[JMJ 97 - Le Cyberjournal]

Is University Good For Us ?

At the Sorbonne in Paris, the International Movement of Christian Students hosted a great debate on the kind of people that educational systems are churning out. A look at an international exchange between students.

IN the Descartes Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne this afternoon, students from France, Great Britain and the US exchanged views on what kind of person the higher education system is preparing for tomorrow's society. The topics varied from financial cost to criteria of fields of study. Stéfan (France), Brian (USA) and Stephen (GB) answered questions to help prepare the general debate that followed between four guest speakers: Father Charles Currie (USA) of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities; Mr. Robert Nantchouang (Cameroon) of the Catholic University of Central Africa; Mr. Jérôme Vignon from the European Commission; and Mr.Antonio Dias, Director of Higher Education at UNESCO.

On a political will behind the structures of higher education

None of the students expressed concerns that there was a political will to control society through the educational system. At most, Stéfan expressed some doubt as to the pertinence of stresssing academic skills to the point of facilitating job access to those who passed the highest academic examinations but were never tested for human relationship skills. Brian recognized the existence of an élite minority spawned by the Ivy League schools but expressed more concern about certain restrictions on the liberty to touch on affairs concerning religion, such as creationism, even in a scientific context.

Life away from home

Most agree that going to university almost always means leaving home, or at least experiencing a radical change of rhythm as far as family was concerned. These changes can incur positive learning experiences like learning to keep house, cooking, cleaning, being responsible for one's daily schedule, etc. On the other hand, there can also be some drawbacks such as losing touch with family and loved ones, going through deeply meaningful relationships that leave others out of the picture. Students agreed that the transition from home life to college life and back was not always easy. Stephen mentioned the trouble that leaving home meant as far as parish life was concerned. After long absences because of school, one could feel a stranger in one's own parish community, having invested in the community of one's university.

School and Religion

All agreed that school tended to underline the separation between faith and academia, even when theology and philosophy were subjects of study. Brian cited John-Paul II's definition of a Catholic education as salvation through Jesus-Christ, and regretted the radical church-academia separation of the public university system. A similar separation exists in France, and Stéfan admitted that the small number of private educational institutes in France tended to anchor in society a vacuum of religious awareness.

Financial cost

In France, the working student is not a rare species even if tuition fees are relatively low, at least in the public institutes. Students work in order to have spending money, or to pay for a private education whose reputations often guarantee better job offers. In the US, those that went to university often incurred debts of several thousand dollars, a regrettable beginning to a more independent life. But the price of a Catholic education was worth it because of an awareness of values other than money and bank accounts. What does need to be debated however is the opportunity to get such an education, which is far from equal. Higher education might put most people into debt, but a 30,000 dollar debt was not the same burden for every family. Hence the need to think about the cost of education in order that it remain available not only to the wealthy but to all young people.

Paul-Dominique Masiclat