I’ve just started reading the most prominent book on French university reforms of the past year, Refonder L’Université: Pourquoi l’enseignement supérieur reste à reconstruire, which translates to “Refounding the University: Why higher education awaits reconstruction.” It came out last October from La Découverte, and has spawned debate at, for instance, ARESER (the Association of Reflection on Higher Education and Research), at a seminar last November on the Politics of Science, and more generally within the remnants of the faculty opposition to Sarkozy’s education policy.
I may write more about this in the future (once I’ve finished it!), but I was struck by the very beginning of the introduction (pp. 15-16), which gives a nice capsule summary of how the university is seen as being at the absolute bottom of the prestige scale in French higher education. I’ll translate; bear in mind that “la fac,” short for “the faculty,” is French slang for “the university.” Bear in mind, also, that a major distinguishing characteristic of French public universities is that they’re open to everyone with a high school diploma, while other kinds of higher education have more selective admissions.
Bastia, August 2008. Conversation with a taxi driver. He finds out that his passenger is an academic. He brings up the case of his daughter, which he’s worrying about. She has just received her high school diploma, science track, with high honors. She wants to enroll in a private school in Aix-en-Provence to be a speech therapist. It’s a dream she’s had since childhood. This is the best school for it, it seems, but the tuition fees are high and you have to pay for lodging too (no dorm housing if you’re not enrolled in the public university). But above all, the results are uncertain: there are only a few dozen places for several thousand candidates. The academic tries to convince the taxi driver that it would be good for his daughter to enroll simultaneously in psychology at the university. That would at least guarantee that she’ll get a degree. Neither the taxi driver nor his daughter seem to have thought of that…
Paris, November 2008. Conversation between two academics. They’re talking about the problems at school that one of their sons is having: he’s a brilliant adolescent, but slacking off [passablement dilettante] in senior year, studying economic and social sciences in a “good” Paris high school. When he turns in his homework, he can get an A [18 sur 20]. But, often, he doesn’t turn anything in and ends up with a zero. So, of course, the average gets weighed down. The principal meets with the father and warns him: with these grades, he won’t get into selective (non-university) schools; and then, forgetting who he’s talking to, he lets go a little: “You know, Mister, with a file like this, there’s nothing left but the fac.”
“There’s nothing left but the fac!” This sentence by itself sums up the crisis of the French university. Testimonial abound of meetings for the parents of high school seniors, where teachers and administrators explain the different options for further studies after graduation. First there are prep classes for the elite schools [grandes écoles]. Then there are technical-vocational classes, organized by the high schools themselves [STS]. Finally there are university technical institutes (IUT), which are institutionally part of the university but, like the aforementioned programs, have the right to choose their students and to group them together by class, like in high school. Finally, “there’s nothing left but the fac,” that is the university, the “broom-wagon” that picks up the stragglers of higher education, tasked with accepting those who can’t get in elsewhere.
This whole logic will, I think, be unfamiliar for Anglo-American readers, for whom it’s probably not easy to imagine a system where the universities aren’t the most prestigious form of higher education. But such is the French case — at least at a very crude level of first approximation. It is, of course, the case that there are some kinds of prestige you can only get from a university; you can’t get a Ph.D. anywhere besides a university in France, to the best of my knowledge, and some universities are considered more prestigious than others, and some majors more than others… But it’s true that there is a very common French discourse about how the public universities are no good. About how they’re abject. About how they’re falling apart and don’t give you jobs and hence don’t give you a future. Well, Anglophone readers, here in this text you have a couple of examples of people who think the fac is no good or who just forget about it altogether.
Among other things, this is a text rich in the imagery of social status. Since I am in cultural anthropology, I feel a compulsive need to comment on a couple of these images, which tell us something about how the texts’ authors think that status works.
The first paragraph gives us the intriguing case of low status figured by forgettability. “Neither the taxi driver nor his daughter seem to have thought of that…” — thought of the university, that is. For the authors, this apparently is a striking thing, a striking case of absent interest. They, of course, as academics, seem to value the university very highly. But what’s interesting isn’t that they value the university but simply that they seem to be drawing a symbolic equation between being forgettable and being low-status. Between being ignored and being abject. I’m curious: is this something that’s generally true about status systems? Does being low-status normally correlate with being forgettable?
The last paragraph proposes the voiture-balai, the “broom-wagon,” as a further symbol for the abjectness of the university. I would assume that many anglophones are also not really sure what this is, a “broom-wagon”: apparently it’s a car with brooms symbolically strapped to its sides that brings up the rear of bike races, and picks up stragglers. Basically, a car to pick up the losers. This is something of an interesting symbolic move because, I would argue, it’s not obvious that college students should be ranked in the same way as bike racers; there is no rule that says that college students must be classified as clear winners or clear losers. To employ this image of the “broom-wagon,” then, would seem to suggest, if not reinforce, a more deeply hierarchical and stratified notion of the student body.
A broader suspicion starts to emerge here: that it is all but impossible to have a value-neutral description of a university system; that to describe a university is already to assume a particular political stance towards it…