The French school system is tough. It starts from preschool, with “grades” on everything from behavior to the ability to recognize shapes and colors. And it continues on, with high school students in class from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in many cases. Here in France, subjects like geography and philosophy are part of the regular curriculum. I always loved school, but still, as I watch my 4-year-old head off to class, I can’t help but cringe as I look ahead to the exhausting schedule that awaits her. Nothing like the 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. routine back in the U.S.
But it’s not just about hours. It’s also about expectations. The French set the bar high when it comes to grades. The top score is 20, but in many cases, a 10 out of 20 is considered good. This is especially the case in a rigorous university program like the Sorbonne. My husband has a degree in literature and linguistics from that university and the feeling among students in his program was: If you make it out with a diploma, you’re lucky. In the literature and linguistics program, about 60 percent of students fail in the first year, and by the second year, 70 percent are forced to drop out.
An example of the difficulty? This weekend, we were looking through my husband’s old notes and assignments, carefully kept in organizers such as the one pictured above.
On one particular analysis (all of the assignments are lengthy analyses of texts, titles, words and even tables of contents!), my husband’s professor wrote the following comment: “A solid paper, precise and just overall.” The grade? You’re probably thinking 18 out of 20? Or maybe even 15. Nope. 12.5 out of 20.
The grading system makes you completely reevaluate your expectations and attitude. You’re happy with a 10 and overjoyed with a 12. Rarely does one even come close to the level of 20. Once, my husband got a 19, and the professor told him, “If I give you a 20, I have to write a letter to the academy justifying the grade, so I’ll just give you a 19.”
There are two positive aspects of this harsh (overly harsh?) grading system: You can really be proud of simply graduating, no matter what the grade. And you end up with general knowledge that is so great that you will be able to keep up with even the most intellectual of conversations. The baccalauréat (or bac) a national exam to obtain a high school diploma, is a series of essay exams in various subjects that resemble a college level exam more than a high school one. The entire last year of high school is preparation for the bac.
So with all of these intellectuals running around France, are the French more successful out in the working world? Not necessarily. In the literary scene, the latest best sellers weren’t written by Sorbonne graduates. This isn’t because the Sorbonne grads aren’t good writers. It’s mainly because they write literary fiction or literary essays rather than catering to the latest trends or genres.
As I mulled over the subject, I realized that the French education system isn’t about careers, money or ostentatious success. It’s about continuing the heritage of learning and keeping the prestigious title of “intellectual.”