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First words and how language began

Language: Unlocking the past’s most powerful secret

The to and fro that happens when we talk is key to understanding language, and challenges the way we view human nature, argue two books

Do linguists need to get away from the library and spend more time talking? Ever since Noam Chomsky revolutionised linguistics in the 1950s, research has focused on the structures underlying grammatically correct sentences and on our astonishing ability to both generate and understand an infinity of expressions. Now two new books separately argue that the to and fro of conversation is key to understanding language. If they are right, the idea of language as a computational system needs to make some room for that of language as a tool for cooperative communication.

Daniel Everett of Bentley University, Massachusetts, and Nick Enfield at the University of Sydney start from different places. Everett’s wide-ranging How Language Began is rooted in his 30 years working with tribal groups in the Amazon as an anthropologist. Enfield’s How We Talk comes out of the lab and speeds through extraordinary experiments on the fast-paced, interactive flow of conversation.

Everett has already had a famous debate with Chomsky and his colleagues, related in Everett’s bestseller Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. He set out as a missionary to live with the Pirahã, a group of Amazonian hunter-gatherers, aiming to learn their language and translate the New Testament into it. Instead, his encounter with this happy culture, which values “immediacy of experience” over unsubstantiated tales, led him to lose his faith and to discover that their language was unlike anything studied before.

How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention

“Very few books on the biological and cultural origin of humanity can be ranked as classics. I believe that Daniel L. Everett’s How Language Began will be one of them.”
– Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

“When I first became interested in cultural evolution, cognitive revolutionaries would say that Noam Chomsky had proved that an innate language acquisition device was the key to linguistics. Daniel Everett is a leader of the counterrevolution that is putting culture and cultural evolution back at the center of linguistics, and cognition more generally, where I think it belongs. How Language Began is an accessible account of the case for a culture-centered theory of language.”
– Peter Richerson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis

“Moving far outside historical linguistics, Everett credits Homo erectus with having invented language nearly two million years ago. This communicative invention came not―in Everett’s view―in one revolutionary breakthrough but, instead, at the slow pace typical of evolution, as early hominids gradually organized themselves in ever-more-complex social groupings, eventually learning to fashion culturally weighted symbols and then to manipulate such symbols in communicative strings, so setting the evolutionary stage for the planet’s only loquacious species: Homo sapiens. . . . Certain to spark that liveliest form of language―debate!”
– Bryce Christensen, Booklist

“[Everett] mixes esoteric scholarly inquiry with approachable anecdotal interludes to surmise how humans developed written and spoken language and why it became vital for survival and dominance. As in his previous books, Everett energetically attacks the long-accepted theory of Noam Chomsky that humans are born with the language instinct, including innate rules of structure….That Everett is skilled at leavening an intellectually challenging treatise with humor is evident on the first page of the introduction.”
– Kirkus Reviews

How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation


“Enfield makes a solid case for more focus—and fieldwork—on conversation as a key to understanding ‘what makes language possible in our species.’ He does all this in clear and casually authoritative prose…This survey performs the neat trick of offering enormous amounts of complex material in a format that remains utterly accessible.”
— Publishers Weekly

“If you think grammar is all about nouns, verbs, gender and the subjunctive, N.J. Enfield’s new book will transform what you think of language as being all about. At heart language is about communicating with others in rapid-fire conversation, and linguists have found that conversation has rules just as sentence-making does. You may have heard that ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ are universal words—but Enfield will teach you that ‘huh?’ is a third one. If you want to feel sophisticated just in being able to have a two minute conversation on the phone, How We Talk is the book for you.”
— John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University and author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black

“N. J. Enfield is one of the most brilliant, innovative, and insightful researchers to ever work on language as a cultural construct. How We Talk is a superbly readable summary of his and others’ work. It is a book that anyone interested in our species, communication, and the delight of learning should read. I loved every page of it.”
— Daniel L. Everett, author of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle and How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention

“N. J. Enfield’s new book explains how everyday conversation—language we just take for granted—is all at once both ordinary and extraordinary, and how that paradox defines our very humanity. Full of examples that feel familiar, it’s nonetheless a book full of surprises, written in a straightforward, friendly style distilled from long experience of making complicated things clear.”
— Michael Adams, Provost Professor of English, Indiana University at Bloomington, and author of In Praise of Profanity and Slang: The People’s Poetry

“N.J. Enfield’s How We Talk is a delight. The book is not about the grammar, vocabulary, or usage of language, but rather about how we collaborate with each other in everyday conversation. Enfield’s topics range from taking turns, forestalling delays, and assuring mutual understanding, to features of talk that are universal and play a role in the evolution of language. Enfield and his colleagues have investigated everyday talk in languages, both major and minor, from every corner of the world, so he is a true authority on these issues. Best of all, he makes these issues come alive for us readers.”
— Herbert H. Clark, Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Stanford University

First words: The surprisingly simple foundation of language

How children learn language is one of the oldest controversies in linguistics. But speaking may just be a matter of grasping the relationship between things

Sixty years ago, renowned Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner published one of the most important books ever written about language. Verbal Behavior offered a comprehensive account of our unique capacity for symbolic communication, arguing forcefully over nearly 500 pages that it was learned rather than innate. The culmination of years of work, it was certainly influential – although not in the way Skinner anticipated. Rather than propelling his ideas into the limelight, it sparked a counter-revolution that catapulted a rival theory to worldwide acclaim.

Now, though, that rival theory is in decline and some of Skinner’s ideas are making an unexpected comeback. In recent years, psychologists have discovered that language really is learned, emerging from some general skills that are taught to children in the first few years of life. Surprisingly, these are not grand intellectual feats. Rather they can appear almost trivial – as simple as grasping the relationships between things, such as a large ball and a small one.

The debate over the extent to which language is learned or innate is one of the most enduring in linguistics. Most children start to speak around age 2, and within a few short years are proficient, often prolific, users of language. Do they simply listen and learn, or are they born with some language facility that is filled in by the specifics of their native tongue?


বেঙ্গালোরের পুরনো স্মৃতি একটা টুইট কয়েকটা খোঁজ

Gangaram’s to move to St. Mark’s Road
November 25 2010

Gangaram’s is now set to shift to St Mark’s Road atop Koshy’s restaurant. The present building will be retained for a while to conduct some exhibitions that are lined up, besides a few sales activities.

A landmark on M G Road, Gangaram’s Book Bureau, is all set to vacate its current premises and shift in February 2011 to the new location, right above the Koshy’s restaurant on St Mark’s Road. Gangaram’s arrival on St Mark’s Road, at one end across Church Street, adds heft to the emergence of the latter as a book hub in addition to being the city’s foodie street. Church Street is already home to Blossom’s and the newly refurbished Variety Book Store. The main reason cited by Gangaram’s for the shift is the exorbitant rent sought by the building owner that’s almost eight times what is paid now. “They are charging Rs 300 per sq ft which is really high. Further, we also needed a location on a single floor and more space,’ Said Prakash Gangaram.

Presently, the book bureau is spread over three floors with a total 5,000 sq feet area comprising books (fiction, non-fiction and educational) with over 2 lakh active titles, greeting cards, hand-made paper and stationery. The new 7,200 sq ft area above Koshy’s will be exclusively for books. “We will continue to retain the old building for some more time. This, will however be used only for sales and exhibitions that we plan to start shortly,’’ Prakash added.

Their immediate new neighbour, Prem Koshy, is delighted. “We welcome them. It’s always a wonderful combo with a book store. Nothing like having an extensive book house above you. We were earlier neighbours with the British Council library for a good 30-40 years and now, we hope to continue the same with Gangaram’s,’’ he said.

Popular as one of the oldest book shops in Bangalore, Gangaram’s association with books started in 1965 as the Bangalore Book Bureau on a 500 sq ft area at Kapali Theatre complex. In May 1977, they shifted to M G Road, occupying one floor. In 1979, they expanded with separate floors for books and stationery. In less than a decade, in 1983, two more floors were added on. Today, they occupy a total four floors on the same building. With the original owner, Gangaram, passing away in April 2007, the business is now jointly run by his two sons.

The incredible story of 52 year old bookstore Sapna Book House
Aug 27, 2017

Sapna Book House positions itself as a family multi-brand retail store. It sells everything to do with the ecosystem of education and educational technology in India

The year was 1957 and a young man was working as a porter on Dadar railway station in Mumbai. As luck would have it, he had a chance encounter with the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, at the railway station. A brief conversation with the leader sparked an idea in the mind of Suresh Shah, who had quit college to support his family. He left his job at the railway station and joined Pocket Book Distributing Company in Mumbai as a bookseller. He started out as a salesperson in the company and was soon promoted as manager and later transferred to Chennai to head the firm’s new branch. The desire to start his own business, however, made the 27-year-old move to Bangalore in 1965 with his wife and Rs 150 in his pocket. On January 26, 1967, he opened his first bookshop, Sapna Book House, which sold Lilliput dictionaries. The 10×10 hole-in-the-wall shop at Gandhinagar soon became the largest bookstore in India, even finding mention in the Limca Book of Records for seven consecutive years. The rest can be qualified as a ‘rags-to-riches’ story, where a porter went on to become the owner of one of India’s largest bookstore chains.

Sapna Book House today occupies four lakh sq ft of retail space in Karnataka (primarily) and Tamil Nadu, with the average size of each store ranging between 15,000 sq ft and 20,000 sq ft. It has 16 large-format stores in total in the two states. The group now plans to open 50 more stores in the next five years in tier II and III cities, mostly in south India. “We cater to 60,000 customers a day, with a retail turnover of Rs 220 crore annually,” says 26-year-old Nijesh Shah, group president, Sapna Book House. He is the grandson of Suresh Shah—the 79-year-old is now retired from the business. “Each new store will require a basic investment of Rs 2.5-Rs 3 crore. As of now, we are looking at organic growth,” Shah says. The group is also not averse to private equity or raising funds through IPO. “If we get funding through equity, we can open 50 stores in the next three years,” he says.

Shah’s plans are especially significant at a time when bookshops and libraries are shutting down across cities. Most malls in the country either don’t have a bookshop or the ones that were there have shut down. All three big bookstore chains—Crossword, Landmark and Oxford—have shut at least one store in the past few years. Fact&Fiction, a popular bookshop in south Delhi, and Twistntales in Pune closed down two years back. There are more such examples in other cities. Publishing houses, on the other hand, are wooing readers with new initiatives. Last week, Penguin Random House India and The Book Fairies, a community of book lovers, came together to hide books in public places in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, which readers could pick up, read and pass on. Penguin Random House is also planning to make a new Web series based on a book by its bestselling author Durjoy Datta.

Clearly, it’s not easy to be a bookstore-owner these days. So how does Sapna Book House remain relevant in these times? “We don’t just sell books. We sell ourselves as a family multi-brand retail store. Simply put, we sell everything to do with the ecosystem of education and educational technology,” says Shah. Any store of Sapna Book House has around 5.5 lakh books, of which 40% are academic books. There is also a wide range of stationery, greeting cards, audiobooks, magazines, movies, music, baby products, sports goods, gift items, chocolates, gaming consoles like Xbox, boardgames and much more.

The group has its fingers in many pies. It has its own publishing outfits—Sapna Publications and Sapna Ink (self-publishing)—which have, so far, published 6,500 titles. “We are growing at an average rate of 1.5 new books a day, as we publish 650-700 titles a year,” says Shah. Sapna Book House is the sole distributor of NCERT textbooks in Karnataka and one of the three distributors in Tamil Nadu. It has an online retail store, an online test preparatory portal and another online vertical as well, which has tie-ups with schools in Bengaluru to sell their academic kits and uniforms. The company sells and exports stationery under its brand, Store 67. It also has tie-ups with public universities in Ghana, Africa, to develop social studies, English and math curricula for schools there.

Shah says they have recently come up with two new models: Sapna Express and Sapna Kiosk. The concept of Sapna Express is that of a small-format store, with 500-1,500 sq ft space, which caters to the specific requirements of a particular locality. “Currently, we have two (outlets of) Sapna Express, one in an engineering college and another in a medical college (both in Karnataka). They cater exclusively to the needs of students in those colleges,” says Shah. There are plans to expand Sapna Express to other states as well.

Under the Sapna Kiosk format, which is yet to be implemented, general stores, schools, libraries, etc, in rural areas across India will be provided with an electronic tablet, which would have Sapna Book House’s entire catalogue of 1.9 crore titles in the language specific to the area. “For instance, someone coming to a kirana shop in Erode (Tamil Nadu) to buy groceries can browse through our catalogue in Tamil and place an order (for a book). The store owner will vouch for our credibility,” says Shah. Interestingly, their success story is now part of a case study at Bangalore University. “None of our stores, so far, are franchised, so our involvement in each store is immense. We thrive on customer satisfaction,” Shah says. A skill that many in the industry would love to learn.

A golden era comes to an end
Feb 23, 2011

Once the most happening place in town and the scene of frequent political skullduggery, the hotel faded from memory after it shut shop more than a decade ago.

It is now set to be included in the list of landmarks that have been forever obliterated from the city’s skyline. In about a month’s time, the hotel will be levelled to make way for a 22-storey apartment block.

For young Bangaloreans, the name Cauvery Continental would not ring a bell, unlike perhaps names such as Plaza Theatre or Victoria Hotel would.

Yet, the hotel was the hub in the history of the city. This one-acre plot on Cunningham Road was the eye of the most powerful political storms that rocked the state.

It was the citadel of political manoeuvring during the Ramakrishna Hegde and Janata Party era and the most favoured hotel of top political leaders from Delhi.

Long before the grandeur of the Leela Palace, the sophistication of the Oberoi and the old world charm of the Taj descended on the city, this was the only hotel that could truly be called a ‘star hotel’. Looking at the shell which remains, it’s hard to even imagine that it lodged the likes of former prime minister Chandra Shekhar during its prime.

JD(S) leader Y V S Dutta recalled: “The hotel was inaugurated in the 70s by the then civil aviation minister, Sarojini Mahishi, a close friend of Chandra Shekhar. She recommended it to all the Delhi leaders because she cut the ribbon.

“After he stayed here (in suite No. 7) for the first time, Chandra Shekhar never looked at another hotel.”

It is here that a humble contractor, Deve Gowda, waited patiently for an audience with Chandra Shekhar, so as to gain a foothold in politics against his mentor Ramakrishna Hegde. From the decision to pull the rug from under S R Bommai’s government — it was here that clandestine meetings involving both Jeevraj Alva and Deve Gowda were held — to the split between Devaraj Urs and Sharad Pawar, almost every major political development in the 70s and 80s took place here.

JD(S) leader P G R Scindia said: “It was the only hotel that had facilities such as a round table and halls to hold press conferences and meetings, outside the Vidhana Soudha.

“So it was the preferred destination for leaders from Delhi. It was also popular because it was the only hotel that served north Indian food at that time.”

In 1983, Chandra Shekhar pitched tent here for 15 days while he attempted to play referee when Gowda, the then PWD minister, led an uprising against chief minister Hegde.

“Chandra Shekhar would hear Gowda and his supporters in the morning, while Hegde and his supporters would come with their side of the story in the evening. Of course, Chandra Shekhar could do nothing and the party split,” says a Janata Party leader who witnessed it all.

Cauvery Continental wasn’t famous only because of the big names who regularly stayed here.

S N S Rao, who managed the hotel from the time it opened, made its hospitality famous. From piping hot rava idlis served with small cups of ghee to yummy dosas, the menu was modelled on the same lines as the Airlines Hotel on St Marks Road.

“Rao was very discreet and political leaders trusted him,” a senior journalist who frequented the hotel said. “He was so passionate about his work that even after he suffered a paralytic stroke, which rendered one side of his body useless, Rao still drove to work with the one good hand he had to ensure everything was in place.”

Today, the hotel is just a plot of prime real estate. Mint Developers and Skyline Group are planning a Rs 200-crore joint venture of a luxury apartment complex in the area and, according to Avinash Prabhu, MD Skyline Group, the building is mostly scrap. “The flooring is faded, the panes are almost unusable. Only the main door, probably made from teak, holds some promise. We may use it as part of the club house.

“While we want to retain as much of history as possible, it will be very difficult,” Prabhu said.

অবমুক্ত খেরোখাতা

3,900 Pages of Paul Klee’s Personal Notebooks Are Now Online, Presenting His Bauhaus Teachings (1921-1931)

Paul Klee led an artistic life that spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, but he kept his aesthetic sensibility tuned to the future. Because of that, much of the Swiss-German Bauhaus-associated painter’s work, which at its most distinctive defines its own category of abstraction, still exudes a vitality today.

And he left behind not just those 9,000 pieces of art (not counting the hand puppets he made for his son), but plenty of writings as well, the best known of which came out in English as Paul Klee Notebooks, two volumes (The Thinking Eye and The Nature of Nature) collecting the artist’s essays on modern art and the lectures he gave at the Bauhaus schools in the 1920s.

“These works are considered so important for understanding modern art that they are compared to the importance that Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting had for Renaissance,” says Monoskop. Their description also quotes critic Herbert Read, who described the books as “the most complete presentation of the principles of design ever made by a modern artist – it constitutes the Principia Aesthetica of a new era of art, in which Klee occupies a position comparable to Newton’s in the realm of physics.”

More recently, the Zentrum Paul Klee made available online almost all 3,900 pages of Klee’s personal notebooks, which he used as the source for his Bauhaus teaching between 1921 and 1931. If you can’t read German, his extensively detailed textual theorizing on the mechanics of art (especially the use of color, with which he struggled before returning from a 1914 trip to Tunisia declaring, “Color and I are one. I am a painter”) may not immediately resonate with you. But his copious illustrations of all these observations and principles, in their vividness, clarity, and reflection of a truly active mind, can still captivate anybody — just as his paintings do.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Visionary Notebooks Now Online: Browse 570 Digitized Pages

Quick, what do you know about Leonardo da Vinci? He painted the Mona Lisa! He wrote his notes backwards! He designed supercool bridges and flying machines! He was a genius about, um… a lot of other… things… and, um, stuff…

Okay, I’m sure you know a bit more than that, but unless you’re a Renaissance scholar, you’re certain to find yourself amazed and surprised at how much you didn’t know about the quintessential Renaissance man when you encounter a compilation of his notebooks—Codex Arundel—which has been digitized by the British Library and made available to the public.

The notebook, writes Jonathan Jones at The Guardian, represents “the living record of a universal mind.” And yet, though a “technophile” himself, “when it came to publication, Leonardo was a luddite…. He made no effort to get his notes published.”

For hundreds of years, the huge, secretive collection of manuscripts remained mostly unseen by all but the most rarified of collectors. After Leonardo’s death in France, writes the British Library, his student Francesco Melzi “brought many of his manuscripts and drawings back to Italy. Melzi’s heirs, who had no idea of the importance of the manuscripts, gradually disposed of them.” Nonetheless, over 5,000 pages of notes “still exist in Leonardo’s ‘mirror writing’, from right to left.” In the notebooks, da Vinci drew “visions of the aeroplane, the helicopter, the parachute, the submarine and the car. It was more than 300 years before many of his ideas were improved upon.”

The digitized notebooks debuted in 2007 as a joint project of the British Library and Microsoft called “Turning the Pages 2.0,” an interactive feature that allows viewers to “turn” the pages of the notebooks with animations. Onscreen glosses explain the content of the cryptic notes surrounding the many technical drawings, diagrams, and schematics (see a selection of the notebooks in this animated format here). For an overwhelming amount of Leonardo, you can look through 570 digitized pages of Codex Arundel here. For a slightly more digestible, and readable, amount of Leonardo, see the British Library’s brief series on his life and work, including explanations of his diving apparatus, parachute, and glider.

And for much more on the man—including evidence of his sartorial “preference for pink tights” and his shopping lists—see Jonathan Jones’ Guardian piece, which links to other notebook collections and resources. The artist and self-taught polymath made an impressive effort to keep his ideas from prying eyes. Now, thanks to digitized collections like those at the British Library, “anyone can study the mind of Leonardo.”

The Sketchbook Project Presents Online 17,000 Sketchbooks, Created by Artists from 135 Countries

If you love something give it away.

If it doesn’t come back to you, it was never really yours…

Or, it’s a labor of love you created under the auspices of the Brooklyn Art Library, with the full knowledge that giving it away is a cost of participation.

Every year, thousands of artists, from the experienced to the fledgling, pay a nominal fee to fill a 5×7 sketchbook with a custom barcode. Upon completion, the books are to be mailed back to the one room Art Library, to become part of the permanent collection, currently over 34,000 volumes strong (17,000 of which appear online). Visitors receive free library cards that allow them to view as many volumes as they like in-house, three at a time.

Artists willing to cough up a slightly more substantial fee can have their book digitized for online viewing at The Sketchbook Project.

In their virgin state, the sketchbooks are uniform. From there, anything goes, provided they retain their original height and width, and swell to no more than an inch thick. (Messy, gooey books might face rejection, in part because they threaten to contaminate the herd.)

Dip in at random and you will find an astonishing array of finished work: messy, meticulous, intimate, inscrutable, self-mocking, sincere, abstract, narrative, carefully plotted, utterly improvisational, accomplished, amateur – rendered in a wide variety of media, including ball point pen and collage.

My favorite way to browse the collection, whether in person or online, is by selecting a theme, just as the artists do when signing up for the annual project. 2016’s themes include “sandwich,” “great hopes and massive failures,” and “Ahhh! Monster!”

(“I’ll choose my own theme” is a perennial menu offering.)

The theme that guided the artists whose work is published herein is “Things Found on Restaurant Napkins.” Would you have guessed?

You can also search on specific words or mediums, artists’ names, and geographic locations. To date, The Sketchbook Project has received sketchbooks by creative people from 135+ countries.

Those ready to take the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project plunge can enlist here. Don’t fret about your qualifications—co-founders Steven Peterman and Shane Zucker have made things democratic, which is to say uncurated, by design.

গানলেখক তাহমিনা তার ইংরেজি গান

গানলেখক তাহমিনার ইংরেজি গান Beautiful Girlz শুনে সুন্দরী নারীদের অসারতার গান অস্তিত্ব পেল মনে হল তার সামনে কার কী নৈবেদ্য হতে পারে কার কী কথা উন্মুখ হতে পারে তা ভাবতে ভাবতে বারবার শুনতে থাকার মতো চিন্তাস্রোত আবিষ্ট রাখে শ্রোতাকে।

Russian lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin on that notorious meeting at Trump Tower


Former Soviet army officer on the biggest political intrigue since Watergate

“Everyone takes money in this town; everyone fights someone here,” declares Rinat Akhmetshin, the man at the centre of the biggest political intrigue to hit America since Watergate. “They’re just like me; like mercenaries.” I raise my eyebrows at the m-word, and he goes on: “I spend other people’s money here to achieve other people’s goals.”

Before we meet for lunch, the former Soviet army officer turned DC lobbyist is described to me variously as a sharp political operator, dirty trickster, influence-peddler, hacker, loyal drinking buddy, charismatic opera-lover and Kremlin spy. Akhmetshin himself suggests he is something altogether simpler: someone who will do almost anything for money.

“In my line of work I really try to tell the best story I can and I will never say something which is not true,” he says.

One fact is not in dispute: in July he was unveiled as the mysterious attendee at a controversial meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 between senior aides of Donald Trump, including his son Donald Trump Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and a Russian lawyer. The encounter, which took place in the hurly-burly of last year’s presidential election campaign, is at the centre of the roiling scandal that has spawned counter-intelligence investigations that have damaged US-Russia relations and risk the remote possibility of the downfall of President Trump, as well as Akhmetshin himself.

At its heart are the incendiary claims that Russia sought to manipulate US elections, and that the Trump team colluded with this effort. Neither Trump Jr nor Kushner declared Akhmetshin’s presence in July 2017 when they revealed details of the meeting. Now he is sitting in front of me, hair piled high on his head, with outsize glasses and a squash of babyface features, and spinning yarns as he has done so successfully for so long in Washington DC.

Akhmetshin is a fixture on a lobbying scene that has long contributed to the city’s reputation as “the swamp”. Since arriving in the US 23 years ago, he has worked to advance the interests of Russian oligarchs and officials and businessmen from across Central Asia. He calculates he has worked on $12bn worth of arbitration actions, hiring PR companies and lobbyists on behalf of his clients, and dining out on their expense accounts. He has faced legal proceedings for accusations over hacking — later dropped — and says he has never done anything illegal. This spring, he put up his prices from $450 to $600 an hour. But that was “before the shit hit the fan”.

Over lunch, the 49-year-old hurtles his way to the end of each sentence without pause, using “f**k” the way millennials use “like”: constantly. He tells me he “almost certainly” has attention-deficit disorder. His choice of venue is as brazen as his avowals that he is blameless. We are plum in the centre of Mirabelle, just a block from the White House, a restaurant so luxurious they asked if it was a special occasion when I made the booking. The room of golden latticeworks and mirrors is packed with Washington power diners. It only opened in the spring, but Akhmetshin has already been “20 or 30 times”. Greeted warmly by staff, he embarks on a long meditation on the wonders of Islamic ornament and its deliberate imperfection, triggered by the interior design. “Only Allah is perfect,” he concludes. Then he orders us both pink champagne.

“Can I have mine maybe in a burgundy glass?” he asks the wine director, turning the exotic request into a friendly command. Then he turns to me conspiratorially and adds: “You know there are champagnes which you decant!”

Akhmetshin goes for Riesling with his rabbit pâté starter. Feeling chancey, I plump for Atlantic fluke marinated with pastis, with fennel purée, smoked trout roe and nasturtium to start; to follow I decide I’d better join Akhmetshin in the steak, which seems the most robust option to sustain what I gather will be a breakneck pace. White wine pairings duly arrive.

In Akhmetshin’s telling, he may be a mercenary but he knows his limits. “I will never f**k with Russian state,” he says in idiosyncratic English spoken with a light Russian accent. “I will never do things against Russian government. It’s stupid,” he tells me. “Simply, the stakes are too high.”

The more urgent question for now, however, is whether he will do things for the Russian government, and whether he can testify that Team Trump has lied about that fateful meeting. Akhmetshin was among a Russian group that, according to the British publicist who set up the meeting, promised information to Trump Jr as part of Russian government support that would “incriminate” his father’s rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton. The group, Akhmetshin’s detractors claim, was also seeking to repeal a 2012 US law, the Magnitsky Act, that had so incensed Moscow it promised retaliation.

The heat is rising. I’ve been tipped-off that Akhmetshin has already testified before the secret grand jury that former FBI head Robert Mueller has convened to probe allegations of Russian influence during the election campaign (his reply: “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, though he swiftly follows up with a promise of “full co-operation” with any investigation). He’s also likely to face subpoenas to be grilled in a slew of congressional hearings.

“I am a fighter; I like to fight,” is Akhmetshin’s response to attacks on him. Proving the point, he raises his thick-rimmed spectacles. The bridge of his nose is a misshapen zigzag — knocks he says he earned mostly during his time in barracks in the Soviet army.

Akhmetshin’s military experiences have fuelled the accusations that he is a spy. As a teenage army draftee, he says his job was to ferry briefcases of secret documents handcuffed to his wrist, accompanied by two men carrying Kalashnikovs. “In the east Baltics, between Latvia, Estonia, I’ve been in every military base.” When I ask about one of his nicknames, “Taliban”, and his stints in Afghanistan, where he worked in the 1980s and more recently, he says he’d rather not discuss this.

“It wasn’t by choice, trust me,” he says, eventually describing his posting as a demotion after he fell out with a new commander. In 1988, as the nine-year-old Soviet invasion of Afghanistan went into retreat, he manned a tunnel in the north directing traffic and smoked a lot of weed. He fleeced Afghans at the checkpoints, one of several youthful exploitative moneymaking schemes he recounts: in the Baltics, he sold army-rationed gasoline on the side; as a child, he recited the Koran for roubles, to the chagrin of his older sister.

His route to the heart of DC is baroque, to say the least. In 1992, after his first year as a chemistry student at Kazan State University, he was promoted to first lieutenant in “chemical defence”. He says he undertook training in the Ural Mountains but never actually served as an officer. Instead, he moved to the US to study biochemistry. Still in his twenties, he answered a job ad and became a go-to lobbyist on issues relating to the former Soviet Union. He built his way up thanks to the mentorship of Edward Lieberman, a lawyer whose late wife Evelyn was Bill Clinton’s White House deputy chief of staff and Hillary Clinton’s loyal protector. “I love him,” says Akhmetshin, who professes his hatred for neocon Republicans.

Our steaks come and go with barely a comment, although Akhmetshin and the wine director detour into a discussion of a spicy Syrah, named for salamanders who laze on rocks in the sun. We learn it has “great acidity”, which brings me back to my inquiry. He denies claims that he was a member of Russian military intelligence — “I was never good enough to be in GRU,” he laughs — yet offers me a history of his work supporting a different counter-intelligence group within the Soviet system. He says that in the late 1980s he spent two years working for the kommandant service, an army branch he says existed to provide protection and defence support to the osoby otdel (“special department”), a KGB unit attached to the military. One of its aims was to ensure the Russian army was free of foreign spies.

Though many in Congress and the media find his disavowals unconvincing, he insists he neither engages in espionage nor works for the Kremlin, though tells me he’s acquainted with plenty of spies. He says he can call on people from “The Agency” — shorthand for the CIA — in an instant. Before I even turned my tape recorder on he had pointed out a man at the cocktail bar who he tells me used to work in US intelligence. He claims links to French, British and German intelligence. Surely he must have similar access to Russian intelligence officers? “I have zero interest in working for Russian government,” he says. “I don’t want to complicate things and quite frankly they will never trust me because I hang out with too many Agency people.”

The wine director replaces my half-finished pink champagne — two new chilled glasses arrive, which appear to be on the house. “I cannot possibly drink anything else,” Akhmetshin declares. “Except they have this trolley of Armagnacs there.”

I offer him a less explosive way out: let’s say he is not a Russian spy. Is he worried they are working through him? “No I don’t think so, why? Who are they? They work through me in which sense?”

I put it to him that, despite his protests, much of what he does plays to the Kremlin agenda. “Look, for me, in my line of work, I’m not ideological.”

I return to my earlier question. If you’re in with intelligence networks, I say, surely you must be able to talk to Russian spies as well as American ones?

“I just don’t, I don’t, Russians will never trust me anything . . . they’re very suspicious people. I’ve been out here for such a long time they would not talk to me for that very reason.”

I raise another eyebrow — “Seriously,” he cuts in as we go to talk over one another — then an admission: “When I’m in Moscow I’ll go out drinking with these people,” he says. “They know who I am; and they know I’m a mercenary.”

Nothing he has said reveals he works in espionage but this is his most candid acknowledgment yet that he has a foot in both worlds. It also helps to explain how he came to find himself at the centre of the current scandal.

In 2012, US Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, after intensive lobbying by US-born fund manager Bill Browder, a former champion of Vladimir Putin who managed $4.5bn in assets in Russia before he fell out of favour in 2005. The act imposes asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials associated with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who worked for Browder, and who in 2008 uncovered a $230m fraud against the Russian treasury that he alleged was carried out by a criminal group together with senior Russian state officials. Magnitsky was investigated — Browder says by the very people he accused of carrying out the fraud — and died a year later in jail; an inquiry by a Russian presidential human rights group concluded he had been beaten to death.

So why was Akhmetshin in that meeting in Trump Tower? He says that he was working for a Russian-funded, US-registered foundation dedicated to overturning the “inhumane” ban on US adoptions of Russian children, which Moscow passed in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act. But he has also long argued that the US failed to get to the bottom of who perpetrated the Magnitsky fraud. His alternative version — in essence, that the Magnitsky story “was actually fabricated” and Russian government officials perpetrated neither the fraud nor Magnitsky’s death — plays to the Kremlin’s line and is vehemently denied by Browder. Akhmetshin says that it was his initial investigation of the Magnitsky saga that led to his first getting to know Natalia Veselnitskaya — the Moscow-based lawyer who invited him to the fateful lunch last June.

He says he took the train to New York that day in order to see a Russian play that evening. He adds that that was why he was in jeans and T-shirt instead of his usual suit when Veselnitskaya called. She was working for a US law firm that had previously hired him as a consultant on a money-laundering case whose defence sought to debunk the Magnitsky fraud. “I thought it was kind of [about] sensitive issues, even if she didn’t say it.” He starts tapping his glass incessantly on the table, keeping rhythm with his story. “Honestly I was so impressed by Natalia being able to score a meeting like that,” he says, adding he thinks the Trump team accepted to meet as “a favour”.

Akhmetshin said he did not read the papers about Hillary Clinton’s campaign funding that Veselnitskaya took to the meeting, but he had seen the Russian version of it before. He says the lawyer developed it with the help of private corporate intelligence and that it was about “how bad money ended up in Manhattan and that money was put into supporting political campaigns”.

Trump Jr’s initial statement on the meeting, which according to US media reports was dictated by his father, omits mention of this. (The president’s lawyer has denied the president was involved.) Trump Jr also previously said he had never met Russians relating to the presidential campaign.

Akhmetshin says he spoke only for 90 seconds or so, late into the shortish meeting. “I said this will be a good opportunity — this Magnitsky case was never checked by US government and yet it becomes the beginning of the end for US-Russia relationship so this is a very low-hanging fruit.”

Dessert and dragon tea — a powerful green leaf with a fiery punch — inspire a last jab: I ask whether he thinks Russia intervened in the US elections. “They might have done,” he says, but doesn’t seem particularly fussed if they did.

“It’s like someone steals your toothpaste from you because you couldn’t hide it well enough — I think there’s something honest about that.” He goes on to expound a curious theory of “personal responsibility” — the value he says he likes best about America.

It is 6.20pm. We’ve been at it for nearly five hours but now his longest lunch ever comes to an abrupt halt. Akhmetshin has to cook supper for his daughter. “I should have ordered more alcohol,” he reflects.

He pedals off astride his orange bicycle. I reflect on the crescendo of his theory. “Nothing is secret,” he had said. “If you’re not stupid, you should operate on that assumption.” It’s exactly what the investigators delving into the alleged collusion between the Trump team and Russia must be relying on.

900 16th St NW, Washington DC

Atlantic fluke $18

Rabbit pâté $18

Bavette and bleu x 2 $58

Gâteau Basque $10

ParisWashington $10

Glass pink champagne x 4 $0

Half-glass J Fritsch Riesling $7.50

Half-glass Taille Aux Loups $8.50

Half-glass Mucyn Syrah x 2 $16

Dragon tea $0

Glass Calvados x 2 $26

Total (including tax and tip) $229.20

Katrina Manson is the FT’s US foreign policy and defence correspondent

Illustration by James Ferguson

রোহিঙ্গাদের গন্তব্য চট্টগ্রাম

শুনতে করুণ লাগতে পারে আত্মঘাতী মনে হতে পারে কিন্তু এটা মেনে নিতেই হবে দুসপ্তাহের মধ্যে যদি বার্মার রাখাইন প্রদেশের তিন ভাগের এক ভাগ রোহিঙ্গা বাংলাদেশে চলে আসতে পারে তাহলে দেড় মাসের মধ্যেই সব রোহিঙ্গা বাংলাদেশেই বসবাস শুরু করে দিতে পারে এবং এই পুরো চাপটি চট্টগ্রাম অঞ্চলকেই বহন করতে হবে এবং এটাও স্বীকার করে নিতে হবে রাখাইনবাসী রোহিঙ্গাদের গন্তব্য এখন চট্টগ্রাম।

২০১২ সালে এবং ২০১৬ সালে বাংলাদেশ চেষ্টা করেছে রোহিঙ্গারা যেন বাংলাদেশে প্রবেশ করতে না পারে সেইসাথে রাখাইনে রোহিঙ্গাদেরও আশা ছিল তারা বার্মার ওই প্রদেশে তাদের সাময়িক নিবন্ধন সনদ নাগরিক সনদে রূপ না নিলেও অন্তত স্থায়ী নিবন্ধন সনদে উন্নীত হবে এবং তারা রাষ্ট্রহীন জনগোষ্ঠী থেকে রাষ্ট্রে অন্তর্ভুক্ত জনগোষ্ঠীতে রূপান্তরের প্রাথমিক ধাপ অতিক্রম করবে।

রোহিঙ্গাদের এটাও আশা ছিল ২০১২ ও ২০১৬ সালের এআরএসএ-এর বিচ্ছিন্নতাবাদী আগ্রাসন ও তা দমনে বার্মার সিভিল ও সামরিক প্রশাসনের ঢালাও গ্রামের পর গ্রামে অবরোধ অগ্নিসংযোগ ধর্ষণ নির্যাতন গণতান্ত্রিক রাজনৈতিক উজ্জীবনের মধ্য দিয়ে কমে আসবে।

কিন্তু বার্মার রাখাইন প্রদেশে এবং বার্মার কেন্দ্রীয় সরকারে কোনো কিছুই সাধারণ রোহিঙ্গাদের প্রত্যাশার অনুকূলে চলেনি। প্রাদেশিক সরকার ও কেন্দ্রীয় সরকার রাষ্ট্রহীন রোহিঙ্গাদের বিষয়ে উদাসীনতার মাত্রা বাড়িয়ে সামরিক নজদারির মাত্রা চড়িয়ে রাষ্ট্রহীন জনগোষ্ঠীকে রাষ্ট্রচ্যূত জনগোষ্ঠীর দিকে ঠেলে দিতে কঠোর থেকে কঠোরতর হতে লাগল এবং রাখাইন প্রদেশের সংখ্যাগুরু বৌদ্ধদের সাথে রোহিঙ্গা মুসলিমদের ধর্মগত ও জনজাতিগত ব্যবধানের সুযোগকে কাজে লাগিয়ে রাখাইন প্রদেশকে মা বা থা চরমপন্থা ও এআরএসএ-এর সশস্ত্র চরমপন্থার নৈরাজ্যের মধ্যে ঠেঁসে ধরল।

গত কয়েক বছরের আন্তর্জাতিক ইসলামি সন্ত্রাসবাদের বিকট বিস্তারের প্রেক্ষাপটে এআরএসএ হয়ে উঠল এমন সংগঠন যারা রোহিঙ্গা মুসলমানদের উদ্ধারের কথা বলে বেড়ে উঠলেও সন্ত্রাসবাদের সাধারণ নিয়মে সন্ত্রাসবাদের বিরুদ্ধে থাকা মুসলিমদেরও শেষ করে দিতে বদ্ধপরিকর এবং তাদের কার্যকলাপ এমন হয়ে উঠল যাতে অং সান সু কি সহজেই বলতে পারছেন যেখানে মুসলমানরাও মুসলমানকে মারছে সেখানে আরাকানের সমস্যা সমাধান করা অনেক অনেক কঠিন হয়ে পড়েছে যার ফলে এটা বলা অনেক সহজ আজকে এআরএসএ বার্মার গণতান্ত্রিক নেতার ও সামরিক প্রশাসনের রোহিঙ্গা সমস্যা সমাধানের অনিচ্ছার পক্ষেই কাজ করছে এবং সাধারণ রোহিঙ্গাদের রাষ্ট্রচ্যূত করার নিয়ামক হিসেবেই তাদের সন্ত্রাসী কর্মকাণ্ডের বিস্তার ঘটাচ্ছে।

এবং এখন এই যে রোহিঙ্গারা তাদের গন্তব্য চট্টগ্রামে পৌঁছে যাচ্ছে এই কঠিন বাস্তবতা চট্টগ্রাম অঞ্চল যেন মোকাবেলা করতে পারে তার জন্য শুধু বাংলাদেশ রাষ্ট্র কাজ করলেই চলবে না জাতিসংঘকে এবং আন্তর্জাতিক ত্রাণ সংস্থাগুলোকেও বড় ভূমিকা রাখতে হবে। সবার আগে এই রাষ্ট্রচ্যূত রোহিঙ্গাদের শরণার্থী হিসেবে নিবন্ধনের কাজটা অগ্রাধিকার ভিত্তিতে করতে হবে। আর বাংলাদেশের পররাষ্ট্র স্বরাষ্ট্র প্রতিরক্ষা অর্থ এই চার মন্ত্রণালয়ের সমন্বয়ে একটা বিশেষ দপ্তর চট্টগ্রামেই প্রতিষ্ঠা করতে হবে যাদের কাজ হবে রোহিঙ্গাদের সব রকমের শরণার্থী সেবা দেয়ার পাশাপাশি এই শরণার্থীরা যেন কোনো ভাবেই বাংলাদেশের নাগরিকত্ব দখল না করতে পারে সেদিকে সার্বক্ষণিক নজর রাখা।

আর বাংলাদেশ পুলিশের যেহেতু এখন একটা বিশেষায়িত সন্ত্রাসবাদবিরোধী ইউনিট আছে তাদেরও চট্টগ্রামে শক্তি বাড়িয়ে তৎপরতার দিক থেকে সক্রিয়তার দৃষ্টান্ত রাখতে পারলে রোহিঙ্গা উদ্ভূত সন্ত্রাস মোকাবেলায় সফলতা আশা করা যায়।

রোহিঙ্গাদের গন্তব্য চট্টগ্রামের বাইরে যেন যেতে না পারে নিশ্চিত করতে পারলেই একমাত্র রোহিঙ্গাদের আবার তাদের আরাকান প্রদেশে ফিরিয়ে দেয়ার কাজ করা যাবে আর রোহিঙ্গাদের গন্তব্য যদি বাংলাদেশের যেকোনো জায়গা হয়ে যায় বা বাংলাদেশও ছাড়িয়ে যায় তাহলে রোহিঙ্গাদের আর আরাকান প্রদেশে ফিরিয়ে দেয়া যাবে না। তাই বলছিলাম রোহিঙ্গাদের গন্তব্য চট্টগ্রাম এবং আশা করছি তাই যেন হয় আমরা যেন তাই করতে পারি।

কমিউনিটি ব্লগে : রোহিঙ্গাদের গন্তব্য চট্টগ্রাম

réinventer l’école du bonheur et de la rigueur

Jack Lang répond à Jean-Michel Blanquer : “Un enfant est un être vivant, pas une machine”

Former culture minister Mr Jack Lang In Paris, France, on May 2, 2017. (Photo by Julien Mattia/NurPhoto)

Prof un jour, prof toujours. Après la publication de notre entretien avec Jean-Michel Blanquer, Jack Lang nous a contactés, souhaitant réagir aux propos de son lointain successeur. Aujourd’hui président de l’Institut du monde arabe, l’ancien pompier volant de la rue de Grenelle, venu remplacer Lionel Jospin en 1992, puis Claude Allègre en 2000, a conservé un regard aiguisé sur les questions éducatives. Il nous livre le bulletin de notes – mitigé – de l’élève Blanquer, sans oublier de décerner un bonnet d’âne à la plupart des ministres de gauche ou de droite qui lui ont succédé.

L’interview de Jean-Michel Blanquer vous a donné envie de prendre la parole. Pourquoi ? Ses propos vous ont interpellé ?

Je connais Jean-Michel Blanquer depuis un certain temps. Nous partageons la même passion pour l’Amérique latine. Je ne suis pas étranger à la naissance de l’Institut des hautes études latino-américaines qu’il a dirigé avec talent et passion. C’est par ailleurs un vrai professionnel, qui connaît les rouages du vaisseau “Education”. Ce n’est ni un fumiste ni un amateur comme on a pu en voir si souvent rue de Grenelle. Avec lui, nous avons un homme de qualité.

Je me réjouis aussi que l’une de ses premières mesures ait été de rétablir le grec, le latin, les classes bilangues et les classes européennes, dont nous avons été les initiateurs en 1992. J’étais en désaccord profond avec Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, qui cultivait sur ce plan une idéologie culturelle, éducative et scientifique, que je réprouve depuis toujours. Cette idée qu’en coupant la tête aux expériences d’excellence, on réussit à donner leur chance aux autres élèves, est illusoire et pernicieuse.

Dans le débat élitisme-égalitarisme, que le ministre a relancé, vous vous situez donc du côté des élitistes…

Cette opposition est caricaturale. Et je déplore d’ailleurs que le ministre ait posé le débat en ces termes un peu éculés. Egalitarisme, pédagogisme… Qu’est-ce à dire ? C’est brandir l’épouvantail à moineaux, dans le seul but de complaire à quelques ultraconservateurs, qui n’ont pas remis les pieds dans une école depuis 50 ans, et dénoncent les excès d’une pédagogie qu’ils ne connaissent pas. Ma vision, c’est celle d’une école élitaire pour tous, pour paraphraser Jean Vilar. Une exigence permanente tout au long du parcours scolaire, qui peut évidemment emprunter des chemins multiples. C’est en visant haut qu’on atteint large. Ce n’est pas en baissant, en diminuant, en coupant, en éradiquant, qu’on peut ouvrir les voies de la connaissance à des enfants en difficulté.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem et nombre de spécialistes des sciences de l’éducation reprochaient à ces classes bilangues ou européennes de séparer les élèves par niveaux, et de nuire ainsi à une hétérogénéité scolaire, bénéfique à tous…

Ce n’est pas entièrement faux. Mais des expériences concrètes montrent également que, dans plusieurs collèges et lycées de quartiers difficiles, le grec a donné la pêche, la dignité aux élèves. Qu’il y ait des parents qui utilisent les filières d’excellence pour contourner la mixité sociale, c’est l’évidence. Mais ça ne justifie pas que l’on abolisse ces filières. Qu’on trouve plutôt des remèdes, des contrepoisons, qu’on mette la mixité sociale en tête des priorités politiques ! Qu’on en finisse avec une école de castes et de classes.

Jean-Michel Blanquer ne le fait pas. Pour lui, il n’y a “pas de solution miracle” en matière de carte scolaire et de mixité sociale…

C’est pourtant un combat prioritaire. La réussite même de son expérience des classes à effectif restreint risque de buter sur cet obstacle urbain et social. Va-t-on enfin prendre le taureau par les cornes et s’attaquer avec énergie à la ségrégation urbaine ? Ce devrait être l’action du gouvernement tout entier : les conditions de vie, l’habitat, l’environnement familial, l’état lamentable de la médecine scolaire… Ça mériterait un véritable plan. Que je ne vois pas surgir.

Là où M. Blanquer semble avoir le soutien du gouvernement, c’est sur la nécessité de réformer le bac, et parallèlement de renforcer la sélection à l’entrée de l’université. Qu’en pensez-vous ?

Réformer le bac, je ne suis pas contre. J’ai dit un jour que c’était un monument historique et qu’on ne pouvait pas le détruire. Mais un monument historique, ça peut se restaurer et se moderniser. A une condition : que cette réforme ne serve pas de prétexte à un nouvel étranglement de l’accès à l’enseignement supérieur mais soit un tremplin à une impérieuse révolution des lycées, sujet aujourd’hui absent des discours officiels.

Sur ce plan, l’héritage légué par la précédente équipe n’est pas brillant. A l’heure où nous parlons, il y a encore des jeunes bacheliers qui ne savent pas dans quelle université ils seront acceptés. Dans un pays qui s’appelle la France, cinquième puissance mondiale, c’est invraisemblable. Et qu’un gouvernement de gauche ait, quelques jours avant l’élection présidentielle, signé un texte institutionnalisant le tirage au sort à l’entrée de la fac, ce n’est pas très digne.

Vous soulignez la responsabilité du gouvernement sortant. Mais sur le temps long, cette situation est le fait d’une politique de massification, sans effort suffisant d’orientation, dont vous avez été solidaire…

Ne fallait-il pas ouvrir la porte de l’enseignement supérieur à de nouvelles générations de filles ou de garçons qui en étaient exclus ? Je n’aime pas ce terme de massification. Nous avons mené une politique de démocratisation avec des succès réels, des changements positifs et heureux : l’ouverture de nouvelles universités, l’harmonisation européenne des diplômes, l’instauration de voies professionnelles… Ce que l’on subit actuellement, c’est l’absence d’anticipation des évolutions démographiques. Lionel Jospin avait déjà connu ce problème, quand il était ministre dans les années 1990, et cela avait donné lieu au Plan université 2000, doté de moyens budgétaires considérables. Aujourd’hui, le même phénomène se produit.

A un moment, il va falloir regarder les réalités en face, et en finir avec l’idéologie du “faire mieux avec moins”. Sans un effort réel, nous ne pourrons pas réduire le taux d’échec à l’université. Il ne faut pas seulement mieux orienter ces cohortes de nouveaux étudiants, il faut les accompagner correctement. Cela demande de l’argent mais aussi de l’engagement, de l’imagination, de l’obstination.

Revenons en amont. Jean-Michel Blanquer considère que la mère des batailles pour lutter contre l’échec scolaire, c’est l’acquisition du langage dans les premières années de l’école primaire. Vous partagez ce constat ?

A l’évidence oui. La maîtrise d’une langue claire, limpide, c’est le cœur de l’instruction. Tout devrait s’ordonner autour de cette colonne vertébrale, et pas seulement à l’école primaire. Là où je suis plus réservé, c’est sur les conclusions que M. Blanquer en tire. Les CP-CE1 dédoublés en REP et REP+, c’est bien, mais pas suffisant. Quid de la quantité innombrable d’élèves – de tous milieux – qui restent pendant des semaines ou des mois sans professeurs ? Mon inquiétude, c’est que ces classes à effectif réduit dans l’éducation prioritaire se réalisent parfois au détriment des autres écoles, et que cela crée des rancœurs, dresse les populations les unes contre les autres.

Enfin, puisque M. Blanquer revendique à juste titre de mener une politique s’appuyant sur des évaluations rigoureuses, peut-on nous expliquer en quoi le dédoublement des classes est la solution optimale ? Je rappelle que les expérimentations menées en France ont montré que l’efficacité de la mesure dépendait beaucoup de la qualité des professeurs. Or, nombre des enseignants qui seront affectés dans ces classes n’ont reçu aucune préparation pratique à l’exercice de ce métier difficile.

Il y a quinze ans, vous estimiez, vous aussi, que l’école devait à tout prix se focaliser sur l’acquisition des fondamentaux, dans un décalque presque parfait du discours actuel. Pourquoi cette action n’a-t-elle pas porté ses fruits ?

D’abord, parce qu’il y a eu un déficit de pilotage. Trois ministres sous Hollande, autant sous Sarkozy. Cette instabilité n’a pas permis à l’action publique de se déployer correctement. Et puis, il faut encore le répéter : tout ce que nous avions envisagé au début des années 2000 pour renforcer les capacités pédagogiques des professeurs a été détruit par la droite. La formation, qu’elle soit initiale ou continue, a été supprimée du jour au lendemain, parce que Nicolas Sarkozy exigeait chaque année la suppression de 15.000 postes d’enseignants. Jean-Michel Blanquer porte d’ailleurs une part de responsabilité dans cet état de fait. Il dirigeait l’administration centrale du ministère à cette époque.

Le ministre est souvent attaqué sur ce point. Il rétorque que les Instituts universitaires de formation des maîtres (IUFM) dispensaient un enseignement beaucoup trop théorique, que les jeunes profs étaient les premiers à réclamer leur fermeture…

Ce n’est pas vrai. Grâce à notre action, les IUFM s’étaient beaucoup améliorés. Ils étaient devenus moins universitaires, moins logomachiques et surtout plus professionnels par la présence de maîtres formateurs qui continuaient à exercer une partie de leur métier dans les établissements. Tous ces progrès ont été mis à bas. On ne soigne pas le malade en l’achevant !

Ce qui est vrai en revanche, c’est que les Ecoles supérieures du professorat et de l’éducation (ESPE), qui ont pris la suite des IUFM au retour de la gauche en 2012, sont retombés dans ces mauvais travers. J’avais préconisé qu’on en fasse de vraies écoles professionnelles, rattachées au ministère de l’Enseignement scolaire et donc indépendantes des universités. Je n’ai pas été suivi. Conclusion : ce sont essentiellement des universitaires qui imposent leur loi. En quoi sont-ils compétents pour concevoir la pédagogie à l’école et au collège ? Où ont-ils appris à enseigner à des enfants ?

Vous soutenez donc Jean-Michel Blanquer dans sa volonté de reprendre en main la formation des professeurs ?

Oui s’il tourne réellement le dos à l’affligeante politique menée sous le règne de Nicolas Sarkozy par les ministres Xavier Darcos et Luc Chatel, dont il fut très proche. Un vrai changement réclame un enseignement concret, s’inspirant à la fois des bonnes pratiques développées par les meilleurs professeurs, et des comparaisons internationales.

C’est précisément ce qu’il propose…

Certes, mais les moyens ne sont pas à la hauteur des ambitions. Il aurait fallu reconstituer un grand ministère de l’Education réunissant enseignement scolaire et enseignement supérieur. Aujourd’hui, le ministre n’a pas la tutelle sur les universités. Il ne peut dès lors les contraindre à céder la main. Pour elles, les ESPE représentent des ressources, des postes, un pouvoir. Plus grave : le budget 2018 ne me semble pas permettre un réel redressement. Qu’a-t-on prévu pour la formation continue ? Elle est quasiment à l’abandon. C’est une honte.

Le ministre se pique aussi de pédagogie. Son objectif est de réorienter l’apprentissage de la lecture sur une méthode strictement syllabique, et de repenser la grande section de maternelle comme une sorte de préparation du CP axée sur l’acquisition du langage. Ce que les instits appellent la primarisation de la maternelle…

La polémique “syllabique versus global” est irréelle. Elle est hors sol. Depuis 2002, les programmes sont clairs : l’apprentissage syllabique est obligatoire. Ce qui n’empêche pas les enfants d’arriver en CP avec un petit stock de mots, dont ils ont photographié la forme en maternelle. Un apprentissage purement technique, mécanique, dépouillé du travail sur le sens, serait de toute façon voué à l’échec : il ne serait pas mémorisé durablement. Dans la même logique, même si j’ai donné naissance au premier programme de l’école maternelle, je ne suis pas favorable à une primarisation de la maternelle. Au contraire, je pense qu’il faut préserver l’esprit de la maternelle au début du primaire ! Un apprentissage rigoureux de la langue, oui. Mais, tout en gardant à l’esprit qu’un enfant n’est pas une machine. Un enfant, c’est une âme, un être vivant. Il faut l’accompagner avec toute la tendresse possible pour qu’il puisse exprimer la plénitude de sa créativité. “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme”, disait Rabelais.

Cela nous amène à la question des arts à l’école, qui fut l’un de vos combats et à laquelle vous restez très attaché…

Là aussi, je suis inquiet. J’ai croisé récemment la ministre de la Culture Françoise Nyssen qui a fondé une belle école à Arles avec Patrick Bouchain dans l’esprit du mouvement Steiner. Je lui ai demandé : “Et alors, où en êtes-vous pour l’enseignement des arts ?” Elle m’a répondu : “Je me bagarre.” Puisse-t-elle arracher de l’Education nationale un véritable plan doté d’une ambition et de moyens.

Il y a tout de même cette rentrée en musique voulue par le ministre dans tous les établissements, de la maternelle au lycée. Vous devriez être comblé !

Je m’en réjouis évidemment. Mais les arts à l’école, ce n’est pas seulement amuser les médias le jour de la rentrée scolaire. Ça devrait être leur promotion au rang de matière fondamentale au même titre que les autres disciplines. Quand j’étais ministre en 2002, nous avions mis en place avec Catherine Tasca et Marc-Olivier Dupin un plan national de formation des maîtres pour qu’ils puissent diriger des chœurs de manière professionnelle. Il faut être ambitieux, que diable ! La sensibilité enrichit la rationalité, et réciproquement. Dire des textes, jouer des textes, c’est maintenir la langue. Pratiquer la musique, c’est un des chemins qui conduit vers les mathématiques. J’ai essayé de convaincre Vincent Peillon. En vain. J’ai réessayé avec Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Sans résultat réel. J’espère que Jean-Michel Blanquer saura introduire cette exigence artistique dans le contenu des enseignements.

Mais déjà faudrait-il qu’il ait son mot à dire sur lesdits contenus. Depuis 2013, ceux-ci sont concoctés par une instance indépendante, le Conseil supérieur des programmes…

Je me demande encore pourquoi Vincent Peillon a donné une base législative à ce soviet irresponsable. Ça n’a ni queue ni tête. Il est composé de bric et de broc, de parlementaires et de personnalités qualifiées dépourvues de toute représentativité. Sans doute Jean-Michel Blanquer n’est-il pas loin de partager ce sentiment. Je le dis avec franchise et netteté : c’est le ministre, au nom de la République, assisté par des experts, et en consultant le terrain, qui doit prendre sa plume et écrire les programmes. Faute de quoi, on se retrouve, comme Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, à devoir défendre des couillonnades, comme le remplacement du complément d’objet direct par le prédicat, pour lesquelles elle n’a même pas eu son mot à dire. Si au moins ce conseil accomplissait un bon travail ! Les programmes sont toujours aussi illisibles, touffus, abusivement encyclopédiques. Ce conseil supérieur, il faut le laisser mourir de sa belle mort. Qu’il tombe en désuétude. Et qu’on n’en parle plus.

Enfin, il y a un point sur lequel vous divergez fondamentalement avec Jean-Michel Blanquer. C’est celui des rythmes scolaires…

Je suis en effet hostile au retour de la semaine des quatre jours : c’est une régression, un non-sens pédagogique. Sur cette question, on se moque des gens et surtout des enfants. Le ministre nous parle de liberté redonnée aux communes mais, comme l’Etat n’exprime aucune préférence et ne mettra pas un sou pour soutenir le périscolaire, il est évident qu’à terme nous allons vers la généralisation des quatre jours. En France, le temps de l’école est déjà le plus court d’Europe. Toutes les analyses démontrent que les quatre jours et demi sont plus favorables aux apprentissages. Comment pourrait-il l’ignorer, lui, le féru d’études statistiques et de comparaisons internationales ?

Ce doit être à l’Education nationale de fixer la règle, pas aux municipalités, et aux enseignants, même s’il est humain de souhaiter disposer librement du mercredi. L’Etat doit avoir le courage de redevenir l’Etat. Avec la semaine de quatre jours, le service public s’étiolera, s’appauvrira, les inégalités territoriales se creuseront. Que vont devenir les enfants pendant les trois jours de congé, livrés à eux-mêmes, à la télévision, aux réseaux sociaux, à la rue ? Quel gâchis !

Vous semblez vraiment affecté par cette question…

Oui, parce que le choix des quatre jours n’est pas à la hauteur du projet affiché par le ministre. J’aurais rêvé d’une véritable révolution éducative. Elle ne s’est pas réalisée sous le règne de François Hollande. Et je crains qu’elle n’advienne pas non plus sous celui d’Emmanuel Macron. M. Blanquer est un homme de valeur, sérieux et honnête, mais sa vision n’est-elle pas trop technicienne ? Pour l’heure elle est constituée par une palette de mesures – certaines bonnes, d’autres mauvaises. Mais, cela manque de souffle, de logos. Quant à notre président, je ne doute pas qu’il ait un regard généreux sur l’éducation. Mais il faudrait qu’il déploie passion et enthousiasme et qu’il donne le sentiment que c’est le futur du pays qui est en jeu. Puisse-t-il nous réserver d’heureuses surprises et réinventer l’école du bonheur et de la rigueur.