Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Entering the 20th century

I just received a mailing from my alma mater, the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (aka Sciences Po), asking for money. They even trumpeted a new logo and included a pin! Now this is routine for alums of American universities, but in France it's pretty racy stuff. The mailing's related to a new law from summer ’07 making a chunk of donations tax-deductible. Again, routine here but groundbreaking in France, where a lot of university-level education is very very cheap (tuition for my years at Sciences Po in the mid-’80s was under $1,000 total). Believe me, escaping from college without debt makes a huge difference on your outlook on life.

But at the same time the French university system is in crisis, crying out for money and losing competitive edge. I can't say that I'm fully aware of all the issues at play, but it's hard to argue with the fact that French universities don't have much money. I feel many American ones have reached a ridiculous level of obscene luxury, absurdly sheltering their clients—sorry, students—inside privileged cocoons, and I certainly think education needs to be either free or cheap (again, getting out of college debt-free is huge), but there's got to be a middle ground somewhere.

Anyway, Sciences Po's president, Richard Descoings, is very proactive (some say in a rather self-serving way; just check out his blog) in modernizing Sciences Po. Part of me likes this aggressive attitude, which I find refreshingly rare in French academia but—and I kinda but kinda not apologize for being so crass here—dude's got to do something about the slicked-back hair; it really only works if you're a flamenco guitarist.

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