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Creating a Nation: The French Education System- Esther Otis

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The purpose of this project is to explore the state of the modern French education system by investigating its core values and revered traditions through academic journal and textbook readings, as well as through personal interviews with French native Pia Decarsin.

I have been studying the French language and culture for quite some time now. Ever since I picked up my first grammar book, I’ve heard whispers about the infamously difficult French education system. When I complained in class, my French teachers looked at me sternly, and said I knew nothing about the French definition of the word “stress.” This piqued my curiosity. What is the school system like in a country where the letter “h” is silent, and everyone dresses fashionably? This intercultural interview project presented the perfect opportunity to examine the French education system on both an academic and a personal scope.

Before conducting my interviews with Pia Decarsin, I conducted preliminary research to gain an academic perspective on the French education system. My research revealed several key findings that I will expound upon in this section. After outlining my research, I will then construct hypotheses which will be tested and explored through anecdotal evidence from my interviewee.

Conceptualization

The first major finding from my library research shows that the education of French citizens is a governmental responsibility. Duménil and Edmiston (2005) found that 20 percent of the French state budget is invested in education. The network of nursery, primary, and secondary public schools fall under the

auspices of the Minister of National Education located in Paris, France. The minister regulates all school programs, hiring practices, as well as teacher and administration salaries (Duménil and Edmiston, 2005). The clearly marked centralization of schools supports the research claim of a state-regulated education system in France. According to Martin and Nakayama (2003), identity is based on self-concept, and yet it is also shaped by myriad influences including education, nationality, race, and age. In the case of the French education system, French students enter the work world with an identity branded by their government-shaped education.

My second research finding is that the republican model of the French education system is traditional. Meuret (2005) cautions against the arbitrary application of this adjective. The original reforms upon which the modern education model of France is based were quite progressive for the time. In the year 1881, French Prime Minister Jules Ferry stated that French public education would hence forth be secular, mandatory, and free (Edmiston & Duménil, 2005). According to Meuret (2005), the French education model today can be considered traditional “because [it is] well established, because [it] still strongly influence the conception of education that is more prevalent among teachers, and because [it is] advocated by and implemented in the main educational institutions…” (p. 288)

Finally, my research showed that reforms in the past thirty years have been slow to take hold in the French education system. Duru-Bellat and Meuret (2003) found that these most recent reforms hold very little incentive for the teachers, whose lack of personal motivation prevents the successful implementation of reforms. Furthermore, disgruntled French teachers point to decades of pedagogical tradition, regarding reforms as a ball-and-chain that will inhibit their ability to produce model French citizens. Teachers treat reforms that call for more parent-teacher interaction and in-class discussion and debate with suspicion and disdain, fearing the teaching profession will become a puppet played by parents and students alike (Duru-Bellat & Meuret, 2003). It is clear that a rapid execution of these recent reforms will be hindered by French teachers’ reluctant attitude towards change.

Though my research gave me a solid introduction to the current state of the French education system, it also triggered several questions. I formulated these questions into two hypotheses. Based on Meuret’s research (2005) on the draconic republican model of the French education system that emphasize the needs of the state over the needs of the individual, I predicted that this methodology of rigidly government regulated teaching may prove psychologically detrimental to French students.

The study Duru-Bellat and Meuret (2005) did on reforms also intrigued me. Due to the resistance French teachers have to change, I predicted that the French education system will reject new teaching aids such as technology, and will begin to have difficulties producing citizens that will easily adapt to a rapidly globalizing world.

Looking for further information, it is here I bring in the evidence from my interviews with Pia Decarsin. I will check my hypotheses against Pia interviews and against my research previously outlined in order to form a more complete understanding of the French education system.

Method

Pia Decarsin is in my 17th Century French Literature class this semester. Having settled on the topic of education for this cultural interview assignment, I immediately thought of her as the perfect candidate for my study. She is a recent survivor of the French education system, having graduated from a French high school in her native Chartres, France less than five years ago. After researching and reading through several academic articles appropriate to my subject, I then formulated an extensive list of questions I wanted to discuss with Pia. I approached her about the idea on September 26 after French class. Pia readily agreed, and we set interview dates for September 28 and October 8. For our first interview, Pia and I met at Bluestem Bistro, a coffee house located in Aggieville.

I admit to a touch of nervousness. Pia is a new friend, and I wanted to make a good impression. I also did not want to bore her with inane questions. I dressed professionally, and brought my laptop along so I could take notes in a more orderly fashion. After having a quick lunch, Pia and I moved into the conference room. I set up my digital camera to record our interview.

I was pleasantly surprised by Pia’s affable nature. She was an excellent interviewee. In addition to my notes, I also asked a series of follow-up questions not outlined on my questionnaire. Despite the presence of a slight French accent, Pia has an excellent grasp of the English language. It was very fortunate to avoid all manner of language boundaries. The video recording of the interview reveals that the interview’s tone was friendly, and that Pia and I were relaxed and comfortable with our exchange.

The second interview on October 8 was held at Pia’s apartment, recorded with audio only. This time, Pia and I discussed French education at the high school level, as well as Pia’s experience in the United States on a year-long study abroad trip. Once again, time flew by. Even after the formal interview concluded, I lingered for awhile at Pia’s apartment, and we continued discussing various aspects of French life. Again, the second interview was pleasant and engaging.

Results

I will now test the information gathered from the interviews against my original hypotheses, beginning with my first hypothesis. The rigorous nature of the French education system does indeed cause students a great deal of stress. Evidence for this hypothesis is supported in the amount of time spent at school, teachers’ expectations for their students, and the structure of the school system itself.

French children begin their education early, starting at the age of three with “la maternelle,” which would be most closely associated with kindergarten here in America. The days of a three-year-old French child are full, beginning at 8:30 in the morning and ending at 5:00 p.m. As French children begin middle school, academic pressure grows exponentially. Students are grouped together and remain in a small class of about thirty for their entire high school career. At the end of each trimester, students’ grades are read aloud in class, along with class rankings. Teachers are strict, and tardiness is not tolerated. Pia said that at 8:00 a.m. the front doors to the school lock and tardy students must ring a doorbell and visit the principal’s office instead of his or her first class. Classes are taught at a standardized pace with few exceptions catered to individual needs; French students are expected to rise to the bar level set.

Before they reach the age of sixteen, French teenagers must decide on either a literary, social science, or physical science study track. The last three years of a French student’s high school education are spent preparing for the “baccalauréat” (colloquially referred to as “le bac”), the notorious week-long examination that all French students must pass in order to graduate high school. Pia even went so far as to declare that the baccalauréat is the center of the academic universe, and that French students are conditioned from the beginning of their academic careers at the age of three to prepare for “le bac.”

A brief tour of the life of French students demonstrates the incredible level of stress endured during their educational careers. My original hypothesis declaiming this system as psychologically stressful holds up.

My second hypothesis deemed the intolerance of French teachers against change as a possible success retardant on the French student, specifically in regards to globalization. The results of testing this hypothesis proved mixed. It is true that French teachers do resist reforms as a rule. Pia said that the use of technology is still looked upon unfavorably. Very few technology classrooms exist, and many of Pia’s teachers insisted that all research be done in the library instead of on the internet. Pia also stated that often teachers in France rebel openly against reforms, taking their protests to the streets. Pia and her friends had a joke that “Strike Day,” that is to say, a day when French children have no school because their teachers are on strike, should become a national holiday in France. Many classes are done in lecture format, with little to no interaction between students. Small group work as well as classroom discussion is generally discouraged.

On the other hand, the fact that the French school system has done little to change its format does not seem to be causing problems yet. In fact, the students who graduate from the French education system are culturally adjusted, intelligent, and well-read. Nearly 80 percent of French students pass the baccalauréat. When Pia transferred to Kansas State University, she said the general education level courses she took were a repeat of information previously learned in her French high school. The French are also incredibly well-versed in other cultures: throughout her education, Pia and her class took foreign exchange trips to countries such as Germany and England to explore and expand their knowledge. Furthermore, every French citizen who is a product of the education system retains a solid factual base of French history and politics. Pia said that at the age of six, she was expected to converse on topics such as Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution while her family ate dinner. The recent presidential election received more than 80 percent of the country’s representation in votes. Pia attributed this phenomenal result to the high level of involvement in school politics expected of French students.

Obviously, despite library researched papers and lecture driven classes, the French education system is doing something right, and is producing citizens academically ahead of most Americans right out of high school. The fact that most French students travel to other countries before the age of 18 means that they are actually better poised to work in an international market and interact on an intercultural level. My hypothesis claiming that French methodology might inhibit students from becoming global citizens turns out to be false.

Discussion

The experience of this intercultural interview provided astounding depth of this complex machine called French education. In this section, I will attempt to thoroughly explore my findings, beginning with a brief parallel between the material researched in my literary conceptualization and the information garnered from my interviews. I will then discuss the methodological flaws of my second hypothesis relating to French students’ ability to adapt in a global world. I will then delve deeper into my first hypothesis by exploring the negative effects of a rigorous French education, and conclude with some surprises I discovered along the interview process.

For the most part, many of my interview results relate back to the literary conceptualization of my paper. The centralization and uniformity of French schools outlined by Duménil and Edmiston (2005) is markedly apparent in Pia’s experience. The standardized pace, the inflexible lecture hall format, and the incredibly difficult examination called the baccalauréat are all tied to the fact that one minister and his administration are in control of the processes of the French school system. In addition, the definition of the French education model as traditional provided by Meuret (2005) proved true. The traditional idea of education was seen as deeply rooted when Pia described their resistance to reforms in the form of protests and strikes. One weakness in the interviews rested in the fact that Pia was not able to cite specific instances of reforms being either adapted or rejected. The relevance of the study by Duru-Bellat and Meuret (2003) on reforms in France was thus somewhat negated in relation to Pia’s anecdotes. However, the hypothesis taken from my research on Duru-Bellat and Meuret (2003) had some defects to begin with. It is to that flawed hypothesis I now turn.

In the literary conceptualization of my paper I postulated that because French teachers are reluctant to implement reforms, their students will not be able to compete in a global world. This hypothesis had several difficulties. First of all, I drew an invalid conclusion from the reform study by Duru-Bellat and Meuret (2003). I read the word “reform” and immediately assumed these reforms included technological advancements in the classroom. During my interview, Pia did mention the lack of technology used by teachers and students. But as the interview continued, I realized that my hypothesis had been too technologically focused. I had made an assumption based on knowledge from my culture, an essentially ethnocentric judgment.

Ironically, supplemental information from my interviews disproved my own hypothesis in a backhanded fashion. I predicted negative results from the French education’s resistance to change. It turns out that even without an educational emphasis on technology, Pia said that French students generally speak more than two languages, have a better understanding of French history than American students to of American history, travel more often than American students, and are more active in both local and national politics.

Towards the end of our second interview, I laughingly mentioned Pia’s anecdotes had just disproved my hypothesis. After explaining my error, Pia smiled slyly and told me it is important not to fix something if it is not broken. I realized then that the French education system, tried and true, is still managing to keep pace with the technologically and interculturally driven world of today.

Although I was incorrect about the cultural results of a French education, I do feel that my interviews with Pia demonstrate the negative psychological effects a French education can have. (It is important to interject here that an obvious limitation in this hypothesis is my own bias and definition for what I believe constitutes psychological harm.)

Pia emphasized that throughout French students’ school years, the competition between the children is extremely cutthroat. Although students do not form cliques in the way American children do, Pia said that in general students are mean to each other. When Pia chose the social science track in order to study music, she was placed with a group of students to attend the same conservatory classes. Pia recounted that the students were two-faced and backstabbing, constantly looking for weaknesses to exploit in their classmates. Pia said that it is psychologically detrimental and humiliating to hear your class rank read aloud to your peers. She remembers coming home in tears because she was ranked in last place one semester.

It is not uncommon to hear of frequent anxiety attacks around the time of the baccalauréat. Pia remembers while taking the psychology test during the week of her baccalauréat, a girl in the same room went into hysterics and then passed out. But severe physical reactions to stress are not reserved for those preparing for their “bac.” After telling me most students begin attending career fairs at the age of thirteen, Pia added that it is not uncommon for these same thirteen-year-olds to be placed on anti-depressants and other anxiety management medications to help deal with mammoth academic pressure. While in elementary school, Pia’s brother suffered from severe stomach cramps every morning before school. He was dyslexic, and did not receive additional aid from his teachers. Consequently, at the teachers’ meeting held at the end of the year, he failed to be promoted to the next grade level. Eventually, Pia’s parents hired a private tutor for him, and he is now progressing at a steady pace.

These disturbing anecdotes Pia provided demonstrate that not all the lasting effects of the French education system are positive. In my own academic career I myself have been prone to the occasional week of stress, particularly around exam time. I even attended a private school that was ranked academically more rigorous than American public schools. However the level of stress my friends and I experience is not comparable to Pia’s academic career.

Interestingly, although Pia’s anecdotes support my original hypothesis that an over-rigorous education system produces psychological harm, Pia said that she still would send her own children to French schools.

My interviews with Pia also held some surprises. For example, I was interested to learn that despite the pervasiveness of American cultural influence, there is a nuance of anti-Americanism that bleeds into the French school system. Pia and other French students learn British English and watch British cartoons. Pia’s teachers circled words like “color” and “behavior” in her papers, calling them “Americanisms,” and taking points off for their usage, preferring instead the British spellings of “colour” and “behaviour.” This is an example of identity being carved by communication: between the policy makers and the students, a French nationality, or national identity. Part of this cultural identity teaches the importance of English language mastery, but that English language brand is clearly delineated as British, not American, English (Martin and Nakayama, 2003).

Towards the end of my last interview with Pia, we began looking at hypothetical educational situations. Pia thought up of an idealized version of a French education. To my surprise, the idealization of Pia’s hypothetical school system included values inherent to the American school system, such as group project work and class discussion. These unexpected turns in the interview allowed more spontaneity in the follow-up questions I asked, as well as adding a personal quality to my research.

Conclusion

This intercultural project has yielded both depth and breadth on the topic of the French education system. In my initial research I listed three key findings: the education of its citizens is a governmental responsibility, the Republican model of the French education system is traditional, and reforms are slow to take hold in the French education system.

I tested two hypotheses regarding 1) the psychological harm the rigorous French education system causes as well as 2) a possible concern that the rigid methodology might hurt students’ ability to function in a global world. My first hypothesis tested true, while my second hypothesis, due to an inaccurate conclusion from my research, proved false.

My interviews with Pia Decarsin came with a few surprises. Pia thought that the perfect education system would be a marriage between both American and French education systems. I believe it is in Pia’s statement that the significance of this intercultural project is summarized. As a product of the American school system, I am well aware of its shortcomings. I find myself wishing that the study of a second language had been mandatory. I feel somewhat sheepish when my international friends talk disparagingly about how “easy” American schools are. During my interviews with Pia, she was able to show me the positive qualities both in the American and the French educational system. Together, we dreamed up a more perfect education system using the strong suits of both cultures. It is through unique projects like this one that intercultural bonds are shaped and strengthened, stereotypes are forgotten, and prejudices are erased.

References

Duru-Bellat, M., & Meuret, D. (2003, November). English and French

modes of regulation of the education system: A comparison. Comparative Education, 39,463-477.

Edmiston, W. F., & Duménil, A. (2005). La France contemporaine. Boston, MA: Heinle.

Martin, J., & Nakayama, T. (2003). Experiencing intercultural communication. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill.

Meuret, D. (2005). French and U.S. modes of educational regulation facing modernity. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 12.1, 285-312.