Two very different fields for comment today...
First is an interesting article in the New York Times about French universities from a couple of days ago. To summarize briefly, French universities are in a fairly poor state because nobody pays tuition, and spots are guaranteed (on a geographical basis) to those students who pass their baccalaureate. The article tends to reflect what other publications (such as The Economist) regularly say about European education, although should this article be accurate, it would suggest that French universities are in a worse state than elsewhere on the continent.
This story provides an interesting insight into the self-perpetuation of institutional rules. The agreement in the 1960s of the de Gaulle government to give almost-free university education to anyone has led to the creation and entrenchment of a norm--namely, that it is everyone's right to get a free university education, regardless of the effects of such right on society.
University education is absolutely vital, and of course it is only right that those without the appropriate means be assisted, with public funds, in order that society progress toward equality of opportunity and outcomes. But when there is no effort required to obtain that education, and when the "right" to education for all leads to the crumbling of its credibility and capacities, then it clearly becomes a hindrance to society.
I wrote in an earlier blog entry about my support for a high-tuition, high-aid model, even in pubilc universities such as the one I attend. I will echo that sentiment again here. It is that model, as well as substantial public and private R&D investment, that has allowed American universities to be the pioneering research bodies and competitive institutions they are today.
Tonight I had the chance, for the third successive year, to drop by Relay for Life, a charity benefit for the American Cancer Society. R4L has been one of the most popular fundraising events for any cause that I've seen at the university, and certainly the money donated for cancer research is for a good cause.
Yet it is events like R4L which sometimes give me pause to think about our good fortune and a rather chronic, media and money-driven incorrect focus of charity (and the haphazard allocation of private donations versus the potential for a more coherent public policy). Americans are lucky to have so many people with cancer--and in saying so, I mean on a relative basis: Africans would love to have the chance to live long enough to have the same rate of death from cancer that we do. Instead, they die of malaria, AIDS or preventable diseases, ignored due to a lack of relatively small amounts of funds.
How many Americans would think about malaria as an important issue? Yet the fight against malaria has been referred to as the most effective use of money possible in terms of saving human lives. It's easy: bed nets, medications. The same is true of other easily preventable diseases which ravage African populations.
It is unfair to say that nobody has noticed: in particular, the Gates Foundation has made a significant donation. But there are plenty of Americans willing to buy the "stop the genocide in Darfur" T-shirts, sure... but how many of them know where Sierra Leone or Liberia are? Or know anything about the Democratic Republic of the Congo? How many care? Those in Darfur can thank the media for, at least, shining the spotlight on one part of the continent.