Monday, May 28, 2012

Harvard: A French Obsession

The French seem to have become rather obsessed with Harvard all of a sudden, or perhaps I should say yet again. The immediate pretext seems to be the book published by Stéphanie Grousset-Charrière, which I mentioned here a while ago. This was followed by two articles in Le Monde.

Inevitably, I suppose, things will look quite different from the perspective of Cambridge, Mass., than that of Paris, France. But even superficial observers of Harvard must have noticed that the university seems lately to have been gripped by a certain anxiety, which these French commentators seem to miss entirely. Take two recent initiatives: the creation of a Harvard Innovation Center and an agreement with MIT to produce on-line courseware that will be distributed free of charge. Both are signs that Harvard authorities are nervous about the future role of the private liberal arts college in a world where the function of higher education is increasingly seen as advanced vocational training and entrepreneurial incubation. In short, Harvard is suffering from Stanford- and MIT-envy, while France seems to be suffering from envy for a Harvard it has taken from the pages of The Education of Henry Adams.

9 comments:

David A. Bell said...

"L'étudiant n'attend pas seulement de son professeur qu'il soit savant, compétent et performant : il attend qu'il soit soumis puisque le client est roi." What merde. I would like to see the author cite an instance of a student treating Stanley Hoffmann as "soumis" and getting away with it for a nanosecond.

bernard said...

I will not discuss the latest philosophical musings on Harvard in Le Monde, having little time to waste on ignorant BS.

What I would be more interested in would be for you, Art, to expand on how an agreement to produce online courseware, free of charge, is a sign of anxiety. Harvard can afford it with its endowment. And the implicit conflict that you mention is nothing new at all.

Many other universities are producing such courses online these days, some already for a few years.

What is wrong with that and how does it detract from the liberal arts part of higher education? It appears to me that it gives people who are far away from Harvard, far away from the US, an opportuniity to "listen" to rather decent professors and that is good.

The other thing of course is that MIT, the arch ennemy I suppose, is perhaps much more than just about vocational education. My spies tell me that Krugman et alii were students there and haven't gone into crass industry.

brent said...

Totally d'accord with your diagnosis of Harvard's "anxiety" with regard to "Stanford and MIT-envy." Two other examples, much larger in financial terms than the ones you cite:
1) Harvard's latest iteration of its 'Allston campus' as an entrepreneurial science zone complete with acres of shared private-sector facilities and a small conference hotel, a mini-Kendall Square; and 2) the recent decision to develop its other Allston parcels--mixed-use, residential, even administrative--through 3rd party profit-seeking developers, i.e., outsourced investment rather than institution-building.

This vision of what Harvard really is or wants to become--a 'profit center' in the 'new economy'--has indeed escaped the attention of the silly journalists you cite--but it has won the affection of Valérie Pécresse ...

Art Goldhammer said...

Well, I myself was a student at MIT (BS and PhD), so I'm using "vocational ed" with tongue firmly in cheek. And I certainly won't deny that free courseware will make valuable educational materials widely available, as MIT has been doing for several years and as some Harvard profs, like Gary King and Michael Sandel, have tried more recently. The anxiety, however, has to do with the fact that the cost of elite private higher education has risen so rapidly that it is now beyond the reach of much of the population. Harvard compensates for this with a generous program of subsidies for families earning less than $180K a year. But the rising costs cannot continue, and the "packaging" of lectures via A/V media is one way to reduce the cost of teaching. But there are many worries associated with this change. This isn't the place to enumerate them, but I think you can imagine what some of them are without too much difficulty.

Anonymous said...

Compared to the comportment of most French Professors of equivalent stature, I think that Stanley really is "soumis" to his students. I don't mean by this that he's worried about his Q scores (BS indeed) but rather that he actually cares about teaching his students - and also, perhaps, that he concedes the possibility that his students might, on occasion, have a better argument than him.

The article in Le Monde unwittingly picks something out about Harvard that really is different; but this is a difference that, far from encapsulating some kind of Brave New World, reflects the egalitarian intellectual values that should stand at the center of all great institutions of higher learning. Nothing wrong about France's obsessions with Harvard. It's only sad that they seem to be drawing all the wrong lessons.

James C. Brown said...

In a blog post on Sarkozy's admin & reforms of higher ed in France, I made mention of the fact that the French higher education establishment is oblivious to what is going on in the US - they only see the tip of the iceberg, or rather the tip that is in the Shanghai rankings. I've rarely if ever come across anybody in France mention the deep problems traversing higher ed in the US.
The problem is that the French model of reforming their universities, grouping them into big clusters called PRES, is based on the US research university model which is currently faltering.

http://web-logos.blogspot.fr/2012/05/for-record-5-years-of-higher-education.html

DavidinParis said...

France has a very utilitarian view of the university as a vehicle to train young people for a job in society. This is a far cry from academia which is still alive and well in even the 'lesser' universities in the US. Yes, the incoming business, engineering, premed and other vocational majors are in abundance, but so is the possibility to reinvent yourself because one remains exposed to all aspects of culture and knowledge before zeroing in on the job training. Harvard-envy, regardless of being misplaced as you would judge it, is better than the semiautonomous meat grinders that dot the French university landscape today.

Ellie said...

Yes, for the most part these French commentators don't get Harvard. In the same way that most American commentators don't get Harvard. But I'm with James C. Brown on this-- I'm really starting to wish that the French reformers would go spend some time someplace other than the Ivy League. Go to a regional campus of a public university someplace in the Midwest. Or better yet, to a community college. They'd have to look for quite a while to find any of those shiny labs, luxurious libraries, generous student grants, non-utilitarian attitudes to learning, well-compensated faculty, etc. This is the real modèle amércain, and I suspect that folks over here might feel quite differently about it if they knew what it was actually like.

DavidinParis said...

@ Ellie
Actually, as I work in Paris VI, but have spent much time at the 'lesser universities' I can assure you that compared to the dusty and dirty labs, broken windows, graffiti and general apathy here, there are thousands of grad B universities, state colleges and other non-Ivy institutions that would be far preferable to what we have here. This stated, when I am at universities outside of Paris, things are a bit better, but not much. Perhaps appearances aren't everything, but a student feels his/her worth transmitted by the public when the institution is literally falling apart by the seams.
@ J Brown-there is no doubt a crisis in higher education in the USA...and it will not take 20 years to fix. Here, no one believes that real change will occur. Perhaps this is the crux of the situation.