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by Christian Rioux, Paris May 25, 2012
Original French Text: http://www.ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/350882/une-idee-de-l-universite
”We are admirers of the Quebec student struggle. The fact that these students refuse this market vision of education is very important for us. I don’t know if they will win, but things will never again be the same.”
These words are not those of a leftist brandishing the red flag. They are those of the famous geneticist Axel Kahn, come to join, Tuesday in Paris, 200 persons demonstrating their support for the Quebec students in Place St Michel. Axal Kahn knows whereof he speaks because he was himself rector of Réné Descartes University, a Parisian University which specializes in medecine. A few years ago he supported the reform of Nicholas Sarkozy in favour of the independance of the Universities, which garnered him some reproaches from his socialist friends. However he remains profoundly attached to a European model of the university against the vision of the university reduced to a super-business.
Now isn’t it this idea of the university which is at the heart of the current conflict? One can illustrate the debate by this anecdote which the great journalist and writer Simon Leys recounts somewhere in a text entitled Une idée de l’université (1) In England,a dashing minister of education, who had come to meet the professorial body of a centuries-old establishment, began his discourse by addressing the ”employees” of of the university. Soon enough a professor interrupted : ”Excuse me, Mr Minister, we are not employees of the university, we are the university!”
Faced with the gigantic marketing machine that launches the great ad campaigns, puts faculties in a competitive race one against the other, grabs for the ”student clientele” and builds campuses anywhere, it is hard to imagine that the only ”employees” of a university should in fact be the administrators and the rectors. Deafened by the accounting discourse, it is only right that we re- imagine a university that has as its main objective what Simon Leys calls ”the disinterested search for truth”. Far from that high view, our administrators seem, for their part, incapable of expressing anything but a utilitarian vision . A vision in which studies are nothing but a vulgar ”investment” intended to guarantee good jobs. This is why our accountants even calculate school fees as one calculates an insurance premium. As if one can predict with precision the future salary of a student separately from his or her talent, contacts and luck, factors often much more important than the diploma.
In Quebec, this utilitarianism feeds itself as well on a secular anti-intellectualism. Whence comes this caricature, conveyed by some, of the students as a privileged group sponging off society?
What if the opposite is true? In a society built on immediate gratification and one which does everything it can to deliver its youth to the merchants of fashion, electronic gadgets and dubious cultural products, the student remains, in fact, one of the few citizens to sacrifice immediate gratification, that of a salary and all that can procure, to make the choice for knowledge. Does he not, therefore, merit all our encouragement?
This choice is all the more difficult to make in Quebec. The university tradition is recent and the students, obliged to work, are much less supported by their families than in Europe for example. As long as our elites amuse themselves by describing the students as a privileged group supported by the poor salaried workers, it will not be necessary to ask ourselves why Quebec is the world champion of dropouts!
In France, even certain political leaders of the right are amazed these days by the stubbornness of Jean Charest in a land which up to now has had the reputation of being the champion of social dialogue.
Those who know us are also surprised to see Quebec, which has always affirmed its difference from the rest of North America, going over to the American and British university model. Because one must be deaf in order not to understand that, by these demonstrations, Quebec claims its distinct identity, that of a university model different than that in the rest of Canada and the United States.
Despite all the grand moral speeches on democracy and Parliament, we know that it is not dishonourable for a democracy to retract when faced with a protest movement which demonstrates a real disapprobation of the people. It is even more true in the present context of Quebec, where no one has the moral authority to launch such a fundamental reform.
In 1984, François Mitterand grew in stature by annulling the Savary law which abolished private education and had united half a million demonstrators against it in Paris. And yet he had all the democratic legitimacy to act. To be democratic is also sometimes to know how to listen to the street.
But all leaders don’t have the intelligence of François Mitterand.
(1) Le studio de l’inutilité . (Flammarion)
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.