Universities are supposed to be pluralistic places for debate and the exchange of ideas, but in the English-speaking world and especially in North America, they have lately become crippled by the politics of wokeness, as embodied by equity and diversity councils, safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions. On these campuses, the world is reduced to an endless struggle between the privileged and the oppressed. As a French national, I have been wondering why we have seen so little of this toxicity and absurdity in my country—outside of radical leftist spaces—especially since French intellectuals played a crucial role in the development of this dualistic worldview. The work of French postmodernists like Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva and Michel Mafesolli has become fashionable all over the world—with dangerous ramifications not only for higher education in the west but also for developing countries that have a critical need for useful public intellectuals, as Noam Chomsky has argued. So why hasn’t applied postmodernism taken root in the country that set it in motion half a century ago?
A look at the economics of French and North American higher education systems may shed some light on this. In France, higher education is a right. In North America, it’s a service. French students are students. North American students are clients.
The French state-funded education system has its flaws. Our universities are riddled with debt, which has led to the implementation of austerity policies on several campuses and to waves of staff redundancies. The student/instructor ratio keeps widening. Between 2010 and 2016, the student population grew by 12.7% while the number of tenured professors increased by a meagre 0.2%. As a result, instructors on temporary contracts now account for a quarter of the academic workforce, but these precarious workers can consider themselves lucky. The country’s estimated 130,000 adjunct professors are even worse off, as in most universities they work without a contract (which is illegal) and get paid only €41.41 per contact hour before taxes, typically in biannual instalments. That covers prep work, student correspondence, paperwork, invigilating exams and marking papers. A recent report has suggested that adjuncts are basically working for below minimum wage (which is also illegal).
How is this relevant to social justice? Well, suppose a student starts claiming systemic racism is present on a given campus and requests the creation of an equity and diversity council or a safe space for oppressed minorities. And why not? There is undoubtedly a strong strain of racism and xenophobia in French politics and society. But the answer is going to be extremely straightforward: there is no money or space available. End of story.
The virtual nonexistence of tuition fees in France (an undergrad costs €170 a year) translates into high student numbers that constantly push the limits of the underpaid teachers’ abilities to do their jobs. This affects the instructor/student relationship in a way that leaves no room for cajoling. Unhappy with your mediocre grade? Too bad. Disagree with the teacher? We don’t really have time for that. Prof caught you messing around on Instagram, confiscated your phone and docked you a mark? Serves you right. Teaching methods are outdated? You’re welcome to try another uni. Can’t find the book the professor assigned at the library? Buy it on Amazon. Classroom jammed? Try asking next door for an extra chair. No luck? Sit on the floor. Or don’t.
All this has obvious consequences for the quality of teaching, however much individual teachers may try to provide the best education they can on their university’s shoestring budget. But, in addition, these economic realities make it virtually impossible to have the widespread clientelism you get at Ivy League and other prestigious American institutions, which can afford to dedicate space, time and money to social justice warriors. When Yale charges $55,500 a year for an undergraduate degree, you’d expect students to want more than just quality education.
Tuition fees, which are the product of freewheeling neoliberal economics, have spiralled out of control in the Anglophone world in general and in the US in particular. This translates into astronomical student debt that exacerbates economic inequalities and goes against the democratic principle of freedom of education that should not end after high school. In addition, the for-profit and clientelist model has had some very insidious consequences for other aspects of democratic life by providing students with a customer service that leaves the door wide open for extravagant and unreasonable requests that are, ironically, just as undemocratic. Meanwhile, France clings on to its socialist university model and every French national can attend without worrying about tuition, even though the institution is reaching breaking point and its limitations are glaring. But for better or worse, we have control over the students in our classrooms. Not the reverse.