Saturday, April 16, 2011

Future tensions

Listening to Valérie Pécresse, France's Minister of Higher Education and Research, speak at Harvard the other day, I had the feeling that, like Lincoln Steffens visiting the USSR in 1921, I had seen the future. (Whether it works is a longer question.) Mme. Pécresse is at any rate a powerful spokesperson for this particular vision of post-modernity, articulate and witty (in English) and utterly sure of herself. French higher education in her view is barely distinguishable from research; in 90 minutes of remarks, both prepared and extemporaneous, she mentioned the humanities and social sciences only when directly questioned about them. Otherwise the intention behind her ambitious plan to consolidate universities and grandes écoles into larger research institutions on the Anglo-American model is entirely to promote France's global position in the sciences. And not just the sciences, but the applied version, what she called innovative science, the patent-generating, job-producing, technologies-of-the-future sort of science practiced most famously at MIT--her next port of call after Harvard. Behind her determination to transform the idiosyncratic, tradition-encrusted French system of research is the hope that global private industry will find France's institutions compatible as partners (as Intel and several others have recently done). To this end her ministry is pushing doctoral candidates into research roles with private companies. When her 'reforms' are complete, France's public, nationally peculiar institutions will be adjuncts to the global corporate system for which she and her boss, M. le Président, are such insistent shills.

In a sense there is nothing very surprising about all this. Johns Hopkins University was beginning to outsource its physics department to the profit sector when I was there 30 years ago. The 8-acre hole in the ground I look at from my back window, which was to be (and may still become) Harvard's new science complex, was understood to be a venture in applied inter-disciplinary science. Its guiding light, Larry Summers, sees the public/private distinction as blurry at best, and the economics of patent development and corporate partnerships inspired his pharaonic investments. With the collapse of Summers' financing scheme the project is likely to bring the university into still deeper partnership with private capital. So in a real sense Pécresse is simply, as she says, trying to bring France's university research complex up to the existing global standard.

What that means, alas, is the death knell of humanistic education as we have known it for the past half-millenium. Tomorrow's educated elite will be homines economici, trained more than educated, prepared to execute technical functions rather than to reflect on less immediate questions. It is a sober vision, whose only rationale is quantified cost benefit. This vision is not Pécresse's invention, but it is the legacy she intends to leave as minister.

As I have just read Jean-Luc Mélenchon's manifesto, Qu'ils s'en aillent tous, I find myself contrasting Pécresse's futurism with the rather quainter one offered by JLM, in every way its polar opposite. For Mélenchon's France is one that would retain its particularities. The globalizing, American influence is at the top of the list of entities he wants to "just go away." Crude economism can go too. Local cooperatives, not global conglomerates, are the productive institutions of choice, and French is the language of France's future (unlike Pécresse, who interestingly suggested that English, in her educational system, is not a foreign language but a basic tool all French children must acquire). To be clear: Mélenchon's is not the nostalgic France of Marine Le Pen (despite cynical attempts to amalgamate the two). His bedrock citizenry is a diverse population, enriched by immigration, but united in the secular fraternity of citizen power. His economy reduces growing inequalities by limiting the profits allotted to shareholders, capping the salaries of executives, and protecting the social acquisitions of working people. In many ways it is a France frozen in the modest prosperity of the trente glorieuses. And it would preserve the cultural values of the existing educational system, keeping a place for the inefficiencies of humanistic study.

Mélenchon's is the future France in which I personally would choose to live. But Pécresse's is the one that is taking shape even now, and in which the next generation will have to find its way. A bigger world, with greater material rewards for those who excel, but a restricted view of what makes a life--that is the orientation she is bringing to higher education.