03:01:21 amCategories: Places, Spaces

From La Sorbonne to Université de Saint-Denis

For those who read French, I can recommend Le Bondy Blog. A couple of journalists from the Swiss magazine L’Hebdo settled in the banlieue Bondy during the November revolts, and stayed there for more than 4 months. Before they left, 8 local youth got training in journalism and took over the blog after the professionals. Every post they write – be it miniskirts or soldiers from the colonies helping out France during the war – initiates a lively debate. I had just read Hanane Kaddour’s very instructive post on how geography determines which university you can apply for when I had the opportunity to have a closer look at 4 different university locales in the Paris area in just a few days.

I didn’t know about this sectorisation of the universities before I read this post, and I have to say that that knowledge gave an extra edge to my trip from La Sorbonne to Université de Saint-Denis. I suspect the amphitheatre I visited at Sorbonne must have been one of the more prestigious ones, because prestigious it was indeed. I don’t think the Royal Palace in Oslo have a hall that could match this amphitheatre. Along the walls the French greatnesses were lined up; Molière, Descartes, Racine… In the ceiling, there was a painting of a man reading a huge book amidst antiquity ruins, and over his head the Muses, presumably, and some angels were playing. There were red carpets on the floor and the desks were made of dark, visibly old and worn, wood.

I would never dream of mocking such a presence of history. Far from it. One of the few, or probably only, collective identities I’ve ever felt any affiliation with is that I’m almost a little bit proud of having been a pupil at Norway’s oldest school. We were impregnated with such an identity from the moment we started there. It’s almost a thousand years old and it’s connected to a cathedral (too grand for it’s city ☺ ). On the walls of the cathedral, a pupil three-four hundred years ago has made a tag (in Latin of course) about a gay teacher, which our (gay) teacher showed us. (Here I'll not fall into the trap of more nostalgia).

The day after we were at Sorbonne the seminar I attended moved to the old Faculté de Médecin, which is in another grandiose building in the Latin Quarter. High ceilings, broad marble stairs, busts, statues, a memorial for medicine students and teachers lost in the First World War, tapestries and Greek myths… It was all very nice. And then I cycled home and took the metro to its final destination, in Saint-Denis.

The people seemed very nice. There was an “Intercultural festival” going on when I was there, so in the vestibule they sold food – French and North African – and played North African music. But I was quite surprised of how dilapidated and worn out the buildings seemed. And there were security guards walking around, and a huge security post right in the entrance hall. The women’s toilet didn’t have a sign – I don’t know if that was intentional – and the walls in the booths were full of holes filled with toilet paper. And the amphitheatre was full of graffiti! I almost had to laugh because the contrast from the central Parisian etablissements I had just left was so great. I didn’t take any photos because that would feel, I don’t know, strange… but I hope to go back, as I said, there seemed to be interesting things going on there. (And the Wikipendia entry on the Paris 8 university shows that it’s been a hotbed for radicalism since it was established far away from the city by de Gaulle after 1968 :D – they even say “tu” to eachother…)

The fourth and last teaching establishment I’ve been to the last week was not a university like Sorbonne and Saint-Denis, but a Grande Ecole, which is supposed to be more elitist (but I don’t know the ranging of La Sorbonne (Pantheon) within this). It was the EHESS – Ecole de hautes études en science sociale – which I’ve mentioned here before. This building is 1950-60s style and in the centre of Paris, but not in the Latin Quarter. Funnily, EHESS was full of graffiti as well. It was occupied long time ago during the protests against the CPE and there were photos available on the internet showing the vandalism, or what to call it, right after the squatters were thrown out. But that is months ago, and the harsh juridical repression in various CPE law cases have already been going on for a long time. But for some reason they haven’t yet removed the scribble, not even what’s written with chalk. I wonder why.

I understand Bondy Blog’s Hanane Kaddour’s concern about being geographically limited to Saint-Denis or some other banlieue university. Especially since which university, or rather Grande Ecole, you go to, have everything to say when you try to get a job afterwards. But at the same time I like the other France as well (and Saint-Denis’ Philosophy department is founded by Michel Foucault!). So why can’t the two of them – the old and historical and the new and vibrant – just come a little closer together?

I’ve left the digression to the end this time: When I was checking a word on Britannica.com I learnt that it’s Malcolm X’ birthday today (1925-1965). His autobiography (written by Alex Haley) is a very, very good book about identity politics, as well as history, jazz and other things, and I can strongly recommend it. When I was writing now, one particular scene from the book, as well as the film (by Spike Lee) came to mind. Malcolm was the best pupil in class, and for a while neither he nor the others seemed to take much notice that he was the only black boy there. However, the teacher did. So, one day he asked his brightest and perhaps favourite pupil what he wanted to do when he grew up, and the young boy answered “lawyer”. But the teacher thought, perhaps rightly, that that could never happen in a segregated America, so he suggested that Malcolm opted for carpentry instead. A suggestion that, as far as I remember, terminated Malcolm’s formal schooling.


Comment from: Monica [Visitor]

Hi! Thanks for reminding us about Malcom X. I didn’t remember the scene where the teacher suggested carpentry. In my fieldwork among young muslim women in Norway I have come across similar stories. For example one norwegian-turkish muslim girl who studied medicine told me that the councillor at her old school had said that she would never get a job practicing medicine because of her hijab, and that she would be better off doing something else. Luckily she didn’t listen to him. The same argument is being used when arguing against homosexuals having children - it is being anticipated that the children will be teased and bullied because of the parents sexuality. Other people’s anticipations of limitations and discrimination are a not so visible form of discrimination, and it is often difficult to argu against because it’s well-meaning( Though not well-doing).

22/05/06 @ 10:03
Comment from: Bryan McKay [Visitor]
Bryan McKay

Further incentive for me to learn French, I suppose!

25/05/06 @ 06:45
Comment from: [Member]

Hi Monica, and thanks for the comment and the comparison. It’s strange – and disturbing – to think about all the whims of fate that influence a person’s life chances.

In many contemporary societies, like Norway, France and probably the US, we like to think that we’re born equal with equal chances – it’s almost like a foundational belief, and if we didn’t still believe in it I think we would have had loads of revolutions long time ago.

But as they’ve been saying here now; the social elevator is certainly out of order, and that is bringing on a huge crisis (of belief as well).

25/05/06 @ 15:43
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks for you comment, Bryan. There are all good reasons in the world to learn French – the only discouragement is that it’s terribly difficult, I must admit…

Many French people are real word magicians compared to the average Norwegian. They love talking, arguing, qualifying their opinions, expressing every state of emotion with loads and loads of words. Some people can sound like slam poets just by telling what happened on the way to the greengrocer’s yesterday, while others are more in the prose poetry tradition, rambling on without much rhythm but instead with loads of nuanced explications :D

25/05/06 @ 15:43
Comment from: hk [Visitor]

i see that you talking about my article which deals with the problem of the sectorisation of university.
i hope you found it interesting.
i want to say that i find your website great
(sorry for my bad english)

15/06/06 @ 16:23
Comment from: [Member]

Thank you for your comment, Hanane. It was nice to hear from you. Yes, I found your article and the rest of Le Bondy Blog very interesting! I, and many others, really appreciate what you’re doing, - but you’ve probably heard that many times before. Perhaps I can come out to Bondy one day and and have a talk with you? (But I’ll write you an email about that…).

I wish you good luck for the future, and I hope you will keep up writing. It seems to me that France really needs people like you!


15/06/06 @ 16:57

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