Back From Broadway: Why Are the French So Reluctant to Belong?

When I got back to France after a semester at Columbia University, my friends welcomed me as if those four months “abroad on Broadway” had not really happened. But there was a tiny glitch in the illusion that nothing had changed and it quickly reminded me that I had truly been abroad in a foreign country.

As a souvenir of my time spent there, I still wear a Columbia sweatshirt. It was such a common sight on my New York campus, but on the French side of the Atlantic, the college sweatshirts are a strange symbol that the French simply do not understand.

To my friends in France, it was the first indication that a slight change had occurred during my semester abroad. They couldn’t resist making a few friendly jokes about it.

French students are always fascinated by the strong sense of community and belonging depicted in American pop culture. They see wearing a Columbia sweatshirt as announcing your belonging to the American tradition of displaying affiliation to a school. Though things have significantly changed in the past few years, the French still look at this symbol of attachment and membership with a clear sense of superiority. Why is that?

In France, high school and college are rarely considered significant life experiences. They are merely a phase of transition and a series of classes that one must go through to reach real life. In no way are they considered to be communities or places where individuals learn outside the classroom.

It is difficult if not impossible to find the French overachiever that is class president, member of the student government, and self-declared leader of any possible club — from the chess club to the glee club. Such activities, though present in a few schools, are still unpopular and rare on the whole in France. It simply is not a “thing.”

As for universities, there are hardly any campuses that could allow the communal life so common in America to develop. In Paris, for example, the universities, and even buildings within the same university, are scattered all over the city. There are no dorms, and students only see each other in class. There is simply no way for a sense of community to develop.

On top of all of it, the French have a strong reluctance to belong to institutions.

This is surprising given the prominence of their social institutions. However the French tend to think that a sense of community is alienating, an estrangement that is incompatible with their individuality.

Although some French students have started wearing their college sweatshirts, it will be a while before French colleges become actual communities.

Ironically, while at Columbia, much of my coursework revolved around Hegel’s philosophy of institution. He believed that the opposition between the individual and institution must be overcome. This is not a one-way relationship. Universities must prove that they can be inclusive and can foster community growth. Nonetheless, for universities to develop this type of environment, students must also accept active membership.

The French always seem to blame the lack of funding for the lack of community in their own universities. Because they are entirely public, it is true that French universities will never be able to compete on the same level fiscally. At the same time, communities of students are created in large part by the students themselves, not simply with fancy events.

It is hard for any French student to deny that building a stronger community experience would not improve their academic experience. But will not happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, I will wear my Columbia sweatshirt regardless of jokes. Period.

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  1. […] Back From Broadway: Why Are the French So Reluctant to Belong? When I got back to France after a semester at Columbia University, my friends welcomed me as if those four months “abroad on Broadway” had not really happened. But there was a tiny glitch in the illusion that nothing had changed and it quickly reminded me that I had truly been abroad in a foreign country. As a souvenir of my time spent there, I still wear a Columbia sweatshirt. It was such a common sight on my New York campus, but on the French side of the Atlantic, the college sweatshirts are a strange symbol that the French simply do not understand. To my friends in France, it was the first indication that a slight change had occurred during my semester abroad. They couldn’t resist making a few friendly jokes about it. […]

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