Debate: Behind the crisis of “yellow vests”, the failure of the mass university?


France is shaken and fascinated by the movement of “yellow vests”, as it has always been by the revolts that have punctuated history. She fears or hopes to recognize the eternal return of the Revolution, which has shaped its French specificity of which it is proud. The country wants to show once again to the world the virtues of rebellion. This probably best explains the massive support of the French to other French. But both are probably wrong this time. Not to express their suffering, sometimes their ire, but to believe that this protest movement is only the expression of a national history.

The crisis obviously has French causes, which however do not explain everything. For decades, in the West, the “knowledge economy” has not been combined with a balanced transfer of knowledge, sharing codes to understand the new world. As a result, was made impossible a free criticism of what Alain de Libera called false prestige and true knowledge.

The increasing incommunicability between those who believe they know everything and those who think that elite knowledge is just a form of disguised oppression undermines Western societies. It can be the source of conflicts of which we still do not know the consequences. The “wise” are obviously wrong to believe that they are infallible, because what is unique to science is not the absence of errors but the ability to question oneself and to self-correct. The disinherited of globalization are deceiving themselves into thinking that dropping off from the pedestal those whom they perceive as rentiers of knowledge would be enough to improve the states of the world and their daily lives.

Disappointed promises

In the 1970s, however, the Western world had created the instrument that should have enabled it to restore the intellectual and scientific pact, by communicating the learned and the less learned: the mass university . The university, welcoming more and more students of the same age group, was to be the crucible and the lever of a new chain of knowledge, able to guarantee the progressive and critical sharing of intellectual and scientific codes.

How can we not see today that this university is failing in almost every country that has given this almost millenary institution its origins and nobility? The elites of Harvard, Stanford, Princeton or Columbia have neither managed to share their knowledge with the American underprivileged of globalization, nor to convince them that culture is the only remedy against the exclusion not of others but of themselves. The wealthy classes from Oxford, Cambridge or the London School of Economics have failed to persuade their fellow citizens that, as the saying goes, fog in the Channel did not isolate the Continent but rather their island.

The teachers of Bologna, the “Alma mater”, the first university, or the Scuola Normale of Pisa were neither listened to nor heard when they tried to explain to their compatriots that Italy is not conceived not without Europe, any more than Europe would not be without the Peninsula. Similarly, the intellectuals of the Sorbonne, the College of France, the Ecole Normale Supérieure and other places of knowledge, have neither the means, nor probably the intention, to be heard by the French who do not do not understand them.

A cultural divide

The knowledge chain is stretched and the intellectual, scientific and cultural mediators expected to be the millions of university graduates are no longer able to fulfill their role as smugglers. It would be up to them, not to explain the truth of the elites, that can be discussed and criticized, but to contribute to the understanding and discussion of new realities.

We talk a lot about the territorial fracture or the sociological divide that two France would oppose, but by listening to each other, it appears that the cognitive fracture, the impossibility of confronting so different and more and more self-referential knowledge, is even more serious and more misunderstanding, and implicitly violence, than other social fractures.

It is all the more so as the means of information, the Internet, the social networks produce a knowledge that no criticism of the method and the contents do not filter or valid. Umberto Eco had, among the first, alerted to the distortion of minds and reality that social networks are producing. At the same time, the increasing use of Internet sites also reflects a demand for information and knowledge, to which the places of knowledge were unable to respond.

If the French university has neither promoted a new cultural pact, nor ensured its role as a social lift, nor even curbed mass unemployment, it is also because it has gradually transformed itself into an agency of the immediate employability. Professional integration, linked to skills that are essentially destined to expire quickly, has become its main horizon.

The misunderstanding of employability

We have confused the vocation of vocational streams, which must form first and foremost the trades of the present, and the mission of university courses, which must prepare for the professions of tomorrow. It is the demanding transmission of knowledge and the sharing of a critical method that offer both the surest guarantee of a professional integration worthy of the efforts made and the ability to understand, appropriate, transform and finally relay new knowledge.

By forgetting the virtues of lifelong learning, we have helped to train poorly paid workers, potential unemployed, potential underprivileged. They are not the ones who essentially form the ranks of the current challenge, but they are the ones who support the modalities of action potentially dangerous for democracy, or are unable to dialogue with the elites as much as they can. with those who could not continue their studies.

By privileging a knowledge more and more linked to skills quickly expired, the university did not exert its true mission of incubator and intellectual and scientific crucible, and thus its role of cultural, social and moral link. Yet our modern world is sorely lacking in these civic links that should be graduates of universities formed to knowledge as a reality that changes.

Banking on a pact of knowledge

It is these “middle classes of knowledge” that should be the link between the Fields medal community and Nobel prizes, and France’s possessing skills that increasingly condemn them to being excluded from the modern world. Convincing these underdogs to become insiders, to benefit from lifelong training is a priority for France. It will succeed all the more because it will be accompanied in this work by these intermediary bodies of knowledge which are the graduates of the universities.

“Indocti discant and ament meminisse periti” recalls a forgotten poet of the XVIII th  century, President Henault; if we want those who do not know to learn and those who know to remember that their knowledge is as deadly as their bodies, if we want all the French communities to communicate, understand and respect each other, then the school ensures a rigorous learning of “first knowledge”.

The university can then once again be the place that guarantees the durability of the pact of knowledge, without which no nation can prosper and humanism can not bear fruit. This is not yet another reform, a demand for new resources for the French faculties, but to make it clear that knowledge is the only antidote to inequality of opportunity, the only good that guarantees success. throughout life.

Such a speech can not be the immediate response to the anxieties and demands of those who are crying out for their livelihood, but it is probably the only way that can ensure in the future the intellectual and cultural cohesion of the country, without which we are all doomed to failure.

Author Bio: Claudio Galderisi is Professor of languages ​​and literatures of medieval France at the University of Poitiers