Why French Academics Are Taking to the Streets

Thursday, April 16, 2009
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
Building 260, Room 252 German Studies Library Pigott Hall
  • Monique Canto-Sperber

For more than three months now the French academic world has been shaken by an unprecedented crisis with many demonstrations, action days, alternative teaching and protest initiatives of all sorts. A very specific feature of this movement is that it encompasses the whole political spectrum. In almost daily demonstrations, law professors, traditional support of right wing governments, and social sciences scholars, the leftist part of the French academic scene, were marching hands in hands. What are the reasons for such upheaval? What is under threat? What is called for? Beyond the analysis of the causes and goals of these actions, the talk will focus on the deep transformations in culture and education that are affecting French modern society.


To Prof. Canto-Sperber, the recent protests to university reform in France represent an unprecedented crisis in the French academic world encompassing the whole political spectrum. She sees the two most immediate causes as the reforms President Sarkozy has tried to pass. The first one would give more autonomy to the universities to regulate their professors in terms of time management and promotion. However, Prof. Canto-Sperber reveals that this comes into conflict with the fact that French academics believe that only a national body has the legitimacy to decide on the best balance between research and teaching, as well as the promotion of professors. In addition, Prof. Canto-Sperber explains it is commonly assumed in the French academic world that only a body of professors of the same academic discipline is entitled to judge the performance of a particular professor. The second reform involves a shift in the training of professors by introducing professional exams and taking away from the current system of aggregation, an achievement that mainly exhibits intellectual status. Prof. Canto-Sperber focuses on the fact that the proposition of such professional exams was seen to strike at the pride and identity of professional teaching. Moreover, to Prof. Canto-Sperber, such exams were also seen as a threat to the quality of the professors and as lowering the knowledge requirements for becoming a professor. In addition to this, Prof. Canto-Sperber also focuses on changing social realities in the French education system where some of the students do not even speak French. Professors want to maintain high intellectual status without having to come to terms with the necessity for professional training, the system of aggregation is a way to hold on to their beliefs.

In order to properly understand to significance of recent events, Prof. Canto-Sperber sets out to put them in historical context. She explains the history of the university system in France, as well as the rise and domination of the Grandes Ecoles over the universities. She argues that as French universities have all been state dependent and equal in status, they have had no incentive to attract students and have gradually become isolated from French society. They have not had to deal with the necessities of most social organizations such as efficiency, responsibility, and self-regulation. To Prof. Canto-Sperber, that is why at this stage it is difficult for universities to fathom organizing and regulating themselves. Prof. Canto-Sperber reinforces this by making the point that from the 15th century through to the 19th century, French universities repeatedly ignored the development of new knowledge such as the Cartesian revolution or the Enlightenment. This led to a habit in France of creating parallel institutions to deal with the necessity of having platforms to discuss these new intellectual approaches. Prof. Canto-Sperber puts forward the view that the reason the renewal of universities in France has been so difficult is that it means reintegration with a society that has moved on culturally and scientifically.

What Prof. Canto-Sperber therefore expresses is that there is no longer a choice but to put universities back into society and give them autonomy. Professors must be allowed to maintain their ‘republican’ ideals but in a more modest way. Prof. Canto-Sperber argues that the program of rational emancipation has led to segregation and must be abandoned. Finally and most importantly, universities must be given financial autonomy to define and regulate themselves. However, Prof. Canto-Sperber concludes by arguing that due to intellectual and philosophical barriers, the “awkward” situation will most probably continue.

In a spirited and lengthy discussion session, one of the points raised was that of bringing together research and teaching. Discussion of this also led to the point of the problem of donations in French universities and these universities' dependence on the state.

About the Speaker

Monique Canto-Sperber is the director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (Paris, rue d'Ulm), she is a university professor and a fellow of National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS, Center Raymond Aron), she was the former vice president of the French National Ethics Committee.

Alumnus of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, with an aggregation and a doctorate in philosophy, she was professor at several universities (University of Rouen and Amiens). She chaired a research center (at University of Caen) and in 1993 was appointed director of research at the CNRS. She was the scientific director of many international scientific conferences. She taught at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and at many other universities abroad. She was a visiting professor at Stanford University.

Monique Canto-Sperber sat on numerous boards and committees. She was a member of the board of trustees of the French National Library, and she chaired the Philosophy Committee of the National Center of Letters. She is the editor of two series edited at the Presses Universitaires de France. She takes part in a television program on essays and debates in the Senate channel, Public Sénat, and runs a radio weekly program on France Culture.

Monique Canto-Sperber was trained as a classicist and first worked in the field of ancient philosophy. She published four translations and commentaries of Plato's dialogues and several books on Greek philosophy: Les Paradoxes de la connaissance (1991), Philosophie grecque (1997) et Ethiques Grecques (2002).

For more than fifteen years, most of her books have been devoted to contemporary moral and political philosophy and to practical ethical questions. She published numerous books on these issues, translated into several languages, among them La Philosophie morale britannique (1994), le Dictionnaire d'Ethique et de philosophie morale (1996, 4ème édition : 2004), L'Inquiétude morale et la vie humaine (2001, Englis trans, 2008)), Les Règles de la liberté (2003), Le Bien, la guerre et la terreur (2005), Faut-il sauver le libéralisme? (2006), Naissance et liberté (2008). She was the editor of several books as Le Style de la pensée (2002), and Ethiques d'aujourd'hui (2004).

Monique Canto-Sperber is Chevalier des arts et des lettres, Chevalier de la légion d'honneur and Officier de l'ordre national du mérite.