Vie du campus

A Foreigner in the French Education System

daisybelle.jpgChaque semaine, Daisy Nguyen, étudiante en troisième année de sciences politiques et de droit à l’Université de Californie, en échange cette année à Sciences Po, nous racontera la vie vue par un bon tiers de la population estudiantine de notre institut – en anglais.
Every week, Daisy Nguyen, a third year exchange student from the University of California studying Political Science and Law, will relate life as third of the Sciences Po students see it – in english.

Why is it that French teachers are so willing to give 0/20 for horrible papers, but it is unheard of to give a 20/20 for excellent ones ? From the age of 4, French students go to school from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM- akin to many adult work days. 40% of French students will eventually retake a grade level.

It is an alarming number, but after being here at Sciences Po, these statistics are easy to grasp and understand. I remember so painstakingly well, one day in class when we were receiving our galop midterms back. The Maître de Conférence called each student individually and verbally gave critiques to each one of us. This included everything from “excellently argued” to “insufficient and underdeveloped” to “franchement, c’était pas bien”. As I stared teary-eyed and spirit-broken into my paper, I realized that this was the French façon of humiliation. Never could I imagine such a scenario in the States, where flaws are blatantly highlighted for other students to make examples of.

concours2.jpgThe entire class was stigmatized from this moment on. And as we all know of societal stigmas – they are hard to shake. In a small class of thirty, we all knew now who received the lowest score, the highest, and everyone else who was ‘moyen’. When I mentioned this to some French friends, they responded “oh, c’est normal”. I soon found out that this verbal skewering was a rule and not an exception.

From what you know about exposés and dissertations, the French are really in love with grandes-parties and organization. The perfect margins and limits of French methodology are inherent within the French education system. This style often surprises and offsets international students who find it too restrictive and puts a constraint on imagination. Peter Gumbel, professor at Sciences Po, has recently published “On achève bien les écoliers” – evaluating the tendencies of the French education system and how it develops French mentality. Gumbel is an Englishman, and he frequently contrasts the differences between English style education and French style. The principal problems ? French students are terrified of failure, the system is constructed around coloring within the lines and precise cursive; anything out of the norm is redone or shamed. In contrast, American and English models of education pride themselves on nurturing students’ creativity with positive encouragement. This is intended to build confidence and focus on communal contributions, like working together in groups or community service. In France, your peers are your competition, and your competition is your enemy.

He explains, “I wrote this essay because I believe that France is missing a key element of what’s wrong with the school system, an element that is immediately apparent to any foreigner who comes into contact with it: the harshness of the classroom culture. It’s a culture you can sum up in three words: “t’es nul.” (“You’re worthless”). You hear these words all the time in France.
Gumbel describes this as a manner in which failure is highlighted so as to prevent it in the future. However, the consequences are students who are terrified of failure, become less confident, and feel themselves inhibited by the stigmas set by their teachers. Gumbel adds that when young French students are questioned to self evaluate themselves, they severely underestimate their level of knowledge. Their self-reflections are parallel with actual scores of subharan African countries, where many children are illiterate. This is a direct result of the negative, demeaning culture that French students experience in the classroom. Moreover, the system’s goal is to fish out the ‘elite’ and wash away the rest, which is why exceptional work is taken with the highest regard and the rest are ignored or given no chance.

e_na.jpgThis idea of the ‘French elite’ evolves into the framework of universities and the ‘Grands Écoles’ of France. It is no coincidence why most of the French government are graduates from the most prestigious political schools – most notably ENA (École Nationale d’Administration) and Sciences Po – and before that, they attended the most prestigious lycées and primary schools. It is a hierarchy within the education system itself that seems to stifle French society from ever giving opportunities to those who are standing on the margins of success, looking in. The fact that French students are taught to look at success as a hard-to-reach pedestal with their peers as their competition, says a lot about how the rest of the world perceives the French – the most common stereotypes are arrogant, cold and uncooperative.

Can this be shifted to a more positive light by changing the manner in which French students are taught ? From an American perspective, I remember even the most ill-mannered students were allowed to be rowdy; the little artists allowed to splatter paint on the walls; and the Einsteins were encouraged to mix unknown chemicals – this was all apart of the learning process. We develop our hearts and minds in a way that makes us see the world as mistake-friendly and welcoming. One thing my fellow Americans will agree with me on, is that our ears grew tired to the repetition of There is no such thing as a stupid question!. It was so often repeated that it has become a maxim of the American education system. Now, ironically, I desperately miss hearing it. In France, every other question I ask is an insult to the teacher or idiotic in nature. So I’ve grown accustomed to letting questions go unanswered for fear of striking anger in the professor, c’est juste comme ça. But just because this is what it is, does it mean its right ?