Selection and the Left
Today we learn that La France Insoumise has seized on “selection” of students by universities as a “major issue” for the year ahead. “The young,” says FI deputy Eric Coquerel of Seine-Saint-Denis, “will mobilize to block Macron.” Le Monde adds, with a hint of perfidy, that this strategic choice offers the added enticement of giving FI a beachhead among student and youth organizations to compensate for its failure thus far to enlist the consistent support of organized labor or the PCF. The young are always “bon à mobiliser” if one seeks to contest the government from the streets. After all, the fiftieth anniversary of May ’68 lies ahead. And nothing mobilizes the young like the bugbear of “selection.”
And it must be said at the outset that selection in France is particularly brutal and that French elitism is particularly hard to bear to those who are condemned to look in from outside. Fitzgerald was wrong that “there are no second acts in American life” (whatever he meant by it), but he might have been right if he had applied his remark to France, where failure to succeed in high-stakes examinations early in life casts a long shadow over the rest.
But let me lay my cards on the table. I am an educational elitist. I don’t think a commitment to democracy is a commitment to leveling in every area of existence. It’s not simply a question of unequal distribution of talents. Some people unquestionably have a “taste” for learning, as Tocqueville would have put it, that others lack. They should be given the chance to develop that taste in the most favorable possible environment, surrounded by others who share it.
This does not mean that those who lack the taste should be denied the opportunity to learn, but resources are limited, and choices have to be made. There is no perfect instrument for selecting the best students, but there are rough-and-ready measures, and it is a mistake not to grant them some weight. Indeed, if you polled high-school students about their classmates, I think you would find substantial consensus about which students show the most pronounced taste for learning and which the least.
I suspect that the FI deputies who make selection their tête de turc of the moment would not be so latitudinarian when it comes to choosing members of the French national soccer team. Decrying selection at universities serves only to widen the chasm between the universities and the Grandes Écoles. What is needed is not an open-door policy but a more differentiated palette of educational choices serving a wider range of tastes in learning.
FI’s tactics may bring students into the streets, but it will do nothing to enhance French education. A better approach is that pioneered by the late Richard Descoings of Sciences Po: look for ways to help those who have the true taste for learning but find themselves in circumstances where that taste is hard to develop and satisfy.