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Two Cheers for the University

Anyone who was in Paris in May or early June of 1968 will have experienced the sense of revolutionary intoxication, compounded in equal parts of fear and quasi-mystical utopian exaltation, at the shattering of the bonds of orthodoxy, and heightened by a powerful dose of sexual excitement. Those amazing graffiti that spread across the walls of every University building in the Sorbonne and at Paris-Nanterre convey some idea of this apocalyptic atmosphere1 : “No God, no Master. I am God.” “I declare a state of perpetual happiness.” “The Imagination seizes power.” “We are all German Jews.” “The more I make love, the more I want to make the revolution. The more I make the revolution, the more I want to make love.” These are the authentic witnesses of the revolutionary spirit at its most frenetic, a spirit which must have been present in the streets of Paris in 1789, 1848, and 1870, and in Petrograd in 1919. Few of the published reports have given an adequate impression of the true character of the shock-waves that were—and are still—running through the French university system.

The institutional structures through which this revolutionary fervor is channeled are: the comité paritaire, an executive committee with equal representation of students and faculty; the commissions, open committees which anyone can attend, meeting daily for weeks or even months on end to discuss certain critical topics, such as curriculum reform, student power, or the role of the University in politics; and the assemblée générale, a meeting of all undergraduate and graduate students, teaching assistants, and professors, which is the final legislative body, voting by show of hands on propositions formulated by the commissions, accepted by the comité paritaire, and presented for a popular vote.

So far as a casual visitor could discover, there were three overlapping groups among the student activists. The objective of the first, in ascending order of radicalism, is to transform the ancient, hierarchical structure of the French University, with its all-powerful central bureaucracy entrenched in the Ministry of Education, its feudal chieftains in the professors, its timid vassals in the teaching assistants, and its serfs in the students, all parties gripped by a manic obsession with examination and grades. This first group hopes to democratize the University and to shift power in varying degrees into the hands of the students.

The second group believes that it is impossible to create a democratic university in what it describes as a bourgeois capitalist society. It looks on the university not as something to be reformed and improved, however radically, but as something to be destroyed, as the soft underbelly of that society, through which it can be most easily attacked. On May 16 Daniel Cohn-Bendit remarked: “They won’t put us to sleep with false organisations paritaires. We are revolutionaries. We will demonstrate, we will fight, we will refuse to allow examinations to take place in their traditional form, since their purpose is to maintain the privileges of the propertied classes.”2 As a graffitiwriter put it succinctly: “Examination = servility, social climbing, hierarchical society.” This group thinks it impossible to restructure the University so long as society itself remains unaltered. At a general assembly which I attended, a student asked: “What is the point of discussing now to create a democratic University when less than 2 percent of the professors come from the working class?”

The third group is even more overtly political in its objectives than the second. It wishes to use the university as the sand in the machine of bourgeois capitalist society. It wants to create in France a situation such as exists in some Latin American countries, in which the University is wholly politicized and is dedicated to the destruction of the society in which it is encapsulated.

ALL THREE of these student groups are demanding far more than overdue reform of a sclerotic system of education: they threaten the deepest values of the University as we know it.3 The objectives of the last two groups, and to some extent of the first, run directly contrary to the ideal of the liberal university as it has flourished in the West for the last hundred years. This ideal is of an institution half in, but half withdrawn from, the world, where adolescents are taught the skills and the wisdom they need to occupy key positions in society, and in which scholars devote themselves to the pursuit of learning for its own sake. One of the critical elements in this ideal is the apolitical character of the University, the fact that it is a special haven of free speech and political neutrality in which ideas may be freely expressed and developed without fear of outside interference. Police on campus is the supreme violation of this ideal, the rape of the Alma Mater. The second element in this ideal is the disinterested pursuit of scholarship, which means that professors are chosen and rewarded partly for their teaching capacities and their popularity with students, but also, and in elite institutions far more, for their capacity for intellectual effort and creative research. Direct control by students over professional appointments is as serious a violation of this ideal as direct control by University Trustees or by politicians.

AN EXAMINATION of the so-called “Charte de Nanterre” reveals the uncompromising nature of student aspirations. This document was drawn up by a national convention of French Universities, with delegates from the revolutionary committees of some thirty faculties. Passed on June 22, by 143 votes to 9 with 8 abstentions, after two days and nights of passionate debate, the main articles of the Charter run as follows4 :

  1. The student movement is not merely a response to police repression, nor a protest against the deficiencies of the educational process or the shortage of jobs. It challenges the University that stands between the movement and an understanding of the essential element of conflict in all social relations. Based on a questioning of the fundamental nature of the University, the student movement aligns itself with rejection of a given type of society. The movement has assumed its full dimensions by joining the workers’ struggle against capitalist society.

  2. Social reality, and the function fulfilled by the University in relation to it, are the object of permanent criticism and disputation. We must turn the entire University institution away from functions which the ruling class, aided by internalized repressions, now make it fulfill, in order to make it a place where there are developed the means for a critical understanding and expression of reality.

  3. Manual and intellectual workers unite in denouncing capitalist exploitation. There is no privileged field for this struggle: it breaks out and organizes itself wherever oppression exists in any form whatsoever.

  4. The University does not occupy an abstract and neutral position in relation to a class-ridden society. It is tightly wedged into it by the social function which it assumes. Teachers and students challenge the nature and operation of this relationship: the contents and the form of the knowledge imparted, the faculty recruitment pattern, and the administrative practices.

  5. Access to study at all levels must conform to three basic democratic principles:

1) the freedom of students from all economic pressures thanks to the assumption by society of the full cost of their education;

2) the freedom, by means of basic theoretical training and permanent instruction, from cultural constraints which are the heritage of a class-bound society, transmitted via the family and class environment;

3) the refusal of any selection process which is based on social divisions and on the long- or short-term needs of the economy.

  1. Autonomy, the free exercise of every freedom and the practice of direct democracy at all levels give full weight to the process of confrontation.

  2. The exercise of every freedom (political, union, etc.) is guaranteed by putting space and facilities (printing, posters, financial aid, etc.) at the disposal of all groups and individuals whether they belong to the University or not. The boundaries of the campus are inviolate.

  3. The principle of direct democracy governs all the operations of the University. At every level, authority is vested in full general assemblies. The right to initiate a discussion is guaranteed to all. The representative system is merely an expedient; and all representatives are liable to dismissal at any time.

WHAT THIS remarkable document means, if we cut through the rhetoric, seems to be this:

  1. The function of the University is to work for the subversion of the society which surrounds it;

  2. It is the duty of the society to pay for the University, to finance all students, and to provide them with the necessary facilities for political activity;

  3. The boundaries of the campus may never be violated under any circumstances. Within these boundaries both members and non-members of the University are free to propagate their ideas and to organize politically;

  4. Restrictions on the admission of students to the University are unacceptable, since the setting up of qualifying standards is bound to reflect the influence of family and environment and therefore to be based on class distinctions;

  5. The society has no right to plan university education in the light of its own economic needs;

  6. The University must be run on principles of direct democracy with all power in the hands of joint general assemblies of faculty and students all voting together.

IT IS—or by now it should be—self-evident that there is urgent need in Universities all over the world for more democracy at all levels, and in particular for much greater participation by students in the formulation of policy about such matters as the course of study, examinations, social life and regulations concerning personal behavior. It is also obvious that in relation to society the University has a dual and contradictory purpose: to serve—as all education serves—as a means for socializing the individual, his adaptation to the mores of the society in which he will live and his training for the functions he will perform; and also to serve—and here the University’s role is unique—as a center for the formulation of new ideas which challenge conventional wisdom and lead to innovation and social change. But it is not difficult to see from the “Charte de Nanterre” why some of the most despondent men in Paris today are the liberal reformers who for years have been agitating for change. The demands for full financial support from the state for an unrestricted number of university entrants, for a university planned without regard for the economic opportunities for subsequent employment, and for direct student-faculty democracy on an equal basis as a vehicle for administration and policy-making, are clearly unrealistic, while the role of the University as a sheltered center for pure scholarship is wholly ignored. Indeed, here and there among the activists can be seen hints of intellectual nihilism: “Professor, you are as old as your culture,” declared one graffiti-writer contemptuously. Most disturbing of all, however, is the deliberate harnessing of the University to a specific political objective, today to the overthrow of the bourgeois capitalist society, tomorrow (presumably) to the support of the new society which is to replace it.

This program seriously threatens the tolerant, pluralistic, free-floating liberal university as we know it. For all its faults, for all its partial and guilt-ridden complicity in the activities of the military-industrial complex, for all its obstinate loyalty to outmoded and elitist disciplines, for all its self-serving antiquarianism dressed up as a respect for learning, for all its tendency toward administrative authoritarianism, for all its obsession with examinations, nonetheless in the twentieth century the liberal university has been and still is the most impregnable bastion of individual freedom and humane values, the most important vehicle for social mobility into the elite, and the most prolific generator of ideas for social betterment and for radical social change. These are values which are worth preserving and fighting for.

Letters

Community of Scholars? November 7, 1968

Charte De Nanterre October 10, 1968

  1. 1

    One collection of wall-graffiti has already been published: Julien Besançon, Les Murs ont la parole: Mai 68, Paris, Tchou.

  2. 2

    Alain Ayache, Les Citations de la Révolution de Mai, Paris, J.J. Pauvert, p. 44.

  3. 3

    An extended examination of this argument is contained in a series of articles by Raymond Aron, published in the Figaro and now issued as a separate pamphlet: “Pour la Défense et la Rénovation de l’Université Française.”

  4. 4

    The translation is of the text published in Le Nouvel Observateur, June 26, 1968, pp. 24-25.

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