The People’s University

It’s a Wednesday evening and the auditorium is jammed packed. Some people are forced to sit on the steps. We listen, captivated… The subject of our focus? A sociology course by Philippe Corcuff.

We’re at the People’s University – an educational trend which is free and which is taking off in France at present. Philippe Corcuff explains the motivation behind the project:

-Learning, that’s what Michel Foucault talks about in his latest texts – knowledge, learning. It’s one of the aspects of self improvement, to work on oneself. That is, that you can start with the fact that you are marked by certain a social framework. Each person, to some extent, is caught up in stereotypes, in habitual behaviours which are linked to his social class, to his gender, to his culture, to his nationality, etc. And so, either he submits to all this in a passive way and is the by-product of it…and even if he believes himself to be free, he’s somewhat a puppet in the hands of circumstances which he doesn’t control. Or, he tries to become an active citizen, that is, he tries to begin to become aware of his circumstances, of what weighs on him, and to become someone more active. So, this would be a “citizen”. So, our idea is that the knowledge transmitted in this people’s university within a framework which is not strictly academic can be this kind of resource. And the idea is not that people come to absorb it all in, that is, that we just give them answers hand over fist, and they take notes and they absorb like they absorb music, television, like they absorb at the movies, like they absorb whatever… We would like rather to provide critical learning, which is a bit new, which stirs them up, which disconcerts them, which asks them questions, which, well, upsets what looks to be evident, and therefore which little by little contributes, along with their daily experiences, to asking themselves questions. It interacts with their daily lives and affects what they end up doing, after reflecting on their own lives but also after reflecting on what they’re going to put into practice. This might slightly deviate from their goals, what they’re going to do or not. See? So, it’s to present a little sand in your shoes, an uncomfortable feeling.

-This is why it’s important that we try to make it knowledge that’s accessible to the largest audience possible, but it’s still an academic type of learning, that is, it is somewhat difficult to learn. Because if you take in what you’re learning without any problem, well, that does make people think or work. You think it’s easy. See? If you give them things like that, well, yes, it’s simple, so people end up having what? An answer. So they store pile it like an answer. And we’d like rather to compound the questions a bit. That’s to say, that where people aren’t asking themselves questions, they are asking themselves questions. So what you can call wisdom, what Foucault called spirituality, this means to increase the number of questions which one asks oneself at the point where one isn’t asking himself questions. So, it’s that which leads one to reflect on himself, on his relationships with others, and which may present the feeling of a bit of sand in his shoes in his daily life, but which at the end of the day perhaps makes people more like one another after this experience than before.

But it’s not the people’s university which does that. It’s the result of one working on himself. Simply stated, the people’s university can provide some small incentives in this way for those who don’t want a learning experience where you just take it all in, that is, for those who aren’t just content to accumulate knowledge but who would like to nourish the way they ask questions of themselves and of those around them.

We’ve already seen the “Cafe Philo” trend blossom, universities for retired people, evening courses. But what underscores the people’s universities is that they are courses which are brilliantly structured and given by people at the height of their profession. Francoise Brasset organizes the people’s university in Lyon:

-The difference I’d say is that the Cafe Philo is a forum of discussion. It’s very nice, very interesting, but well, there’s no set course or particular path. While the people’s university, it offers a set course of ten classes, like at the university, and in fact without having to go through getting a degree, nor do you have to take notes, nor whatever else it may be, but a set course of ten classes, including an hour of class and an hour of debate. So, with a set subject, people can exchange knowledge, discuss, ask questions, lead debates possibly, why not. So, that gets back to the Cafe Philo but based on experiences and an exchange of knowledge.

Sophie Wahnich gives a series of classes on the topic of “The French Revolution – the individual citizen’s invention, a group matter.” She sees in the People’s University echoes of society’s education movement in 19th century England, described by the English historian E.P. Thompson:

-We are in a period where we very often bemoan our own powerlessness and the connection to Thompson is that at a given moment the possibility to risk a little in an empirical world could lead to a real group experience and a real exchange. Of course, the set up is totally different, but this question of taking subjective risks seems to me rather un-colourful.

The initiative is also in response to a university system which was considered as being too rigid.

-From that moment on, there was an hour devoted to the class, an hour devoted to debate, and these were the rules of the game. Of course, the debate part is extremely important. And that point of view is a radical break from the universities today where the place for debating ranks rather low, whether it be a class or a research project. So, I definitely think that there is a kind of belief in the possibility of reinventing the place of debate and the place of risking.

The movement of the people’s universities was born in Caen thanks to the philosopher Michel Onfray. His model, one hour of class, one hour of debate, was then picked up by Paule Orsoni in Arras in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais:

-Michel Onfray is someone who pushes people to action, I’d say. That’s it! He’s has this uniqueness to transmit a portion of his desire which is, at the end of the day, very useful, very useful, and if we hesitate to take this kind of initiative, well, when you’re lucky enough to have met him, you’re led to make this desire come to pass, that which we have ourselves to share, this knowledge, to…yes, to establish a connection with an audience which leads to bonds of friendship. That’s precisely why I recommend reading Michel Onfray’s Communaute philosophique, which clearly explains how there are between the participants themselves and… the participants and the public something which happens! And that’s what is resulting in our small people’s university in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, which is modest but which has after a year finally attracted a rather faithful following.

The public is delighted by this initiative, which is based on the work of volunteer teachers:

-Well, for me, it’s a dream come true since I would follow along and get involved in the books I was reading, so it’s the authors I follow whose books I purchase. And as for Michel Onfray, it was like that from the start. I bought “Le ventre de philosophes”, as soon as it came out. I heard him on the television, so that dates back to the early nineties. He came to Lyon to speak on Greek cynicism, and I bought his books regularly, and I was waiting for him to put his ideas into practice. I think it’s outstanding because as is mentioned in the little fold-out brochure, it’s an idea which comes from the 19th century. Not having a lot of money, I’m in favour of having cultural learning be free to as many people as possible and then, additionally, that you don’t have to get a degree, that you don’t have to show identification. So, the winds of libertarianism are there, which I like, which I find satisfying.

-I worked in industry, but my studies were always a bit of everything and a bit of nothing: physics, electronics, a bit of sociology, of philosophy. So, I was always somewhat curious about all that was presented. That was a long time ago that I did all that! I’m a former union activist. I’m retired, but I’m a former union activist, and I’m absolutely flabbergasted by the absence of things like this which make people reflect, which give people subjects to think about, people who are involved in every activity imaginable.

But can university knowledge be really popular? At its opening, some people protested during the first class, saying that the language used was not understandable by those who hadn’t had a lot of schooling. They appealed for a simpler approach to the subjects offered. Philippe Corcuff recognizes that there is some contradiction in the concept of the people’s university but maintains that it is not insurmountable:

-Between the university and the people, it is necessary to have both an agreement and a contradiction. See? In “people’s university”, there is the idea that it’s knowledge which is a by-product of the university, that is, it’s researched and on the cutting-edge of knowledge with some demands as to the quality of the knowledge disseminated. See? And “people’s”, that could mean that it’s available to all, but at the same time, it’s assumed that university courses are from those with a specialized knowledge, hands-on experience, real-life problems. See? But, at the same time, the idea of what makes a university, how this idea got started, particularly since the Renaissance but also with the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, is that the university strove to broaden everyone’s knowledge. It’s this idea which you find in the thinking from the Enlightenment. It’s the increasing of knowledge and therefore of educational trainings and of the availability of knowledge for everyone which will allow humanity to advance. That’s why this system was created by Michel Onfray of having a standard one-hour class, and then with each class, one hour of debate, of clarifications, of questions. That is, we can get back to the ideas; we can get back to re-explaining things. It’s intentional!

For his first series of classes, he chose the personality of “I” in individualistic contemporary societies.

-Everyone realizes it. You sense that you’re living in a society where individuals are more and more individualistic. So, the relationship between “I” and “we” has been changed to profit “I”. The relationship to culture, for example, has become very individualistic because one is often in a relationship between his television and himself and less involved in developing relationships through group involvement, by going out and doing activities outside of the home. So, it’s between oneself and the television, between oneself and the family. It’s the development of supermarket consumerism, where one is connecting personally more and more with objects than with larger groups, but it’s also, for example, things which transform relationships within families. In the era of my grandparents, and even my parents, there was a family stability which held regardless of their individual desires. People who married young, and often with family pressures, stayed together for a lifetime, and today, there’s a divorce rate which is at least 50 percent. That is, when the relationship as a couple is considered a threat to each person’s individual wants, you can separate. It’s true that they’re not going to stay their whole life with someone they end up hating like they did before.

-So then… So, there are tons of societal changes which are making things more and more individualistic, resulting less in large groups but resulting more either in a relationship between the individual himself and objects and institutions or in smaller groups. So, that affects the “we”. That sometimes has a breakdown effect like in political science, for example, where one can think that individualism is one of the factors of voter abstinence in democracies because one considers it to have less and less of a connection with his own interests and desires. So, they are not necessarily going to go vote. That, that’s one of the negative aspects, but sometimes groups form in other ways. We have seen develop either at certain moments in humanitarian actions–we see today the events in South Asia–or, in new forms of social action groups, particularly the anti-globalization movement where there are types of action groups where there is a stronger “I” presence. That is, that the individual accepts less and less to let go of this power to profit institutions, and so he is more and more present.

-So, there is both a re-building of the social structure which gives more space to the individual and, at the same time, types… previous groups are breaking up. See? So, there are aspects which are both creative and those which break down in this new relationship between “I” and “we”, and thus this type of individualism. If thinking intellectually, learning, knowledge…isn’t just simply something useful, if it isn’t something for just getting degrees, for finding a job, and for earning money, but if it is also to better understand oneself, to better understand the world in which one lives, to better understand the collective frameworks which we bring ourselves into and its unique characteristics. Therefore, if it’s to know oneself and thus to think by oneself and to bit by bit better oneself as an active individual, as a citizen, then the relationship between the “I” and the “we”, the awakenings which are all at once sociological, historical, judicial and philosophical relating to this question become very important.

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