Home » Teaching

French educational blues

Written By: ckramsch on August 6, 2009 No Comment

Back in Paris again, I had the opportunity recently to meet with French teachers and researchers of English, German and French as a foreign language. They couldn’t wait to leave on vacation and were venting their frustrations that the “bac” or high school graduating examination lets 80-85% of students through these days and thus lowers the threshold for entrance to university. I found some of their frustrations interesting in comparison to our frustrations in the U.S.

Here in France,  educators at the secondary and post-secondary levels are highly trained in their respective subject matter. They have enormous knowledge of the language and the culture they teach and have the most highly developed awareness of the social and political dimensions of education. Yet they seem to have quite a pessimistic view of the ability of schools to achieve the republican ideal of liberté, égalité, fraternité to which they are committed. Indeed, the mood among educators is downbeat, morose, even bitter and cynical at times. Even though they are civil servants and thus assured of a secure salary and security of employment, they seem totally disillusioned about their ability to reach the masses of immigrants and native French students who fill their classes and don’t seem to care about the value of  Cartesian thinking and correct grammar. French teachers have been trained to believe that every child should be educated to think for him/herself, to develop critical powers of observation and analysis, not to take anything for granted, to develop an argument clearly, logically, rationally in the hope that they will become better citizens and more enlightened consumers. They have espoused the values of the Enlightenment, that promised social and economic advancement to those who were able to think, speak and write clearly and dispassionately and leave their biases and prejudices behind. What they have to deal with are students who very often don’t see the point of going to school at all or of doing well in school or even holding a job in order to consume. The disillusionment with capitalism, economic ‘growth’ and consumerism is quite palpable here. In the back of many youngsters’ minds here is not “work more in order to earn more” (the motto of Sarkozy’s electoral campaign), but “work less in order to live better” (thus promoting  economic décroissance or reduction in growth)  is.  As in the film “The Class”, they put into question the value of schooled knowledge and their parents’ ambitions of material wealth.

But what struck me most was the way the teachers are disillusioned less with the educational system and its traditional structures than with the students themselves who don’t meet their expectations. Their own impetus to enter the profession seems to have been the love for the subject matter, not the love of students. Students, in fact, seem almost to be in the way of their love for the subject matter. When the students don’t seem to be interested in what they are interested in, they feel betrayed. Having been recruited less for their pedagogical skills than for their knowledge of the subject matter through a series of highly competitive examinations, they are unable to pass on their intellectual passion and feel rejected. They start resenting the students and can’t wait to reach retirement age to at last indulge their intellectual interests.

From my American standpoint, I find the plight of French teachers both tragic and familiar. The very educational system that for decades has ensured them social prestige, security of employment and  intellectual pride, doesn’t hold its promises: teaching in France is no longer the honorable profession it  used to be and the demand for certain subjects has waned drastically (e.g., German is now rarely taught in France, in the same manner as French is rarely taught in Germany, since English has become the compulsory foreign language in both countries). Moreover, the system seems to be overtaken by a globalized economy that promises economic advancement with or without schooling but doesn’t hold its promises either. Not only is the financial crisis in full swing here as it is in the U.S., but it only reinforces the age-old French adage that “L’argent ne fait pas le bonheur” [money does not lead to happiness]. People here seems to all agree that capitalism has seen its day and is no longer the path to the individual pursuit of happiness. They are all the more aware of this as the French educational system itself has given them the intellectual tools to appreciate the contradictions of capitalism and to place their situation into a larger geopolitical framework.  They are astounded when I tell them that this is not a topic that is largely discussed among teachers in the U.S.

No doubt teachers are frustrated in the U.S. and language teachers in particular. It should be interesting to compare the frustrations of educators in Europe and the U.S. as this might give us a clue as to where our respective societies are headed, since teachers are responsible for leading youngsters in that direction.

Tags: , ,

Digg this!Add to del.icio.us!Stumble this!Add to Techorati!Share on Facebook!Seed Newsvine!Reddit!

Leave a Reply:

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  Copyright ©2009 Found in Translation, All rights reserved.| Powered by WordPress| WPElegance2Col theme by Techblissonline.com