Fabrice Cahen

Historian and INED researcher Fabrice Cahen presents the “traveling seminar” INED has set up with the Lycée (high school) Henri Wallon in Aubervilliers, just north of Paris.


(Interview conducted in December 2017)

What motivated this initiative?

Like many of my colleagues, I cannot conceive of research without thinking of the need to transmit its findings and the activity. And yet it seems to me we would be wrong to assume that knowledge production should always bend to social demand or mass media formatting: the very logic of science is to be specialized and complex. To overcome this contradiction, we need to increase the number and types of paths for circulating knowledge and to make real contact with very different types of audiences. There are many ways to mediate scientific knowledge: public lectures for a general lay audience, internet sites, essays, transmitting scientific investigation and findings through bandes dessinées, etc. And INED is a recognized expert in this kind of transmission; we need only think of its freely accessible four-page monthly bulletin Population & Societies and the wide variety of free tools and materials INED provides on its own and other websites. This traveling seminar, which I coordinate with Silvia Huix, is a different, complementary means of transmission. The point is to show how scientific findings are reached, with the understanding that this will facilitate people’s reception and appropriation of those findings.

So how does the seminar work?

What characterizes research seminars is that participants must comply with discussion ethics, namely that they are there to exchange rational arguments. This of course holds for disagreement and debate: controversy is not polemic. Our seminar “travels” in that it is held outside INED, in a secondary school; that way we can develop real ties with the institution. Several workshops are organized throughout the year; researchers come and present their own professional trajectories, the scientific questions they are interested in, the material they use to investigate those questions and how they analyse the information they collect and discover. They are asked to present their research as it really unfolds, including the fact that they have to search for answers—to proceed by trial and error—and may not always find them, and that they may not agree with their peers. These presentations are attended by students, their teachers, and any school staff who wish to participate—no exceptions. Participants are encouraged to interact and to ask any questions they may have—no taboos.
For teachers, this is an opportunity to diversify learning situations and resources. For the other participants it is an opportunity to learn something about population science, sociology, history and economics from people who actually practice those scientific disciplines, and to participate actively in that learning. And for the researchers it is an enriching experience because they don’t often have such immediate feedback on their work or opportunities to clarify their thought or clear up any misunderstandings about the social sciences and humanities in general or a particular subject.

How are the workshops organized, what is their content?

INED guarantees the scientific standard of the content and professional legitimacy of the speakers; and with the particular teachers involved we determine the topics and workshop programme. The presentations are prepared long in advance; we discuss how best to represent research in all its diversity and how to speak appropriately and effectively to the particular groups (age, class level, disciplinary area, etc.). We find a common thread that will connect the sessions to each other and produce a coherent whole, and that will work to advance our collective thinking. For this pilot programme we are focusing on the commemoration of May ’68 (next year will be the 50th anniversary of those important events): we want to compare the youth of the 1960s with that of today in a range of different areas: how family and private life have evolved over those fifty years, how social inequalities have evolved, the importance of technological developments in daily existence, etc.

Why did you choose the Lycée Henri Wallon?

That was thanks to our meeting with Hayat El-Kaaouachi, a history-geography teacher at the school who has long been interested in building bridges between secondary education and the academic world. With the enthusiastic support of her principal, she arranged for us to test the traveling seminar there last year. Doing the seminar in a school in Aubervilliers also makes sense because in 2019 INED will be joining and moving to the Campus Condorcet, in the same town.