Selection and the Left

Arthur Goldhammer
18 January 2018

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.

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3 Comments

  • Geof says:

    It seems to me that elitism is elitism. And that those on the Left saluting intellectual superiority are no more correct than those on the Right pitching gobs of money as a proof of Darwin’s theory. Perhaps Bill Buckley said it best when he offered that he would rather be governed by the first 500 names in the Boston phone book, than by the faculty of Harvard. Diversity IS the key – it’s no accident that the most successful stretches of American government in the last 50 years were those where the Executive was of the Right and Congress of the Left, or vice-versa.

  • Tim Smyth says:

    One way around the early in life high stakes examination system in France I have noticed is to go to college in another country something I have some personal experience in running into French students studying other places(In fact most of my French friends went to college outside of France). From a political standpoint though just in my personal experience I find French voters who went to school outside of France to be even more pro Macron than those who didn’t including those who went to the Grande Ecole’s I am not sure this is what Melenchon has in mind.

  • MYOS says:

    The Insoumis are trying to agitate using 80’s and 90s tactics.
    40,000 more students graduated from the “college prep” high schools last year, and 30,000 before that. 40,000 more are expected this year. ZERO new places were created in public universities, which were already bursting at the seams and terribly underfunded. So, universities drew lots. Seriously.
    This can’t go on – at least, some semblance of a student choosing a major for which s/he has shown minimal aptitude. For instance, passing grades in science for medicine, or physical prowess for Exercise science. But that doesn’t absolve the lack of investment and action from the government – there should be more spaces built (there are enough students already for two full universities!), dorms, professors/lecturers… If Macron were fair, he’d do both.

    Elitism within a republic though should focus on ensuring that all backgrounds and origins have a real shot. And right now, that’s not the case. When the “European classes” were officially closed, well, they were, 70% of them, in my rural département. And guess what? They remained in place in Paris “intra muros”. And from there the most priviledged kids went on to selective choices or college in Canada or Ireland or anywhere in Europe. Kids in rural areas… well… guess what happened?
    Polytechnique has opened a new BS program (without prépa) with an international focus – a really cool idea for students who are interested in math and science research. But the application fees are €95 and can’t be waived, even for kids whose families earn less than €1,000 a month. Again, who is eliminated from the process?

    Rather than the pseudo “selection” that Insoumis is trying to get kids worked up about, look at the new bac. If the “majeures” combo do include a variety of options. If there’ll be a more favorable number of options in lower income neighborhood schools or if suddenly some less desirable “vocational/technical” “majors” will concentrate there. Check to see what happens to the European classes, if they’re preserved outside the big cities or not. Look at budgeting – will high schools receive a budget ONLY for the 9 (or 13 or 15???) mandatory tracks, severely cutting the budget at large high schools with many electives and tracks currently, or will the schools be free to create locally-approved tracks with the budget that goes with them (within reason but level with current budget)?
    Cynically I think the unions will prefer the former to the latter in the name of “equality”. However, students are paying attention.
    The date to watch is Feb 14.
    Depending on what you hear then, there may be some movement … or not.

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