Edward Berenson

"France…is, at once, extraordinarily similar to the United States and extraordinarily different” 

June 25, 2013

Dr. Edward Berenson, Professor of History and Director of the Institute of French Studies at New York University, shares his insights on why students should study the French language and pursue French Studies, the importance of French in the world today, and current French-American relations;

Dr. Edward Berenson is Professor of History and Director of the Institute of French Studies at New York University. He also serves as NYU Director of the Center for International Research in Humanities and Social Sciences, a collaborative project with France's Centre national de recherche scientifique. 

Dr. Berenson is a cultural historian of modern Europe. He has mostly worked on nineteenth and twentieth century France, but his recent research is comparative and transnational. He is the author, most recently, of The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story (Yale University Press, April 2012) and Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa (University of California Press, 2010). He is currently at work on a history of modern Europe since 1500 to be published by Oxford University Press.

Dr. Berenson received the American Historical Association's Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award in 1999 and was decorated by French President Jacques Chirac as a Chevalier dans l'Ordre national du Mérite in 2006.

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Dr. Berenson, given your tenure and expertise in the French-American academic community, we are delighted to feature your insights for our online readers. As Director of the Institute of French Studies at NYU, you have met and mentored students and faculty fascinated with France, French history, and the French language. In your view, why should students study French or French Studies in the United States today? What might prospective students not know that would persuade them to do so?
First of all, many thanks for giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts about the things that have long been at the center of my life and work.

It’s become a cliché to say that in our global, interconnected world, Americans must possess an intimate knowledge of other societies and cultures and the languages that have shaped them. Unfortunately, Americans too rarely take this statement to heart, which explains why it gets repeated to the point of becoming a cliché. 

But why should Americans study French language, culture, and society in particular? I’d say first that some of the greatest literature of the modern world comes from France and other parts of the Francophone world. The ability to read this literature in the original French allows access to meanings and pleasures inaccessible in translation. Once you’ve read Flaubert or Proust or Hugo in French, there’s no going back. Although France no longer has authors as internationally famous as Molière, Balzac, Zola, and Jules Verne, to cite just a few, much of the best contemporary literature continues to flow out of France, West Africa, and the Caribbean. 

It’s also crucial to learn about France because that country is, at once, extraordinarily similar to the United States and extraordinarily different. French culture seems accessible to us, but once we begin to know it, we can see just how fascinatingly different it is. 

For a quarter of a millennium, France and the United States have shared the same Enlightenment values, and both have built political institutions based on them. Several of our Founding Fathers—Franklin, Jefferson, Adams—participated intimately in the intellectual life of 18th-century France and not only transmitted French ideas back to the American colonies but introduced American ideas into France. The two countries’ late 18th-century revolutions unfolded very differently, but in many important ways the outcomes were the same. 

Despite these similarities, France and the United States differ in striking ways. The French believe in a strong central government (even when they tell you they don’t), while a large majority of Americans remains suspicious of a powerful state. Most French men and women believe in laïcité, that is, in a public sphere free of religious references, while most Americans accept, often without realizing it, a considerable role for religion in public life. A few weeks ago, I took a visiting French family to a Yankees game, and they were all amazed by the singing of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch. Such a thing would be unimaginable in France.

For most Americans, the thought of lingering over dinner—or especially lunch—for three or four hours would seem an intolerable waste of time, while in France leisurely dining can be one of the great pleasures of life. One of my most memorable experiences was a four-hour lunch at Troisgros.  

Partly because France and the United States are, at once, so similar and so different, American students gain a rich perspective on both countries by developing a deep knowledge of France. When I spent nearly three years living in Paris in the late 1970s, I learned at least as much about my country as I did about France. 

At the Institute of French Studies, you take a multi- and often inter-disciplinary approach to understanding French society, politics, and culture. France and the United States are both Western nations but differ significantly in a number of ways. Why is it important for Americans to better understand the functioning and fabric of French society?
I’ve already answered part of this question, but I’ll add that one of the unique advantages of studying at the Institute of French studies is the ability to learn about France and the Francophone world from the perspectives of several different disciplines in the human sciences: anthropology, art history, history, political science, and sociology. In French departments, students can delve into literature and literary theory and criticism, all fundamentally important fields. But for those interested in contemporary France, there is no better approach than to do what we do at the Institute of French Studies: namely, to apply the different, although complementary, insights of the various sciences humaines.

As an example of how our multidisciplinary program works, take the issue of immigration. Historians study the often-surprising history of the phenomenon and have discovered in immigration one of the key, though long unsuspected, similarities between France and the United States. There were times in the twentieth century when the ratio of immigrants to the overall population was greater in France than in our own country.  

When sociologists take up the question of immigration, they consider the extent to which—and the ways in which—immigrants are integrated into French society and why certain groups find acceptance more easily than others. Sociologists look at residence patterns of the various generations of immigrants, family life, schooling, and the particular difficulties faced by French-born children of immigrant families. 

As for political scientists, they study the phenomenon of xenophobia and the political contention it produces. The National Front has, of course, been an important object of study for political scientists, but so has public opinion about immigrants and electoral behavior during periods when controversy over immigrants and immigration is fierce. 

At NYU, you work with many renowned academics, including visiting scholars from France. These professors often remark upon the “openness” of the U.S. educational system, which – by some accounts – allows greater freedom for student participation and encourages dissent, debate, and dialogue. What is your perception of the similarities and differences between the French and U.S. educational systems? How can the two nations learn from one another?
It isn’t exactly the “openness” of American higher education that French academics admire, but rather the far greater resources we enjoy. French professors are quite simply amazed when they step for the first time into the Bobst Library at NYU, to say nothing of the older and richer Firestone and Sterling libraries at Princeton and Yale. French colleagues love to disappear into the stacks on a treasure hunt for books they’d missed in online searches. Such a privilege is essentially unknown in France, where most libraries have closed stacks, and with the exception of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, small collections. 

When it comes to student participation, debate, dialogue, and dissent, French professors and students rarely have access to the seminars and small classes that make such give-and-take possible. As a result, French professors speak and French students listen—except occasionally at the Grandes Ecoles. But when French professors, especially the younger ones, come to the IFS, where classes rarely exceed 10-15 students, they quickly adapt to our more dialogical classroom approach. 

Of course, a great many U.S. students, especially those in large state universities, don’t get to interact with their professors all that much. And if the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) takes hold, American students will interact with their professors hardly at all.  

I’m not usually an economic determinist, but in the case of French higher education, I think the scarcity of resources explains most of the problems it faces. Professors are underpaid and their numbers far too small, while classroom, laboratory, and library facilities are grossly inadequate. France needs to invest heavily in its institutions of higher learning; otherwise the brain drain to the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries will accelerate. 

The French government’s failure to adequately fund their universities serves as a cautionary tale for us. As we continue to defund our public colleges and universities, many will one day resemble their crumbling counterparts in France. What is more, if we don’t find a way to bring tuition costs under control, especially in private universities, we risk looking more and more like France, with its tiny elite of Grandes Ecoles and its mass of often-mediocre, poorly funded, universities. The one advantage of the French system is that the elite schools, available to only a minuscule number of students, are inexpensive by U.S. standards.  

The Spanish language is the second most used language in the United States. There are more Spanish speakers in this nation than speakers of Chinese, French, German, Italian, Hawaiian, and the Native American languages combined. Has the rise of Spanish in this country detracted from French or French Studies educational offerings or opportunities? Is French a “marketable” language today? 
For obvious reasons, the French language isn’t as marketable as Spanish, and in most universities, enrollment in Spanish exceeds enrollment in all other languages. But French has held up very well. It’s the number-two language at most universities, and students are attracted by its beauty, by the great quality of French writing, and by the opportunity to use it in cities like New York and Miami, where large Haitian populations have settled, and in the case of New York, where there are growing communities of French-speaking West Africans. Several recent IFS graduates currently work with members of these groups and have traveled to Haiti for study and research and also to help out in the aftermath of the terrible hurricane of 2010.  

France and the United States have historically wavered between hot and cold relations. In recent times, tensions mounted during the Iraq War, which was highly criticized by the French government and public. The election of Barack Obama then altered the international, and notably European, view of the United States. Obama has since shifted the United States to a less assertive military role, while France has now led several military interventions. France’s economy and economic policies now seem to prompt wariness from many U.S. leaders. With this in mind, how would you describe the French-American relationship today?  
The United States, I think, is on the verge of a reengagement with France. Our government and military have given considerable support to French forces in Mali, where radical Islam threatens American interests as well as French ones. And now that we’re mostly out of Iraq and reducing our presence in Afghanistan, the United States will, I think, rediscover the importance of Europe—and particularly of France as a longtime U.S. ally. Given Europe’s economic morass, the ailing Eurozone will need American help, and it will be in our interest to provide it, since so many of our commercial relationships remain in that part of the world.  

When it comes to foreign policy and potential military threats, the United States and Europe share a great many adversaries or semi-adversaries, especially Iran, Syria, and Russia. And by working closely with France and other European partners, we will be better equipped to respond to the explosive problems of the Middle East: Israel-Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and now Turkey, which straddles Europe and the Middle East.  

In January, you appeared on The Colbert Report to talk about the conflict in Mali. You are a celebrity! You addressed the colonial history of France, narcoterrorism in Mali, and French military force. Your scope of academic and personal interest is wide, ranging from nineteenth and twentieth century France to modern Europe to the memorialization of traumatic events in public commemorative sites. Tell us what subject fascinates you most at the moment. 
Like many people in the aftermath of the Great Recession, I’m fascinated by the causes of economic crises and the (often inept) efforts to resolve them. I’ve done a fair amount of reading recently about the Great Depression and the distressing similarities between the gold standard of the 1930s, a major cause of the Depression, and the “Euro standard” today. That reading has deepened my interest in the economic woes of countries, including France, tied to the Euro in much the same way that the U.S. and Europe were once tethered to gold.  

What is your favorite book? Why would you recommend it? 
My favorite book: to answer this (impossible) question, I’ll return to where I began—with French literature. Flaubert’s Education sentimentale sits right at the top of my list. It’s a historian’s delight, with its brilliant depictions of the Revolution of 1848 and the masterful way it finesses the passage of time. I love Flaubert’s style indirect libre as a literary technique, and his unforgettable, if usually unsympathetic, characters. I’m doubtless too much stuck in the 19th century, but I can’t think of many recent novels that hold a candle to Flaubert’s classic work.