Olivier Duhamel: “You will learn to think for yourselves”

Olivier Duhamel: “You will learn to think for yourselves”

Watch the Inaugural Lecture of the Undergraduate College on replay
  • Olivier DuhamelOlivier Duhamel

On 10 September 2020, Olivier Duhamel, President of the FNSP (National Foundation of Political Sciences) gave - on many counts - a historic inaugural lecture for the Sciences Po Undergraduate College. Historic as it was the first ever to be delivered online, and it was for the first time addressed not only to all of Sciences Po’s undergraduate students, but also to a wider public audience through livestream on Youtube. “Argue, doubt, write, discover who you are, and make friendship”: The eminent constitutional law professor gave his most essential advice to incoming students and answered their pressing questions. Watch his ode to freedom of thought on replay below.

Olivier Duhamel is the President of the National Foundation of Political Sciences (FNSP). A French constitutionalist and political scientist, Emeritus Professor at Sciences Po, where he taught until the end of 2010. His inaugural lecture was delivered alongside Frédéric Mion, President of Sciences Po, and Stéphanie Balme, Dean of the Undergraduate College.

Click on the subtitles symbol for English subtitles.

Excerpt from the lecture - Olivier Duhamel's 5 pieces of advice

While here, you will learn, understand, share. You will learn to think for yourselves, or to continue to do so if you are in your second or third year. I know of no institution that cultivates free thinking more than Sciences Po, contrary to the stereotypes that those who do not know us, do not like us, or are jealous of us love to spread. Freedom of opinion, expression, debate, three things without which the tree of democracy withers, are our primary values. Here you will be able to put your ideas against a wealth of world views and get a taste for the joy of contradiction, the charm of disagreement and the thrill of intellectual challenge. As Roland Barthes put it: The role of the intellectual is to go somewhere else when an idea “sticks”.

We will give you multiple opportunities to go and see things elsewhere because we confront uncertainties head on and we cultivate pluralism. So allow this old professor to give you some advice. Five crucial pieces of advice. You will all have acquired some notions of rhetoric, some bits and pieces of essay writing, some good ways of presenting your ideas and some for promoting yourselves. What you must work tirelessly at perfecting is your arguments. Argue, discuss. You still have to conquer all modes of free thinking. In order to help you progress in that task, I have some advice that may seem contradictory:

1. "Think against"

Agree with nothing. If one of your teachers tells you, “It’s white”, ask yourself, “What if it were black?

2. "Affirm, but doubt"

Secondly, follow a maxim coined by the surrealist poet, Jacques Rigaut: “even as I affirm, still I interrogate”. Or that of Albert Camus when discussing the virtues of balance, “Balance demands continual effort and courage.” To this he added a statement still more powerful today: “Having become three quarters blind by the grace of polemics, we no longer live among men but in a world of silhouettes.” 

In sum: make claims and listen to them, mix conviction with doubt. It is perhaps the most difficult but the most exhilarating task, to base your ideas on convictions you can argue clearly, all while staying modest and allowing room for doubt. You all belong to the screen generation, which is both an advantage and a handicap. Long live Wikipedia but beware of immediacy! Look at the present but don’t forget the past. Don’t suffocate the future. 

3. "Learn to write"

Here is a piece of advice I was lucky enough to be given by a teacher at the age of 17. It has both changed and formed my life: “Studying is unimportant: write and learn to write”. Write your course notes by hand. You will learn better – that’s not the whim of an old man but the result of scientific study– and you will keep the art of writing. You might find it easier to accept another recommendation: always keep a real paper dictionary at your desk. It’s better than checking online: you are more likely to remember. I particularly recommend Le Robert dictionary because it has the most detail. Once a day, if possible, or at least once a month, open the dictionary at a random page. On these two pages you will find lots of words that you don’t know. The joy is yours! To write well and think well, there is nothing better than reading.

So my third piece of advice is as follows: nothing will be more useful to you in life than to learn continually how to write and to write well.

4. "Become who you are"

My fourth piece of advice is harder to apply, but easier once you have followed my other recommendations. You know a little about who you are, but only a little. You probably don’t yet know what you will go on to do, which is an important part of who you will be. You might go on to work for the French government, as many former students of Sciences Po have: Flandin, Blum, Mendès France, Rocard, Édouard Philippe, Jean Castex, almost all the presidents of the 5th Republic, from Georges Pompidou to Emmanuel Macron. Then again, you don’t have to become president! You might become a civil servant, as many here have over the years, or an entrepreneur, lawyer, judge, police commissioner (almost all students who pass the policing entrance exam in France come from Sciences Po). You might become a writer, like Marcel Proust, a fashion designer, like Christian Dior. Yes, he studied at Sciences Po. Even better: an anarchist musician and poet, like Léo Ferré, or a singer, like Camille. You might even become an academic, the most wonderful career in the world. A researcher: for those who love to search for answers.

Our role here is to help you become yourselves, knowing full well that you alone can find this path. Nietzche said it before me in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “Become who you are.

5. "Make friendship"

Allow me to give you a final piece of advice that, for me, offers an immense opportunity: “make friendship”. Surprisingly, we don’t say that. We say “make love” but not “make friendship”. Fortunately, we do do it. One’s university years often lead to encounters that last throughout one’s life.

Argue, doubt, write, discover who you are, and make friendship. Friendship is both a sublime form of love and a necessity of thought. I love this quote from the philosopher, who modestly preferred to call herself an essayist, Hannah Arendt: “Only because I can speak with others, can I also speak with myself, i.e. think.”

I wish you all a wonderful year of friendship, discussion and thinking.

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