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to set out rational arguments to support such a loaded statement, but personally I am convinced that the weight of this outdated school system is close to crushing all that is hopeful, dynamic and creative in French youth.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.

9 comments:

Starman said...

Since the majority of public schools in the US rank just above Haiti in academic achievement, and since most students seem to lose interest in learning just after the third grade, some parents may feel the only way to motivate their children is to get them into learning at a very early age. You do understand that US schools are ranked 39th in the world, right?
I am going for my thrid attempt to leave this comment. I cannot begin to express my hatred of these damned word verification things.

Nicole said...

And yet, bizarrely, US universities are ranked number 1. How does that work? And once out of school, entrepreneurial rates and productivity rates a,ong US workers are among the highest in the world (when they are not number 1). Frankly, when I see my French nephews going from happy funny little kids to needing therapy at the age of 12 to deal with the stress of school I do doubt whether the means the ends justify the means. Is a higher national ranking on these tables worth the apparent sacrifice? Something else that really bothers me about the French school system is that it puts such an emphasis on individualism at the cost of teamwork and group effort. I would rather have a well-rounded, happy child with an average understanding of algebra than your typical French kid any day.

Margie Rynn said...

I agree, Nicole, that there is something seriously wrong with French schools. It seems to crush kids instead of helping them develop. There's an obsession with giving difficult exams here that verges on the sadistic; there seems to be a belief that the more information a student can cram in his head, the better that student is. No one seems to be willing to look at the fact that that doesn't stimulate creativity and productivity. It's really sad and a waste of potential. I keep thinking that if I see my son turning into a depressed drone, I'm sending him to an American university, even if it costs me an arm and a leg.

Because despite my grouching, I do have to admit that there is one thing that French universities can feel very proud of: tuition is either very low or non-existent.

Anonymous said...

As a parent of three I have to say it's no easier in the US (the mania and the competition is insane) but the schools are worse.

When I was in college I took French along with about thirty other mid-western kids. About half way through the teacher asked us how we did something (I forget what) using English grammar. Nobody knew, they only knew French grammar from her class but only knew english grammar by osmosis, they didn't understand it.

I just took my kids out of elementary school in the US and into a public school in France. Basically I saw the teenager in the US and I was scared to death for my kids. I can't tell you how happy we are to have escaped!

Starman said...

I am not defending the way French schools choose to teach. I agree their method is not the way I would teach. But, on the other hand, their students are more knowledgeable than US students in just about any subject you can mention. There is currently a drive by teachers in South Florida for more money because they feel they're underpaid, but Florida public schools are at the bottom of the list in school rankings for the US. Also, given the number of foreign students who come to US universities, there must be some substance to them.

Margie Rynn said...

I know that US schools have big problems, having gone to a high school were I got good grades simply because I was one of the few who turned in their homework on time. If the French schools are too demanding, I think the US tendency, at least when I was a kid, was the opposite. But there's got to be a happy medium somewhere. Simply cramming massive amounts of information into young brains isn't the answer. I'm just trying to make the observation that you can go too far in the other direction, and that even if French kids know a lot, they are often denied chances in life simply because they haven't memorized as well as another kid.
Also, I'm only talking about French schools, schools in other countries might be completely different. From what I understand, the French school system is one of the more antiquated in Europe, having not really been overhauled since the days of Napoleon.

Margie Rynn said...

One other thought on the competition/mania element: it is odd that this educational panic (mostly on the part of parents) has reached both sides of the Atlantic. I wonder what it is about our globalized society that has brought this on? I think this is one thing that has really changed since I was in public school...

Lissa said...

I know that I am coming a bit late to this discussion, but I have just moved to Paris to take a postdoctoral position at the Institut Pasteur. I guess this means I'm seeing the other side of the tunnel you are currently looking down and contemplating. After going through as much education as possible (at top-ranked schools) in the US, I am amazed at the maturity, intelligence, intellectual curiosity and expertise of the Masters and Doctoral students coming into my new laboratory from French Universities (I'm actually the only American in the lab). Whether this speaks to some type of "selection" for these individuals along with way - those that can survive the loads of work and pass the grueling exams - or, whether the system seems tortuous from the outside, but brings out the best in the students, I cannot say. Although, it seems clear to me that if things do work well, the French educational system produces individuals that can compete at any level and deserve respect from those across the pond.

Margie Rynn said...

Now that time has passed and my son seems to be doing just fine in "CP," I've calmed down some, but I still think the system is grueling. I tend to think it is a case of "selection," and that if you actually make it through the school system and into a high level school, you probably are an incredible student. Yes, the system produces some amazing people. But what bothers me is what happens to the people who are not amazing, but just good. If they don't make into a great school, their career path is severely limited. Which seems like a real waste of human potential. It's much harder here to change schools, careers, or to try something new. Or develop into a great student if you are not a test-taking wonder.