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Re: <nettime> New Media Education and Its Discontent
Benjamin Geer on Sat, 11 Oct 2003 15:29:50 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> New Media Education and Its Discontent

Keith Hart wrote:
 > The USA is the only country in the world where
 > higher education of a highly variable sort is universally
 > available. Whatever we thin of the country's present
 > government, it has a lot to do with the fact that America
 > is the world's most advanced experiment in democracy. To call
 > such a society anti-intellectual is perverse.

French people's jaws drop when you tell them that, in the US, getting a 
good university education generally requires spending (or borrowing) as 
much money as it would cost to buy a house.  To them, this seems 
positively medieval.

Briefly, for those who may not know: in France, there are very few 
private universities, and they aren't considered to be any better than 
the public ones, which are of a uniformly high standard.  Anyone who 
passes the baccalaureat is entitled to go to the nearest unversity, at 
the state's expense.  Moreover, it doesn't matter who your parents are; 
if you can't pass the university exams, you won't get past the first 
year, never mind get an advanced degree.  And if you can, you will.  To 
my mind, that's how education ought to work in an advanced democracy.

When I was a postgraduate student in the US, I was amazed to find that, 
at social gatherings, a favourite conversation topic of my fellow 
students was... guess what... television.  Not in any critical sort of 
way.  They just loved to tell each other what their favourite TV 
commercials were.  They had really swallowed the American pop culture 
drug whole, without any reflection.

If you put five or ten young, university-educated French people in a 
room and let them talk, you can be pretty sure of one thing: they will 
start to have a debate.  Opinions and analyses of *something* will be 
critiqued and defended.  Particularly if you bring up the subject of the 
media, which is widely seen as an instrument of disinformation and 

It's not just because they all have to study philosphy in high school. 
It's at least partly because their secondary education requires them to 
develop critical thinking.  While their American counterparts are 
ticking boxes in multiple-choice quizzes just to prove that they 
actually read the textbook, French 14-year-olds are constantly being 
asked to formulate and express their own analyses, in speech and in 
writing.  Teachers don't hesitate to give poor marks and harsh 
critiques.  In fact, the students expect and demand this: if a teacher 
is seen as too soft, the students make his or her life miserable.  This 
was very clear to me when I worked as a teaching assistant in a French 
school, because I (with my American background) was seen as much too soft.

In American high schools, the most popular girls are the pretty ones, 
and the most popular boys are the ones who are good at football.  The 
schools themselves create this attitude.  When I was in high school in 
the US, we were forced to go to 'pep rallies': we all had to sit in the 
gymnasium and chant slogans as the school's football cheerleaders went 
through their routine.  In most people's minds, caring about school 
meant caring about the football team.  Those who didn't go along with 
this attitude were branded as traitors.  Thus, cutthroat 
competitiveness, and the idea that might makes right, were drilled into us.

French people find this sort of thing both funny (particularly the 
ridiculous 'pom-pom girls') and disturbing.  In French high schools, 
sport is seen simply as exercise.  There are no teams and no 
competition.  Instead, the popular kids (girls and boys) are often the 
ones who are good at maths or French.  I saw this with my own eyes and 
was astonished.

Turn on the TV any evening in France, and you're sure to find a show 
consisting of authors having an intellectual discussion, though the 
level of discussion is surely not what it was in the 1970s, when Bernard 
Pivot interviewed Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault during prime time.

And of course, power and patronage are not absent.  As Bourdieu pointed 
out, the media heavily promotes certain favoured intellectuals, who lend 
a veneer of credibility to the interests of the powerful.  The teaching 
of history gives short shrift to national embarrassments (such as 
France's brutality in the Algerian war of independence) as well as to 
home-grown resistance to the capitalist state (such as the Paris Commune 
of 1871).

But critical thinking, once learnt, is difficult for those in power to 


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