Twentieth-Century Undergraduates and an Eighteenth-Century Edition of Diderot's Encyclopédie - Manon Anne Ress
Undergraduates come to my course on French civilization with a variety of backgrounds and with different ideas of what studying civilization is all about. The shape the course takes depends to a great degree on the interests and needs of the students. However, a basic goal shared by all students is the discovery of connections among such areas as history, art, music, literature, and religion. Students are introduced to major events in French history and to works of art produced in France from the Middle Ages to the present. Since we have only fourteen weeks to cover such a large amount of material, we select a few works of art to illustrate each period we study. Students participate in the choice by deciding together what event or work of art they will discuss more in depth in class or in their written work. Conducted entirely in French, the course is primarily a discussion class where students are expected to learn how to express their opinions about French civilization. By the end of the course they should be able to describe several French institutions, historical events. They should also be able to recognize and define basic concepts of French society in terms of its social and political structures and literary and artistic movements.
This year Diderot's Encyclopédie was the document selected to start a discussion on the French Enlightenment. The short extract in the textbook could of course not represent fairly the huge compilation that took twenty-nine years to publish in full and eventually ran to twenty-one volumes of text, twelve plates, and two indexes. The complexity of the document and its place in French eighteenth-century society are best investigated using the document's original form. After a class during which we discussed the background of this formidable work and its effect on French culture, the students were given specific assignments to be carried out in the university library. They were to meet in small groups in the rare books collection and then report back to the class about a variety of issues. We had agreed on the entries they would check, such as "autorité politique," "guerre," "peuple," or "droits féodaux." Two students chose to focus on the famous illustrations of the Encyclopédie. All the students reported their findings with enthusiasm and had many interesting observations. They were struck by the number of volumes (thirty-five) and their size and by the names of the numerous intellectuals who participated in Diderot's project. The look and feel of the document were also discussed in class—by students who had never seen or touched an eighteenth-century edition. The calligraphy and spelling interested them. The rare books collection itself was an important discovery for them. Most had never been in that part of the library and found the experience fascinating, though the rare-books librarian did not seem to have enjoyed their visit much. Some students were reprimanded for writing on pieces of paper placed directly on the eighteenth-century edition. With humor, they told different anecdotes of their first contact with the rare books and with the librarian there.
The discussion of the different entries they looked up was very informative. They had discovered, on their own, through the difficulty of consulting the original work, some of the subtlety of the Encyclopédie. We spoke, for example, about censorship and self-censorship. I am convinced that, in many ways, students have gained more from working with an eighteenth-century edition of the Encyclopédie than they ever did from working with a textbook reproduction of an Encyclopédie article or two. For example, the students raised interesting questions about the cost of such an edition and about the number of readers who were able to acquire these huge volumes at the time.
Looking at, touching, and reading the Encyclopédie is a wonderful way to put oneself into the mind-set of eighteenth-century France, to grasp what was considered so sensational, shocking, and revolutionary then. The hundreds of engraved illustrations that show people at work making all manner of industrial products definitely helped my students understand why the Encyclopédie embodies the Enlightenment and is one of the most important documents on eighteenth-century France in general.
I asked the students to evaluate our pedagogical experiment. Most were very positive even when they had encountered difficulties. Many students told me that using an eighteenth-century edition had changed their conception of what a research project could be. One student I met later told me that she had just got a good grade on a research project about Frederick Douglass (in a journalism course) because her use of Douglass's articles instead of the course's compilation of secondary sources had helped her shape a personal and creative approach. She laughed as she was telling me about the difficulties of finding his articles in various libraries and about her perseverance. She struggled with the libraries' catalogs and the texts themselves but eventually learned a lot. At the end of our brief conversation the student, young but a scholar indeed, mentioned that she is still thinking of trying to find original copies of The North Star and maybe even some of Douglass's manuscripts.