Last weeks, I have seen some wonderful examples of higher education. Like during the ‘Stage du terrain’ in Plouha, where there was a good balance between theory and practice, and between the classroom and the field. The students were very pleased with the high number of professors: 40 students, with over 12 staff members! Also the way how tools and techniques were taught and practiced in the laboratory as well as under the open sky, was of high quality. And of course above all: the integrated and multidisciplinary approach. At least 5 different disciplines (like in hydrology, biology, architecture, economics, sociology) were mixed up in transversal groups to integrate the different types of knowledge.
This week, again the course was very well structured and all kinds of methodologies and techniques were practiced. Really fascinating was the application of the IDEA tool (“Methodes d’Evalation de la Durabilité en Agriculture “). After a long day outside in the fields (together with farmers, researchers, agronomists etc), the next day a workshop took place (for almost 10 hours), where all the information, gathered in the field, was interpreted and assessed in terms of ‘indicators’. Almost 200 indicators past by. First divided into three categories: ‘échelle de durabilité agro écologique’, then ‘échelle de durabilité économique’ and finally the ’échelle de durabilité socio-territoriale’. But within every category, again indicators were distinguished on a lower level, and again theseat a lower level, etc. So all together there were over 200 indicators. With different researchers within the classroom, the whole group of (30) students, analyzed their findings in the field within this framework; a really intensive but also very efficient way of dealing with data from different sources and different disciplines.
I can go on with giving examples of good educational practice here within the Agrocampus Ouest. I will do so, but later. I just want to point out one point of criticism on the educational system in Rennes, and it has to do with their idea of ‘formation’, of education. In Dutch (‘vorming’) and in English, this word (‘formation’) has two meanings: it means also ‘education’, but also ‘forming’ or ‘moulding’. In my experience, a main point of criticism is that French education is still rather synonymous with forming and shaping of the students instead of educating them. A simple example of this are the lectures. They sometimes can last the whole morning and afternoon, which means that the students have four presentation of at least two hours each, without hardly any break in between. So the first class starts at 8.30, nonstop till 10.30. Then another class starts, from 10.45 till 13.00 hours, and in the afternoon (and sometimes also in the evening) the same schedule. Everybody knows (and can notice, like I have experienced during those sessions) that this is NOT efficient. It is impossible to keep attention for such a long period. How come this doesn’t change? Students know about the in-efficiency of this model, but they accept. How come?
It has to do with what Kuhn calls ‘socializing’, to train and shape students in a way that they’ll fit in the paradigm. But it has also to do with the French tradition of power and authority. I remember the work of Ullrich (I think in his book ‘Im sackgasse der Industriesystem’), in which he analysis the structural affinity between science and the industrial system. One of the reasons why these two phenomena work ‘so well together’, is that they are both rooted in a military tradition. Both can be characterized with keywords like: centralized and hierarchic. It goes too far to go more into detail, but for me it is clear that the French educational system also has the characters of the military system, where power, authority and hierarchy are central elements of this system. Lectures that last for hours and hours aren’t efficient, but are part of the authoritarian tradition of the French higher education system. And to become part of that system, students accept (and so: reproduce) the implicit rules of it. Sometimes, by falling in sleep in the classroom or by sending ‘texts’ on their ‘portables’ to friends, who are somewhere outside and far away from this borrowing class(-room). And the professor? He just talks and talks and talks..….