French higher education and intellectual debate during and after the pandemic

Cécile Vaissié, Professor in Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet Studies, Rennes 2 University (France)

The COVID crisis started very abruptly and, in French higher education and research, has brought about changes that may or may not last, when this crisis will be finished. Thus, before the first confinement (March 17-May 11, 2020), few scholars were trained to use on-line tools and, for example, to teach on Zoom. However, most of them had been trained before the two following confinements. Some scholars have even shown astonishing creativity in inventing new teaching tools, while others keep considering Internet as a technical mean allowing them to communicate with students. This mastering of new techniques will mark a turning point in higher education.

Other changes have been less positive. By force of circumstances, scholars who are often used to traveling extensively in Europe and in the world, to going from conferences to forums, to visiting foreign archives centers, museums and libraries, and to following social, political and cultural evolutions outside their national space, have found themselves blocked inside their own borders, cities and homes. Colloquia have been canceled or replaced by on-line sessions, but electronic tools cannot replace debates, informal conversations and visual observations. Some researchers already complain of losing proficiency in the foreign languages they use, but have not practiced enough during the past months. More generally, intellectual life has slowed down, each participant withdrawing partially on his non-public occupations. This partial withdrawal allows them to devote more time to reading and writing: publishers are already complaining of being overwhelmed by manuscripts, not all of them writien by academics.

The situation is more dramatic for students who have had to cancel scheduled semesters organized abroad thanks to Erasmus or as results of agreements between universities, and who will not always have another opportunity to spend several months abroad, when the health crisis will be over. For those who study languages and the political, social and cultural situations in other countries, the loss is real and will only be partially compensated.

More generally, the French public debate has shrunk considerably and has reduced itself mostly to its national dimension; concentrated on the French sanitary situation, the media limit international topics to a minimum, even though many important and tragic events are taking place in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia. Information on Europe and the world has not been completely removed, but it has been largely discarded by factual data on the health situation in France and by endless controversies, including very irrational positions, on the responses to be provided and on the consequences, in particular economic, of this crisis. Admittedly, a considerable mass of information resources is accessible on-line, but, for a majority of the French society, the health situation and the reproaches to the government seem to be the main topics.

It is quite fascinating to observe how quickly interests have shifted and, for some, have been largely reduced, how practices that seemed entrenched were suddenly made impossible, how curiosities have shrunk within the French society, although they could have been a pleasant way of escaping a stressful situation. It will be even more interesting to watch how our societies will emerge from this health crisis. It seems that, in French academic circles at least, there will be a tremendous desire to travel, to debate, to meet people, in private circles, in public places and during scientific conferences. Or could this crisis and its lessons be forgotten within a few weeks? It would be a pity not to reflect on what this abrupt changes of rules have taught us on a technical, human and philosophical level. This pandemic is also an opportunity to think about the fragility of our lives and of certain practices taken for granted, to observe our reactions in a context of reduced social exchanges, and to redefine our essential needs and desires: our individual ones and those of our societies.