enjeux socioculturels de son introduction au 19ÈME siècle

The Quaternary in French secondary school: its disappearance today in light of the sociocultural stakes of its introduction during the 19TH century
Marie Pierre Quessada et Pierre Clément
p. 209-214


The Quaternary is disappearing from French syllabi. The current Earth and Life Sciences curriculum for the French seventh grade (pupils from 13 to 14 years old) includes the example “of the paleogeographic and climatic changes of the Quaternary Era.” Historical Geology will disappear completely from the future seventh grade syllabus. From 1994 to 2001, in the twelfth grade science track class (pupils from 17 to 18 years old), the teaching proposed “to reconstruct the paleo-environments in which the human line evolved during the Quaternary”. It was replaced in 2001 by a topic entitled “From the geological past to the future evolution of the planet,” in which the past planetary climates are studied. We are currently witnessing an upheaval in the conceptions presented in French secondary school programs. Since 1966, with the reintroduction of the teaching of Human Evolution in the twelfth grade, the study of the Quaternary has been linked to the study of human origins. This corresponds with what we will call the quaternarist anthropocentric conception. Today, education is oriented toward what we will call an environmentalist conception, centred on climatic studies.
Following the model of Bachelard (1938), our didactic approach includes both an epistemological and a historical approach. By comparing the conceptions in secondary school curricula with scientists’ conceptions, it is possible to develop hypotheses to explain the dynamics of the didactic transposition of knowledge. We have shown in a work based on the teaching of Human Evolution during the 19th and 20th centuries (Quessada & Clément, 2006), that the syllabi changes follow the changes in scientific references. However, the delay in the transposition of these changes is heavily influenced by the values promoted by the academic institution as well as by the socio-political issues of the day. Using a similar approach, we will attempt to identify the values associated with teaching the Quaternary. Given the previous research, we have chosen to focus the current study on the 19th century, during which the Quaternary was introduced into the curricula.
From 1814 to 1864, before the introduction of the Quaternary to the curricula, the teaching of Historical Geology develops following catastrophist and creationist conceptions, even though a full blown scientific controversy is raging at the time. The actualist and evolutionist conceptions are not transferred to secondary education. Neither the Quaternary nor quaternaryman is included even though the term Quarternary is defined by the geologist Jules Desnoyers in 1829 and the concept of the Pleistocene is established in 1839 by the English geologist Charles Lyell.
This directed transposition can be explained by both the scientific and political influence of Cuvier as well as by the educational system’s objectives and the socio-political context of the time. This quote from Victor Cousin,Minister of State Education in 1840 testifies: “it (the teaching of Natural History) generates, so to speak, a natural theology which shows to pupils the hand of Divine Providence, impressed everywhere in the design of this world and the organization of the beings which live in it. Thus presented, the teaching of Natural History will leave deep marks on the intelligence and even in the soul of pupils”.
From 1865 to 1912, we witness the entry of the Quaternary and prehistoric man into the syllabi with a progressive movement towards evolutionary actualist ideas. The programs of 1912 represent a breaking point with the abandonment of the teaching of Human Evolution in the twelfth grade, followed by the disappearance of the term Quaternary from middle school education. The introduction of the Quaternary in secondary education during the second half of the 19th century is certainly related to scientific advances. The division of time is refined with the introduction of the Holocene in 1867 by Paul Gervais. After the 1856 discovery of Neanderthal man, the idea of quaternary man is accepted by the scientific community. The transfer to the syllabi is rapid however, which may be explained by the socio-cultural context of the moment: developments in education; popularisation of scientific knowledge, notably with respect to prehistoric man, inciting immense interest; and the importance of humanistic values associated with those of progress and faith in science.We can also link this change in the syllabi with the project to secularise republican schools. At this time, Edmond Perrier, zoologist and evolutionist wrote in Buisson’s pedagogical dictionary (1882): “Natural history … has fought in close combat with ancient philosophies, doing away with old legends one by one, and is now preparing for its toughest battle yet, the most profound revolution ever achieved in the philosophical, political and religious orders”. The struggle for the secularisation of thought relies heavily on a scientific approach to the origins of man, reinforced by the temporal framework of a specific geological era: the Quaternary.
We have demonstrated the relationship between the rapid introduction of the Quaternary Period into 19th century curricula and the socio-political context of the times. How then is the contemporary socio-political situation related to the disappearance of the Quaternary from the most recent curricula?
We must consider the debates and current issues occurring within the quarternarist community (Gradstein & Ogg, 2004). The geological time scale is not the expression of strict, general rules of nomenclature but rather the juxtaposition of periods presenting different tools of dating, the legacy of Historical Geology’s complex history (Odin G.S et al., 2005). The inclusion or exclusion of the Quaternary period in or from stratigraphic charts depends on the recognition of a major geological event at the end of the Cenozoic. The rank of the Quaternary within the geological time scale is partly related to the acceptance or denial by the scientific community of the emergence of the genus Homo as a major event. G.S. Odin’s daring proposal during the conference “Le quaternaire, limites et spécificités” in February 2006 to divide Geological time into three major periods (a time without the biosphere; a time when the biosphere is present and its evolution is related to nonhuman factors; and an anthropozoic time, corresponding to the Quaternary, where mankind’s influence dominates the biosphere) would have the advantage of epistemological clarity. The risk of such an approach, however, is that it may appear anthropocentric. But by attempting to avoid this finalistic, anthropocentric trap, don’t we risk falling into the trap of denying the singularity of the human species and its impact on the rest of the biosphere?
The disappearance of the quaternaristic, anthropocentric conception from French curricula is almost simultaneous with the questioning of the existence of the Quaternary by the authorities of the international commission of stratigraphy. The delay in the transposition is therefore extremely short. In this case, the struggle against didactic obsolescence, one of the rules of didactic transposition, cannot be the only explanation for the curricula modifications. Other explanatory hypotheses must be sought which take into account the values which the educational system seeks to promote. Since the mid-20th century, global conflicts and ecological catastrophes have modified the conception of man and science that was in effect at the end of the 19th century. Humankind may now be perceived negatively, as a threat to the planet. Consequently, the curricula have been refocused on the study of the planet, incorporating the objectives of Environmental Education for sustainable development presented in national and international publications. Moreover, the beginning of the 21st century has seen a renewal of spiritualistic tendencies, refuting Darwinism to the benefit of finalistic theses. Human evolution could disappear from middle school education to avoid creationist reactions from students and their families.
The current trends in curricula dealing with teaching the Quaternary correspond both to new scientific references and to new values within not only the educational system but also on the wider scale of the current socio-political context (alarmist media coverage of climatic changes, a resurgence of spiritualism, the struggle against creationism and finalism, the decline of humanism). Rather than erasing the Quaternary from the syllabi, shouldn’t we use it as an example of the dynamic nature of scientific knowledge construction and the relationships between science and values? By avoiding a dogmatic approach to science, this proposal would promote the development of students’ critical skills.

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Marie Pierre Quessada et Pierre Clément, « Le Quaternaire dans l'enseignement secondaire français : sa disparition aujourd'hui à la lumière des enjeux socioculturels de son introduction au 19ÈME siècle », Quaternaire, vol. 18/2 | 2007, 209-214.

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Marie Pierre Quessada et Pierre Clément, « Le Quaternaire dans l'enseignement secondaire français : sa disparition aujourd'hui à la lumière des enjeux socioculturels de son introduction au 19ÈME siècle », Quaternaire [En ligne], vol. 18/2 | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2010, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/quaternaire.1060

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Marie Pierre Quessada

LIRDEF (Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire de Recherche en Didactique Education et Formation – Didactique et Socialisation) – C.C. 089, Université Montpellier 2, 34095 Montpellier Cedex 5, France. Tel./Fax : +33 467.14.32.87. E-mail :

Pierre Clément

LIRDHIST (Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire de Recherche en Didactique et en Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques), Equipe Didactique de la Biologie et de l’Environnement, Université Lyon 1, 69622 Villeurbanne Cedex, France. E-mail : Pierre.Clement@univ-lyon1.f

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