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What’s The Matter With France?

March 14, 2008

Or, to put the question more precisely, what’s the matter with the French system of higher education?

BBC correspondent Emma Jane Kirby attempted to find out. She wrote up her findings here in a piece revealingly titled: “French students shy of real world.” You’ll see later that my idea of “revealing” this piece is has as much to do with Ms. Kirby’s political commitments as it does with France’s actual system of higher education.

Why am I discussing this here? “You’re an Americanist!” the sceptic accuses. My qualifications are as follows:

a. Studying the history of education is not normally an endeavor confined to the United States alone. That was one of my major fields, therefore I have some skill in this area.
b. My doctoral minor field addressed European cultural and intellectual history. This means, in my particular case, that I read history books and articles on education in France. I’m a fan of the work of Eugen Weber.
c. Good critical readers shouldn’t be afraid of tackling any piece written in a language in which one is fluent. The skills of logic are transcendent, are they not?

With that, here are excerpts from the article with my interspersed commentary:

– “Between the two rounds of the French local elections, BBC correspondent Emma Jane Kirby is travelling around France, testing the temperature of voters.”
– “In Montpellier, she is told that France’s education system is completely out of sync with the world of business.”

TL: Who told her this? How many people told her this? And, most importantly, must it then be completely in sync with the world of business? Hmm…

– “Despite the nationwide passion for education, surprisingly, not a single French university makes it into the world’s top 40.”

TL: Aren’t most people aware that university rankings depend on much more than the quality of the curriculum, its teachers, students, and the strength of a nation’s citizenry after graduation? Sigh. Apparently the rest of the world hasn’t caught up with the critics of the rankings craze. It’s sad to see that the phenomenon is now creeping into the European Union.

– “France may be a global leader in high technology, but employers complain that today there are far too few students studying science and technology and there are far too many studying ‘soft subjects’ which leaves them ill-prepared to join the real world of work.”

TL: Which employers said this? This line is reminiscent of a popular trope attributed, in a documentary called OutFoxed, to Fox News correspondents that goes: “Some people say…”

– “At Montpellier’s Social Science faculty, I watched scores of undergraduates soak up a lecture on basic psychology. There are 65,000 psychology students in France – that is a quarter of the European total for that subject.”

TL: Wow. But I wonder how that compares to students declaring psychology as their major upon entering college. The question is this: How many graduate with their degree in that field? And, what is their goal? It is common knowledge that many human resources specialists in business, mind you, claim psychology as the platform for their skill set. If my assertion of common knowledge is true, it would seem that a great many of Montpellier’s graduates are prepared for some type of employment in business.

– “I asked a passing student what he wanted to do when he left university. ‘I want to be an eternal student,’ he said. ‘Just learning for learning’s sake.’
– “A noble sentiment perhaps, but an impractical one in 21st Century France where unemployment has been doggedly high for the past 20 years.”

TL: Noble sentiment indeed! Wow again. How many students in the United States—excepting the so-called slacker crowd—would utter anything like that? How many U.S. graduates understand that one must be a student, in some sense, their whole lives in order to be good human beings. So, I ask of those who sneer at this student’s reply: What’s so wrong with the sentiment? It would seem to me that he has imbibed the core of Socrates’s injunction to “Know thyself.”

– “The national unemployment rate may have recently fallen to just under 8%, but in Montpellier it stands at 11.3%.”

TL: The article does not fully explore the potential causes of this unemployment. Are citizens unemployable, or is the local economy in a transition period?

– “At the local careers office, counsellor Agnes Urhweiller told me she worried that the French education system was completely out of sync with the world of business. Ms Urhweiller regularly sees hundreds of students who are well qualified but who have no real skills to offer employers. ‘In France, many young people don’t study the right subjects,’ she said as she marked a skills test for a young job seeker.”
– ” ‘I advise them they need practical qualifications to work. I come from the private sector and I know that private businesses need young people and, of course, that is where the money is, too. But our education system is a ‘has been’ – it’s too rigid,’ Ms Urhweiller said.

TL: Ms. Kirby of the BBC is making a hasty or false generalization. She has spoken to one articulate and concerned career counselor, and then posed to us, the reader, that Ms. Urhweiller’s opinion is that of all career counselors and French employment agencies.

It would appear to me that, rather than reform the entire education system around the principle of producing skilled employees, that France may simply need to offer technical/skills training to their high-minded, intelligent graduates. Is there an adequate skills training system in France? This article is written from the false mindset that a college education’s only goal is to produce employees for the capitalist economic system. Is it not true that college graduates should be critical thinkers who love learning and are active, enthusiastic citizens of France? If the current system produces that type, then let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

What are Ms. Kirby’s political and social commitments? She seems clearly sympathetic to the philosophy that drove Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency. Fine. But let’s not commit fallacies in trying to implement that policy. Build your argument with more than limited sample sets and circumstantial correlations.

– “A recent survey showed that 75% of graduates want to work in the public sector because civil servants and teachers enjoy a high level of social protection.”

TL: But don’t all employees desire a high level of job security? Is it not logical, therefore, that any employment sector that fulfills those qualifications would be desirable? It would be more to the point to ask what is it about France’s private sector that exudes insecurity? Poor regulation?

– “But President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to slash thousands of civil servant posts, and a recent economic report commissioned by the government has warned that people must accept the future is not with the state, but with private industry.”

TL: Has he also sought to reform private sector regulations that encourage labor insecurity? Has he invested in research such that businesses can make production transitions to new products?

– “Among the youngsters [Ms. Kirby] met searching for jobs at the careers office was 23-year-old Aurelie. She is still baffled as to what she wants to do. ‘I have studied so much, I am almost overqualified. And now I need a job to get money and I can’t find one,’ she said. ‘Everyone tells you to get a good education but my parents studied much less than I did and yet they didn’t have such problems finding work.’

TL: Enter the normal, insecure, soon-to-be college graduate. All college graduates feel anxiety. What are Aurelie’s qualifications? What kinds of jobs is she wanting? What has she done to augment her studies with skills training? What is the government or the private sector doing to help her gain the skills she needs? It’s clear that she has a desire for gainful employment, so it’s not like the current system of higher education produced a lazy, unconscientious citizen.

– “Marc Willinger, an economist at Montpellier University, believes young people today live in a more precarious world than their parents did. Not only is finding permanent work more difficult, but – with the state coffers empty – their retirement will not be cushioned by the government hand outs their parents will enjoy. This generation is having to fend for itself like never before.”
– ” ‘The young generation has been born into uncertainty,” Mr Willinger said. ‘And they have to live with that every day – not just because of unemployment but also because they have a much higher burden than the previous generation. They will have to care for themselves, for their children and they’ll also have to care for their parents’ generation.’

TL: I would hope that French political enthusiasts for capitalism and the “American way of doing business” understand that even the U.S. has safety nets in place. If the French, moreover, are trying to transition to a more market-oriented economy, then they need to understand that education is probably one of the last places in need of reform. You need a smart, intelligent, conscientious citizenry before you can train them in the specific, ever-changing set of skills needed to keep up with technological innovation.

But this final sequence, the culmination of the article, reveals Ms. Kirby’s sympathies as the piece’s author. Here goes—without interruption:

– “A few streets away from the university campus I visited a local hostel which provides cheap lodgings for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
– “Anthony and Kia were playing table football outside the cafeteria. When I asked them what they wanted the government to do to help them succeed in life, both were surprised at the notion that the state should step in to help them.”
– “Kia, who is training to be a waitress, told me she thought young people’s expectations were too high.”
– “She said that while some might scoff that she was ‘only a waitress’, she enjoyed her work and believed it was a good thing to get a job and to get on with life.”
– “Anthony, aged 20, is in the catering business. He was also adamant that young people should stand on their own two feet. ‘I don’t have any family,’ he said.”
– ” ‘But you can’t say the government has to help me because I don’t have parents – I can’t blame them. Young people are often lazy and think everything is owed to them but we need to work and to prove ourselves and then we can have dignity.’
– “Although he claimed not to be a fan of Mr Sarkozy’s, there is no doubt that the president would be a fan of Anthony’s. The sentiments expressed by Anthony and Kia could almost be Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party slogans.”
– “His election campaign last year was run on the mantra: ‘Work harder if you want to earn more.’ And the president still speaks wistfully of a ‘La France qui se leve tot’ (a France which gets up early) – and is ready to go to work.”
– “As I left the hostel, Anthony was preparing to spend his evening in his tiny bedroom listening to teach-yourself-English CDs and teach-yourself-Japanese.”
– “I told him I was impressed with his drive and enthusiasm, and he replied shyly that his dream was to one day enrol at university to study psychology.
– “I could almost feel President’s Sarkozy’s heart sink.”
– “France has educated many of the world’s greatest intellectuals and is justifiably proud of its erudite heritage.”
– “But with such poor economic growth and such huge public debt, this country now needs its clever young students to leave the university campus and start ploughing their skills and enthusiasms into the profitable world of work.”

And there you have it. If only more Kias and Anthonys (sans psychology) existed, then France would be a more powerful state. If fewer citizens would concern themselves with psychology and higher education in general, then they would have more drive, get up earlier, love capitalism, be courageous, and not annoy France’s career counselors and economists.

To Ms. Kirby: For someone who is an advocate of individual initiative, you spent a lot of ink in this piece blaming institutions, namely those in higher education, for France’s current plight. Who populates those institutions? And if you say these institutions corrupt an otherwise driven youth, then how did you ever find a motivated, intelligent, sincere woman like Aurelie, who appears to be quintessentially over-educated but not shy of the real world? Finally, do you have a crush on President Sarkozy? – TL


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One Comment
  1. Tim,
    I think one of the most salient problems you note, and one that caught my attention when I read the article, is that businesses expect entry-level employees to have a given skill set. Granted, most companies want to hire intellectual, educated individuals, but a lot of job skills are actually acquired on the job or through internships. One's initiative for pursuing an internship is only one factor that contributes to their education. Sure the schools can facilitate some of this, but it should not be their sole responsibility. So, should employees be smart and adaptable? Ideally, yes. Should businesses assume the task of training their employees with specific skill sets? That might not be such a bad thing.


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