Four students out of a class of nearly 50 sit patiently but dejectedly on the floor outside my university classroom. They are waiting for something they have a right to: an education. But the door itself has been double-locked by the janitors, all the furniture removed from inside, and here, at the French university where I normally teach, there will be little, or no, education taking place today as was the case yesterday and the week before. That's because a significant number of students have been en grève on strike protesting against the modest but to them apparently radical reforms the French government had proposed for a system that's as profoundly in need of change as the Middle East is in need of peace.
I have taught in five nations on three continents, at universities ranging from Harvard to Haifa, from the Free University of Berlin to Wichita State, from Budapest to Boise. But nowhere, proud and pleased though I am to be a French citizen as well as an American one, have I encountered a system of higher education as inefficient, chaotic, perversely bureaucratic and dysfunctional as the French. An American professor in the French system feels as if he has landed not merely in another nation, but on another planet. For the very idea of a student-centered higher-education system, where every infrastructural nuance from faculty offices to student housing to decent salaries to ample classrooms is designed to facilitate both teaching and research, is as foreign to most French universities as a slice of foie gras is to a Weight Watchers' meeting.
Instead, what we have in France often in the name of democracy and equality of opportunity are overcrowded classrooms, underpaid professors, faculty offices shared by as many as eight to 10 instructors, a system so mired in bureaucracy it requires a series of secretaries, forms, rubber stamps and stops at several offices merely to get some photocopies made. Yes, this system may be more "democratic" but democratic in the sense that it reduces virtually everything to the lowest common denominator. France does a magnificent job of educating its students through high school, but at the higher level the goal seems to be the financial security of the academics rather than the education of the young.
So what are the radical reforms suggested by the present government that have been so strongly resisted by so many? They are essentially the harmonization of French diplomas (at levels that would become, essentially, a bachelor's, a master's and a Ph. D.) with those of the rest of Europe and a greater localization of authority over French universities, allowing individual universities more autonomy over their budgets. Modest proposals, are they not? But the force of the protests already has government backing away from them because for many in France, such proposals raise the dark specter of an "élitist" and "undemocratic" system in which higher education will be reserved for the rich (as they inaccurately assume it is in America). But however much of an affront this may seem to the French ideal of égalité, a bit of inequality in pursuit of a decent system of higher education may be no vice.
There is a point at which too much democracy, like too much pastis before dinner, can lead to a kind of facile and simplistic drunkenness. For, though money may well be at the root of all evil, it can also pave the road to a greater justice, a more benevolent, though still imperfect, world. Indeed, the one major difference I have thus far seen between the supposedly "élite" university where I also teach the Institut d'études Politiques de Paris, for which most must pass an entrance exam and pay around 31,000 in annual tuition and the more "democratic" ones, is that the former works. A manageable number of students actually show up in a classroom designed to accommodate them, bringing with them the books from which they can actually learn.
If it ain't broken, don't fix it, goes the old American cliché, the flip side of which may well be more pertinent to the French: if it is broken, why not go ahead and try? The French system of higher education is broken to the core. At the level of higher education at least, it seems to me high time for the old French revolutionary triumvirate of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité to open its doors to a fourth sibling: Modernité.
Money may not buy us love, or even happiness, but it can go a long way toward buying things for which we have, as yet, no other currency. A culture that takes pride in its intellectual achievements also needs to create a university system it can be proud of. And though it may sound unapologetically capitalistic to say so there are times when even a certain crass Americanism has the ring of authority: you get what you pay for.