Tuesday, September 2, 2008

C'est la Rentrée

We’re back. Vacation is over. In keeping with the spirit of things, the weather has decided to become suitably miserable, and is doing a good imitation of late October. It’s the first day of school, and after several days of intense anxiety, my son has entered primary school. As of lunchtime, all was well. The teacher is nice, the friends all remembered him. The lead-up was intense. During the entire last year of pre-school, everyone keep telling him that the fun days would soon be over, and that “CP (first grade), c’est du sérieux.” You would think he was about to take on a post-doc in nuclear medicine. People get serious about school here. Entirely too serious for some of us frivolous types who went to primary school back in the day when homework was considered hopelessly bourgeois, and my third grade teacher came to school in a miniskirt and a frosted bouffant. My 8th-grade teacher, a long-haired Mr. Kuhl (pronounced, I kid you not, Mr. Cool), had us devote an enormous amount of time to analyzing the lyrics to the song “Bye Bye Miss America Pie.” Our junior high school had flexible scheduling and modular classrooms. And while I freely admit some of this stuff was of limited value, and that we may not have been the most studious of students, I did manage to graduate from high school, go to a good college, and even get a Masters.

What is it about this generation that is so panicked about diplomas that they are ready to sit on a six-year-old’s head and tell him he’d better get to work now or he’ll never get a decent job? From what I understand, this isn’t just a French obsession: even back in the States, parents are flogging their children with educational videos when they are still in diapers and looking at elementary schools under a microscope before they will agree to let their child set foot inside.

It must be said, however, that in France this tendency is taken to a level of mass insanity. And not without reason—the French school system is so demanding, so onerous, and so hard to get through that it’s a miracle that anyone gets out alive, let alone finds a job. I don’t have the time or the resources right now to set out rational arguments to support such a loaded statement, but personally I am convinced that the weight of this outdated school system is close to crushing all that is hopeful, dynamic and creative in French youth.

But enough rash statements and snap judgments. Do I sound like a nervous parent? I am. I’m worried that the daily homework assignments that my son will receive this year will snowball over time into a huge burden that he will have to lug around in addition to his overstuffed book bag. I fret when I see his older cousins spending a good chunk of every vacation working on homework, and when I kids going through the dreary process of deciding what they want to do with their lives when they are only 15 because that’s when you have to decide which kind of university entry exams you are going to take.

And what does all this stress accomplish in the long run? Are the French schools the best in Europe? No. Are French students the best prepared for the working world? More importantly, are there any jobs out there once they’ve gone through their academic ordeal? These are the questions that irk me, though to be honest, I don’t yet really have any reason to be irked. For the moment, my son seems to like school a lot. Today they drew seahorses and soon they will start learning to read. For the moment, all is well. Let’s hope it lasts.