Tuesday, 11 December 2012

'Children, today's homework is to write an essay on your reasons for committing suicide'

That was, in essence, the subject of a homework essay given by a teacher to his class of 14 and 15-year-olds at a school in Montmoreau-Saint-Cybard in the Charente region, and it is causing quite a stir in parental and education circles.

The wording of the subject matter to be addressed by the children in their essays was;

'You have just turned 18. You have decided to end your life. Your decision seems to be irrevocable. You decide at the last minute to explain the reasons behind your act. Whilst writing your self-portrait you describe all the self-disgust you feel. Your text will retrace some of the events in your life which have led you to feel the way you do.'

Unsurprisingly, some parents complained to the school about the subject of the essay, saying that it wasn't suitable for children of that age, and the teacher has been suspended pending the outcome of an internal inquiry into his methods. Most parents held an opposing view however, and they are demanding that the teacher, who they say has a good reputation, be reinstated immediately. They point out that although the homework was given on October 22 no complaints were made until recently, which they say indicates that the great majority of the children were quite happy to do the essay, that they considered it to be a piece of fiction, and that they felt no desire to complain to their parents or the school.

It would be easy, understandable even, to side with those parents who were not happy that their children were given this essay to write but to do so would be an error as it would be tantamount to denying an uncomfortable truth, which is that children naturally consider the question of suicide.

After all, most children of that age or even younger think about the nature of suicide at one time or another, and some of them actually do commit suicide, or try to with varying degrees of intent, a fact which is borne out by evidence which demonstrates that suicide is the second leading cause of death among French children and young adults aged 15 to 25.

And it is only one or two years later that many French children begin their introductory studies of philosophy, a discipline in which the analysis of the nature of life, death and suicide is a fundamental component. One of the philosophers they may study is Camus, a man who offered the following point of view on the very nature of philosophy; "There is but one true serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." And what of this, by Montaigne, the well known 'father of skepticism' and intellectual who held the opinion that "philosophy is about learning how to die."

If it is acceptable to teach children the writings of these and others who hold similar opinions on death and suicide why is it a bad idea for them to write about the issues they raise? It would be an insult to their intelligence to consider that they are not capable of expressing their own thoughts on these aspects of our existence, and denying their right to express their personal impressions on them would be a grave error. Children commit suicide sometimes and so do many adults, particularly in France, as I wrote here, and the impression of having nobody to share ones problems with is known to be a factor in a high number of cases.

The ongoing inquiry into into the teacher's decision to give this homework topic will include an analysis of the way it was presented to the pupils and that is to be applauded because if there were any obvious pedagogical errors in his manner of presenting his topic the inquiry could draw up more specific guidelines for future use by the teaching profession and so much the better.

But whatever course of action they decide to take, the education system, as well as parents and adults in general cannot simply wish suicide away as if it didn't exist and pretend that it doesn't concern children. It does, and it needs to be written and talked about.


  1. Aha Frip what a fascinating piece...and i agree with a lot of what you say.Better not to sweep away such questions but what if the teacher re-distributed finished essays to other students for them to reply to-the task being to convince the authors that life is worth living and that the future is theirs.

    1. Hi Ruth, and that's an excellent idea in principle and putting it into practice could help to save some kids who may be having dark thoughts about killing themselves. And it would also help those writing the replies to better understand how to help those they may know who are at risk. I haven't seen any French commentators mention this possibility but maybe someone will come up with it if this episode leads to some serious discussion about how best to go about getting kids to open up in a school environment.

      I realised earlier on rereading the blog that there's something I didn't mention blog but maybe should have, and that's the fact that suicide is a relatively taboo subject in Frace compared to many western countries. Theories on why that should be abound but my humble take is that it's a mix of 'familial/social failure shame' and the remnants of Catholic thought and attitudes which are still present here.

      Have a good evening!