On achève bien les écoliers
The French often make fun of Americans who talk about the “American dream,” that great vision of a country in which everything is possible, and where opportunity lies on the street, waiting to be seized. But France, too, has its “French dream.” It’s called school.
School is far more than just a place where children go to learn ; in France, it embodies the most treasured values of society. There’s no mistaking the national pride in the fact that school is free and secular. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the meritocratic ideal under which any child from any background can, in theory, rise to the highest echelons of French society simply by excelling at school. Just as in the U.S. one hears incessantly about America as a great democracy, so in France one hears incessantly about education as the motor of the “social elevator,” the beating heart of the nation.
140 years ago, the great educational reformer Jules Ferry promised that, “of all the necessities of the age, of all the problems, I will chose one to which I will devote all my intelligence, all my soul, my heart, all my physical and moral strength, and that is the problem of the education of the people.” Strong words which continue to resonate today. It’s no accident that Jules Ferry’s name is evoked almost as often in France as Abraham Lincoln’s is in the U.S., and that France has a long and brilliant tradition of educational pioneers, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of the classic work Emile, to Alfred Binet, who invented the first IQ tests, and Célestin Freinet, who inspired the modern school movement.
How surprising it is, then, to see that the reality of French schools today is far removed from these lofty ideals. Life never has quite the upbeat tone that’s depicted in Les Choristes or the Dead Poet’s Society, of course. Still the current educational system falls short not just of its self-image, but of the standards of educational performance in much of Europe and the developed world.
How can it be that four pupils out of ten finish primary education with serious difficulties in reading, writing and math? That 130,000 youths leave school every year with no qualifications whatsoever? That, in a country obsessed by the notion of equality, the children of managers, teachers and other professionals have twice as high a chance of going onto to tertiary education than the children of workers? That despite all the talk about the need for excellence and the emphasis on the creation of elites, French 15-year-olds on average get only mediocre scores in international comparative tests? That even in mathematics, the subject for which France has a worldwide reputation for excellence, French youngsters are relatively weak compared to their contemporaries in places like Canada, Australia and the Netherlands?
These are not new questions, and there have been multitudinous attempts to answer them. Turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper, or walk into a bookshop, and you will find hundreds of explanations for what has gone wrong. In every country I know, education is an issue that arouses anger, fear and concern, but in France it is truly an obsession.
Unfortunately, all too often, the debate here is reduced to an absurd joust between warring ideologies, between « republicans » and « pedagogues », between those who insist that knowledge should be at the heart of the system and those who believe that the children should be placed there. For a foreign observer in France, what’s striking about this debate is its conflictual nature and its detachment from the real-life experience. Too often, it’s like an unseemly brawl in the schoolyard about an object that never actually existed.
Yet viewed from the outside, this national debate is missing a central element. It neglects or totally ignores the characteristic that is immediately apparent to every foreigner who has contact with French schools : the dictatorship of the classroom. A culture that is unforgiving, demeaning and sometimes humiliating. A culture that has made a cult out of high-pressure evaluation and yet gives only short shrift to the notion of individual motivation. A culture of excellence, certainly, but one which pushes down the weakest students rather than giving itself the mission of lifting them up. A culture that thinks nothing of giving 0 out of 20 to a poor paper but can’t bring itself to give 20 out of 20 to an excellent one. A culture of worthlessness, in short, that is the diametric opposite of the grandiose promises of the republic.
In France, they shoot school kids, don’t they?