PARIS - The boundless admiration that some have for the diploma machine that is Harvard worries me by its lack of hindsight. Of course, this private university - the richest in the world - does not lack laurels, but do not forget that laurels grow well on manure.

Our French universities are as poor as church mice and any professor who crosses the Atlantic comes back depressed by what he has seen: investment in research, well-equipped facilities, high-tech amphitheaters and libraries, and salaries a soon-to-retire French university professor can only dream of. America is a young country that invests in its youth and in knowledge! This production of gray matter is the reason behind its technological lead and the source of its hyper-power. The American dream! How could you not be tempted!

In Isabelle Rey-Lefebvre's recent article (see Le Monde from May 16), we learn that "44 Nobel Prizes, 46 Pulitzer Prizes and 8 United States presidents hail from its ranks." Sacrebleu! Based on sociologist Stéphanie Grousset-Charrière's book The Hidden Side of Harvard, the article showcases the advantages and inconveniences of the university's unique education. The latter are logical counterparts to the former: teachers are never absent even when they're sick; they interact directly with their students; tests and assessments aren't used to punish students; positive feedback is deemed more "constructive."

Teachers As Employees, Students As Clients

From afar, this method of teaching is both interesting and innovative, and it is true that thoughtfulness is better than contempt or humiliation. But Harvard did not invent this motivational method: it flourished in Europe after Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile. What is worrying about this student-teacher relation has nothing to do with the fact that it is constructive and attentive. It is worrying because it is about pandering to the students. Because tuition is so high, they expect their professors to be knowledgeable, competent and efficient, but also submissive. The client is always right.

This pandering is why students get to evaluate their teachers; those who weren't deemed "convincing" enough are fired, thrown out like an old piece of furniture! In the country where the doer trumps the thinker, the payer evicts the payee. This is nothing new: Nero's preceptor Seneca complained in On Benefits that human relations in Rome were based on debt. He wanted to replace this commercial relationship by a more benevolent relationship, like the one between Gods and men.

Letting your children start their adult life with so much debt should be illegal. There is nothing wrong with dismissing bad professors, as long as the student-teacher relation is intellectual and not commercial. At Harvard, the educational is linked to the economic, and the intellectual is linked to the clientele.

Knowledge v. Earning Power

Debt means debtors. American students aren't as interested in knowledge as they are in income, if only to pay back their debt! It isn't easy to motivate children to learn; is it necessary to saddle them with debt to transform their meager scholarly appetite into a hyper-motivation for university? Free market economists say debt fosters motivation. Psychoanalysts tell their patients the same: pay to know yourself. One can clearly see how masochistic the system is!

Max Weber acutely described this logic in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism - John Harvard was a young Puritan pastor of the early 17th century. But is debt the only way for knowledge to blossom and flourish? Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook not through economic masochism but through another, more joyful impulse! Neither Marie Curie nor Albert Schweizer nor Bergson nor Camus nor Sartre got into debt to create their work.

Even though we know that French professors aren't paid as well as their German or British colleagues, is it necessary, in order to reassert the value of knowledge, to decide that the only way they'll get a raise is if they "Harvardize" their teaching methods? That is to say by abandoning free, selfless teaching methods for a tempting yet childish client-employee system? Some already think and act this way.

But at a time when students in Quebec are protesting against university tuition hikes and when American student debt has passed the $1 trillion threshold, it may be time to invent cheaper and less castrating solutions than "Harvardizing." Let us start with the following premise: knowledge is immaterial, abundant, communicable and not automatically mercantile. Remember that in Greek, school ("Skholè") doesn't' mean client or debt, but "leisure."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Will Hart