Sunday, December 18, 2005

Functional Integration: Explicit Versus Implicit Criteria

An article in this Sunday's New York Times describes an underlying problem with the functional integration of 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants in France. The piece's solid analysis* goes some way to explain the reasons for the riots earlier this fall in France.

But the problems are not exclusively or idiosyncratically French. The link between eductional systems, implicit cultural criteria or more bare-bones explicit - economic or efficiency oriented - criteria adds to the usual explanation of why integration is doomed to be extremely problematic especially in Continental Europe. The usual story states that the high European levels of social benefits, minimum wages and strict labor market regulations on hiring and firing makes it difficult for 2nd generation immigrants to get jobs - and achieve functional integration. The United States's labor market with lesser regulation and safety nets instead forces everyone to work and so gets around the problem.

The NYT article deals with the problem of the educational system:
Nothing represents the stratification of French society more than the country's rigid educational system, which has reinforced the segregation of disadvantaged second-generation immigrant youths by effectively locking them out of the corridors of power. While French universities are open to all high school graduates, the grandes écoles - great schools - from which many of the country's leaders emerge, weed out anyone who does not fit a finely honed mold. Of the 350,000 students graduating annually from French high schools, the top few grandes écoles accept only about 1,000, virtually all of whom come from a handful of elite preparatory schools. (...) "It's as if in the U.S., 80 percent of the heads of major corporations or top government officials came from Harvard Law School," said François Dubet, a sociologist at the University of Bordeaux.
The paradox of the French system is that it was created to work as a pure meritocracy - in order to break the dominance of the aristocracy. As explained in the best book on France, Tocqueville points to the continuity of the state and thus the central administration before and after the 1789 revolution as a deep explanation of why France is like it is. The elite educational system was and is integral to the 'reproduction' of the elite as a group of like-minded and able legacies. This is akin to the Anglo-Saxon tradition where 'liberal colleges' historically have provided rich kids with seemingly unuseful general education - leading to what the Germans call Bildung: a construction of personal character and well-versedness that forms the basis for a young gentleman.

These preferences for general and abstract subjects of course in the early 20th century up until today had and has a functional utility in that they prepare coming leaders to take up a variety of challenges including the pursuit of graduate and professional degrees. But their groundwork and raison d'etre was formed much earlier. In France, the state's new nobility as part of their deal with the old aristocracy, had subsumed exactly the aristocratic emphasis on the vulgarity of practical work and a preference for the abstract, the old, the traditional, and the 'cultural' over the concrete, the quantifiable, the useful and the profitable. Because most Western countries elites' cultural canons - if not their economic, judicial or constitutional systems - were inherited from the French this set of distinctions was and is a central feature in the Western division of labor within the educational systems.

basic educational system was thus left with the paradoxically much less useful study of useful applied subjects:
The initial fork in the lives of many young people comes when they are about 13 and have to choose between a general course of study or vocational training. Many young second-generation immigrants are guided into technical classes or, at best, post-high-school associate degree programs in marketing or business that are of little help in finding a job. Second-generation immigrants also often "live in an environment that is outside of French culture," said Mr. Descoings of Sciences Po. "They are not in the proper social network. There isn't the socialization that exists in a wealthy family in an exclusive neighborhood of Paris."
The gifted Mr. Descoings was instrumental in launching a programme several years ago, before 9/11, to bring more students to Sciences Po from outside the regular circuit. These students are recruted from certain "Zones d'education prioritaires", thus undercutting the informal selection procedures that would normally see through only candidates from the best French high schools.

This drop in the ocean aside, Descoing's analysis is to the point because the problem for the 2nd generation immigrants is bascially two things. First, they have not been immersed from the earliest childhood in the legion cultural codes that decide whether you fit in, in any given situation - in a microsociological way through manners, gestures, clothing, and especially your way with language, the form of your expressions. Second, the best parts of the French and many Continental European educational systems are intimately tied up with these broad cultural demands, exactly because they aim not to produce candidates with the most useful skills, but prospective members of an elite wary of societal differentiation - too much difference, too much dissent. This again leads to forms of examination that basically measure more how well your master the cultural forms of the elite - much more than what you know. Incidentally, this preference is mirrored in the cultured European classes' disdain for the whole American testing circus - especially multiple choice tests - even if these, in spite of their weaknesses, are more meritocratic.

In the end, the young immigrants of Europe and elsewhere cannot get around the problem of functional integration through the mastering of cultural codes
before they can successfully enter the workmarket. Even if the setup would be changed by decree the selection process on the high end of the labor markets would still function this way for generations. But basically, any reform of the European educational systems must include measures to bring the actual demands of schools and universities out in the light of day: make demands explicit - away from the implicit.

Modernity - and with it: freedom and wealth though democracy and capitalism - consists in a everpresent battle between the forces of tradition and those who challenge it. This battle is always about bringing to debate the things we are not supposed to address. Implicitness is thus a central virtue of Inertia.

*These issues were described a long time ago in Pierre Bourdieu's work (e.g. Les héritiers; La reproduction/Reproduction; Noblesse d'Etat, etc.)

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