30 septembre 2017 La Sorbonne
In 2013, the first year Nancy and I came to Paris, one of the first places we tried to visit was the Sorbonne, the historic literature, theology, and arts campus of the Universite de Paris. As an undergraduate French major in Rhode Island in the late 1950s, I had learned about the Sorbonne as the heart of French educational excellence. Apparently, it made a big impression on me. It seemed a necessary place of pilgrimage.
When I came to Paris in 1961, I was here as a Fulbright Scholar to France. In the information about our arrival and orientation in Paris, we were told that we would be housed at the Cite Universitaire de Paris in the 14th arondissement, and I thought they told us that we would get to study for six weeks at the Sorbonne.
I was really excited about that. It never happened, however. For those two months in Paris, we had class everyday right at International House at the Cite, where we were staying. It turned out I had contracted Hepatitis A on the ship coming over, so I didn’t have energy to do very much in Paris while I was here that September and October. And I hadn’t gotten to the Sorbonne by the time we were dispersed to our assigned universities all over France. I don’t know if any of us remained in Paris, but I found myself traveling to Toulouse, which I had not even known existed prior to learning my assignment. Consequently, especially since 2013 was the first time since 1961 that I spent any amount of time in Paris, as opposed to other places in France, the Sorbonne exerted on me the powerful draw of unfinished business.
In 2013, when Nancy and I had tried to visit, we discovered that no one without a student pass is allowed to enter the sacred doors leading to the Sorbonne. The guard did allow us a couple of quick minutes to look around the courtyard, but then we had to leave.
This year, I was looking online for interesting off the beaten track activities we could pursue while here, and discovered the announcement of a public lecture in one of the “amphis” of the Sorbonne! The speaker, Nicolas Bouzou, is an economist who studies the evolution of work over time – an interesting subject. Nancy was game to accompany me, which I really appreciated, as I feared she would have difficulty following the presentation.
At 1:30 pm, we presented ourselves before the entrance to the fabled Sorbonne, opened our bags for inspection, told the guard what we wanted to attend, and voila, we were admitted. The courtyard was oblong, paved with large limestone slabs. To our right was the majestic classical church built as “chapel” to the Sorbonne in the 1600s, by its illustrious alumnus, later chancellor, Cardinal Richelieu, powerful advisor to King Louis XIII. This “chapel” is as lofty and magnificent as any church of the period. It provided religious services to the students of the Sorbonne during Richelieu’s life, and ultimately served as his burial place. The “chapel is cordoned off. No access is allowed.
This time I would no longer have to content myself with glancing furtively around the courtyard and then leaving. Across the open space from the street entrance, I was able finally to pull open a door and actually go WITHIN the Sorbonne. The building did not seem especially ancient. We had time to walk around the inner corridors, which were lined with doors leading to different “amphis,” each bearing the name of an important French classical writer or thinker from the 17th century. A look within any lecture hall presented a wooden wall with stairs mounting to the left or right. Once we entered the “Amphi Descartes” where our lecture was scheduled, and went up one of the sets of steps, we found ourselves at the top of a stadium seating arrangement with an aisle down either side, each bench one step further down than the preceding one. Steps on the top rows were full stair height, and the step elevations grew smaller with each row. There were maybe twenty-five rows running the full width of the hall, each row seating maybe twenty students if the hall were full. High wooden sashed windows ran along either wall– their sills perhaps twelve feet up from us at the top row, their tops perhaps another 12 feet above the sills. The room was very well lit naturally. A wooden desk that could accommodate maybe five panelists was at the front of the room, and behind that ran a blackboard of normal height. Double wooden swinging exit doors penetrated both sides of the front wall. The majestically high ceiling featured a filigreed cast iron border running around the whole room, surrounding a corrugated metal ceiling painted white. The benches were narrow, with backs at right angles to the seats — dramatically uncomfortable – almost penitential — to us twenty first century types. In a couple of places, emphatic exclamations of political disapproval were deeply carved into the wooden tops of the continuous tables that corresponded to the benches, and gave attendees a place to take notes.
As I looked around the room, it seemed to me pretty similar to late nineteenth century lecture halls I’d seen elsewhere. That seemed strange to me, given the venerable age of the university.
The lecture was an interesting experience! Indeed the subject, “The Work of the Future and the Future of Work” is a fascinating one. The lecturer, a man perhaps a youngish looking 40 years old, talked extremely rapidly and stuttered noticeably in addition! Oy! After making an extreme effort to understand most of what he was saying for the first 20 minutes or so, I was finding the required intensity of attention fatiguing, and finally decided to “zone out” and examine the room. After a while, though, I became aware that I was still listening, and by now I was in fact understanding most of his discourse, despite the stutter. At times, he slowed down a bit, and then I was fine. I’ve attended lectures on other visits to Paris, and know it’s possible to understand and enjoy them, given a halfway clear speaker. Even with a microphone, the resonant echo in the room blended this speaker’s rapid-fire syllables together into mumbled clots.
Nancy and I basically agreed with M. Bouzou’s thesis, that we can’t leave work entirely to the agency of machines because it is so important to humans to be able to make a difference and feel needed, and that a robust formation in human values and classical philosophy will continue to allow humans to counter-balance the impersonal horror that would result from increasingly powerful artificial intelligence.
After the lecture itself was ended, we were intrigued to discover that individuals representing several different philosophical viewpoints had positioned themselves strategically in the first few rows so they could introduce and explain alternative views. Each questioner who was recognized presented a mini-lecture on the perspective she or he was introducing into the discussion, and the speaker responded with equal passion and depth of detail. The question and answer period lasted, as clearly was planned, for an hour after the speaker’s hour-long discourse. It was an interesting format in light of the French enjoyment of solid philosophical argument and counter-argument. The tone was friendly, even jovial, although one of the counter-speakers reaped enthusiastic applause for a contrarian view.
The lecture was presented as part of a monthly series of provocative topics for adults who clearly participate regularly in these forums, which are presented by a club called the “College de Philosophie.” About 135 people were present, more or less. Our co-attendees were on the older side and clearly well educated and cultured. People were there with friends, obviously enjoying sharing a provocative Saturday afternoon’s discussion. It was a very French experience.
After we left the Sorbonne, I was really curious about the buildings we had just experienced. Robert de Sorbon did indeed found his college back in the 1300s, at a time when students were still subscribing individually to teachers and sitting around on hay bales in the open air around the church of St. Julien-le-pauvre across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral. He outfitted a building at the site of the present Sorbonne for a group of 20 subscribed students who had engaged to study theology with him, in preparation for becoming qualified priests and teachers themselves. He was running a very early Catholic seminary, in effect.
For the next 500 years, the Sorbonne became the first University in Paris to have buildings and a library, thanks to patronage from a series of kings, right up to the French Revolution. The university was decommissioned, as were all religious institutions, during the French Revolution. Cardinal Richelieu’s imposing chapel has not been used for the last 150 years or so (I can’t imagine what its interior state must be). The “Old” Sorbonne, except for the chapel, was torn down in the late 1800s while Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann were tearing down and rebuilding Paris. The “New Sorbonne” was finally completed and dedicated in the 1890s – right around the era I had identified as I looked around the lecture hall.
The Sorbonne had good years and bad in the twentieth century, and in 1970, not long after I experienced my disappointment at not having the opportunity to attend classes at the Sorbonne (I now wonder if any were being held there at that point), the University of Paris became Paris I through Paris XIX – it morphed from one into nineteen different universities, with campuses scattered all around Paris, including the surrounding suburbs. Paris I through Paris V are headquartered at what is now called “Sorbonne-Pantheon,” with buildings scattered throughout the fifth Arondissement, which contains the historic Latin Quarter where the Sorbonne is located.
Today, I learned that the Sorbonne that I had desired so ardently in 1961 to experience probably was that of the 1600s, the peak years of this school of the University of Paris. As is often true with strong desires, my emotions were not in tune with the facts, and I was pursuing a will-o-the wisp of an illusion, based on inaccurate information. On the other hand, Nancy and I had the opportunity to observe and participate in a quintessentially French lecture and discussion similar to what might have occurred at the Sorbonne of so many years ago, while sitting within the same compass coordinates at students occupying “Old” Sorbonnne buildings. In 2017, that’s pretty good!