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Wednesday, 9 November 2005

Trespassing Tourism

My friend at school is subletting his apartment. It evaporates for him next wednesday. So he decided that a good way to find a new place would be to go to University buildings and look for ads posted on message boards there. So yesterday, we went on a little tour of basements of the Paris Universities. I'm trying to cut back on my caffeine intake, so I don't know exactly which schools I wandered in to. The institute of Art and Archeology's building looks like Babylonian fortress. The building is a copy of some buildings in the archeology museum in Berlin. They have a copy of the greek temple frieze ringing the building and the front looks like the aforementioned temple, complete with winged lions on either side.

Some of buildings were impressive, like that one. Some, like the unguarded side of the École Normale Superior were ugly. None of them seemed new. The schools are all public, but many of them looked a lot like Columbia University in New York. They look like elite, Ivy league schools, which is what they are, even though they're not.

i walked into the Sorbonne campus. It was lined with a gate and they had a security guard who was supposed to check IDs, but I guess I looked enough like a student and he didn't stop me. They have a large courtyard in the part I was in. One end is a huge patriotic mural. There are statues above it that are plated in new brass or gold. On the other end is a domed building, with imposing stairs leading up into it. There are to larger than life statues next to the stairs. One is Pascal. I didn't want to be too obviously sightseeing, so I didn't take any pictures.

My fellow trespasser was a Marxist. "How many black people do you see?" He asked, angrily, "How many arabs?" From where I was standing, I saw one person with darker than average skin and I saw one black person earlier in the hallway.

The security guards were inside as well as outside. I felt their eyes on me, as if they could tell that I didn't belong because I was too old, too casual, no backback, looking around in wonder, some reason. We left through a stricter gate where they were patting people down and checking every ID.

We looked at the books for sale in the bookstores right outside of the exceedingly posh, wealthy campus. Most were from the 19th century. A few got into the early part of the 20th. "It's like a school from another century" my companion said. I felt lucky and privileged not to have gone to such a prestigious school for my undergrad, where I could learn new ideas, unencumbered by history or tradition but also old ideas, which I was free to ignore if needed. Music history and tonal harmony were required classes, but nobody demanded I write in those styles. John Cage could never have been associated with the Sorbonne, nor Lou Harrison, but both were attached to Mills.

In the United States, we have discussions about accessibility in education. I don't know if this is talked about in France or not. For all the discussions, you could walk around Mills or Wesleyan and see it's absence, but maybe not so pronounced. The entrance to the nice side of the École Normal Superior is though a set of two locked doors with a gatekeeper watching everyone who passes through. This would be controversial on most American campuses. The path through the booth included three stairs.

These schools are for the young, for the able-bodied and for the bourgeoise. Just like Wesleyan, but public. And the kids who graduate from the Sorbonne and other schools have guaranteed lifetime employment once they get out and become functionaries. They're smart and exceedingly well educated and set for life.

Meanwhile, the youth in the suburbs continued to set fires, protesting their lack of access to education.

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1 comment:

goat said...

i agree with many of your points about education. as a detail, though, graduates of the sorbonne are not guaranteed jobs, despite the prestige of the institution (by the way, it's widely regarded, even in the bourgeois circles i come from, as an outdated overtraditional place). you're probably thinking of école normale sup, which is far more prestigious in france.

colleges here are pretty much the same. the library at sussex has no ramps leading up to the doors, just a huge staircase. at cambridge all the old colleges had guards and visiting hours.