For when France seems too far away. Shop for inspiring images of France and discover travel tips, packing advice, recipes, book reviews and more.
For when France seems too far away. Shop for inspiring images of France and discover travel tips, packing advice, recipes, book reviews and more.

French Lessons

I find other cultures completely fascinating. I’m quite sure this is the reason that I’ve always been compelled to travel. Actually being in a place gives you insights that you will never find in a book or on-line.

But no matter how many times you visit a destination, you never quite develop the same understanding as you do when you live and learn there.

I think this is why I’m such a fan of memoirs – I’m always trying to dig a little deeper, learn a little more – even if it is through the eyes of others.

All of this back story will give you some idea of why I was so delighted to read Sherry’s latest post on French education. In it, she takes a thought provoking look at the French school system through the eyes of the all important students.

I’m very thankful to Sherry from Save. Spend. Splurgefor sharing yet another aspect of French culture here on Distant Francophile. If you are a regular reader you’ll know that Sherry kindly offered to guest post on all things French culture related in response to reader requests.

Sherry’s partner immigrated from France to Canada over 20 years ago and together they have a Franco-Anglo toddler that Save. Spend. Splurge readers know as Baby Bun.

This life experience has allowed Sherry to get to know French culture from a different angle – and she writes about it in such a compelling way.

Anyhow, I’ll get out of the way now and let you get on with learning about what it’s like to be a student in France.

And until next time – au revoir.

French Lessons

We recently met up with some friends and their three children who have had an erratic migratory pattern having been born in France, then moved to the United States, then back to France, and now to settle permanently in Canada.

Note: French families generally always have 3 children because of tax purposes – once you have three, you start receiving some major benefits from the government because they’re trying very hard to make sure that you not only procreate but procreate to replace yourselves (represented by your first two children), and to help the country continue to grow (represented by child number 3). You should take a look at the families the next time you ever travel to France, and count to see how many children each couple has as a fun exercise.

Anyway, our friend started talking about living in France, the U.S. and Canada, and when we started asking his now secondary-school aged children how they liked the various schooling systems, they all unanimously said that they couldn’t take it in France and much preferred the U.S. or Canada.

My partner and his friend laughed uproariously, having been through the extremely strict, harsh and regimented schooling system. I heard a little bit about it before but ended up learning a great deal more than I had known previously through the conversation and the eyes of the children.

The first thing to note, is that French schooling systems seem to work on humiliation being the best teacher. They will do things such as sort your quiz marks in descending order and make remarks as they go down the list, such as: “As always, Émilie is at the top of the class again as #1, followed by Jean-François as her second….”, both to praise and continue to encourage the first child to work as hard as before, and to needle the second place one to ‘beat’ the first one for the chance of being called out as #1, but then it gets worse. They recounted hearing their teachers say as they reached the bottom of the list: “And to no one’s surprise, Marc is at the very bottom. Again with a score of ____.”

When I heard this, I thought they were joking! How could they do this? And to little school-aged children?! How terrible!

They looked at me with bemused looks and said: “Well, it’s to teach us that we have to work hard to stay on top, and if you feel humiliated being on the bottom, you ought to stop watching so much television and study much harder.”

Stumped, I could see that they saw it as being a good thing, but I wonder how many children feel so demoralized always being called out as the ‘dumbest one’ in the class, yet I do see their point of how we shouldn’t encourage and tell children they’re the best and brightest stars in the world when they haven’t done a lick of work either. I’d prefer a balance.

The second thing of note, is how they sort them as they get older. Once you reach around age 13 or 14 (they couldn’t recall), you are assessed by teachers, and declared either fit to continue on to higher education or shuffled off into a trades school because you clearly have no aptitude or brains to even try to enter into one of les grandes écoles (the big schools) that specialize in business or engineering, so you shouldn’t even bother wasting the country’s resources, nor your time to do so and just give up.

The one single subject to determining all of this? Mathematics. It’s the #1 filter in France, and a source of pride if you are very good in math. All other subjects are secondary no matter how brilliant you are at them.

Again, shocked into silence, I pondered the meaning of this. So if a child is unable to fit into a rigid academic system where mathematics is king, but you happen to have a real aptitude for something more creative, you’re dismissed.

As my partner and his friends all went to one of the big schools in France (first rank, mind you), they didn’t see anything wrong with this, but all I could think of was of children who let’s say have had no encouragement, support or help to reach their best potential. I see the point and its efficiency, but I feel torn between thinking it’s a good thing or wondering if it is wasting some of our brightest minds.

Before I continue, I should mention something:

My partner in particular, was from one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Paris. His parents had no money, and no education whatsoever and for him to reach the heights that he did, is extremely rare.

He is, even amongst his peers, admired for what he has accomplished because they all come from rich families who had the time and resources to shower onto their offspring by sending them to the England in the summers to study English with native speakers, or to hire the best tutors to help them in any subject they wished (e.g. learning Italian as a tertiary language which is mandatory). His friends didn’t have to think about money because they had it.

My partner, while he did not want for food or shelter, had no other stimulation or help. He only had the strongest desire to ‘make it out of there’, as he put it in his own words. He saw his childhood friends turn to drugs, gangs and dropouts, and he knew he was not going to be that statistic.

So, he studied.

He studied like a maniac, he only dreamed about studying and would spend hours studying, only stopping for breaks to eat or go to the washroom, or sleep. Even when he sat in those preparatory schools (about 2 years) to study subjects like higher math, philosophy, etc to sit for those exams for first, second, and third rank business and engineering schools, he recalls being told on the first day:

Do you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend? Break up with them. Do you have a job? Quit. Do you have any other obligations or hobbies other than studying to try and make it into one of the best schools here? End them now. If you don’t, I guarantee you are not going to make it. This is not for people who aren’t serious about making it.

After that speech, half the class got up and left the room.

The remaining half, were determined, but even the most determined of all children don’t make it, and have to settle for lower rank schools, or worse of all, pay for a for-profit school with no rank (quelle horreur!)

So when you hear all of that, and you realize what they put those children through to weed out who is the best and brightest, it sort of makes sense that it created a whole academic system where once you get that degree from École Polytechnique for instance (the PARIS location, by the way, not any others, nor the misleadingly named one in Montréal that is nowhere near its level), it means you are set for life career-wise.

I likened it to the rigours of academic life in Asia, having heard similar horror stories about Chinese, Indian, and Japanese students studying until they forgot to eat, or worse, committing suicide because they did not make it to the #1 spot.

It is a bloody, and brutal business, but … like all things French, also a sense of pride for those who have made it.

(If any of you ever get a chance, watch the documentary Kings of Pastry (2009) to see that kind of French dedication to excellence at play but with delicious pastries. We both had a good laugh at the end when a judge to encourage the bakers at the end tells them like an army general: “C’est un truc d’homme!” — it’s a man’s thing — ironic, because our society expects women to be in the kitchen not men, particularly for baking, but not if it is for ‘higher-level’ competitions of excellence apparently)

Unfortunately for the others, if you don’t have such a degree, you can pretty much forget about a good career unless you plan on working like a dog to make up for what that single piece of paper can give you as a stamp of pre-approval into the highest echelons any company in France.

It’s partly the reason why my partner left. As proud as he is of what he has accomplished, he sees its limitations.

With Baby Bun, I am seeing that he wants to help Baby Bun learn, but not coddle him (I approve!), and he wants to have Baby Bun have that innate curiousity inside to learn on his own and teach himself; not to be forced to do it or rewarded for any accomplishments the way that many parents particularly Asian ones do.

I see the way my partner was raised, and I can understand now why he is tough on Baby Bun but also very lenient, not wanting to put him through what he went through, and now it finally makes more sense why he and his friend laughed heartily when the kids declared that France was ‘too much’ in way of schooling.

I’d have to agree, but at least now we can trot out these stories to Baby Bun and tell him how easy he has it. 😉

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