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 ?


  • al

    I was a « peut mieux faire » for years. Then I had to work very hard for a year to study pipo-shit with all of those unbearable arrogant guys with such a high opinion of themselves.
    But even if you are working there, you are not producing anything, or even preparing to do so. French university sucks, but american students are a pain in the ass, they are so closed minded (not as much as sciencespists hardliners).

    Working, like in real life, not for a teacher that never really worked, is the only way of to learn. Studying is holidays compared to real work.

  • Du Caked Hare

    I have had my scars from the French educational system.

    Can we have this article in French, and copoies posted to Le Figaro an other prominent publications….? It’s high time the topic was brought to the forefront of the French people’s minds.

    — A former Nul.

  • wqsp

    I could not agree more with Franck. Being original and creative is impossible without rigueur : it only leads to obvious conclusions. The very purpose of the dissertation is the implementation of a method that forces one to genuinely THINK. Believing in spontaneous creativity is quite pretentious…

  • Franck

    I agree with most comments here, although I just wanted to add that good students will protect in some way the system because they are what it does best, elites. However, many good students, at least in their earlier years of scholarship until the end of high school, suffer as well from the competition they are forced to take part in, may they be French or foreigners at Sciences Po, especially since that competition is partly based on periodic humiliation as it has already been described by Daisy and others. Competition in Sciences Po is weaker than in most places in France, but bad habits are hard to forget.

    I also wanted to point out that a well-written and thought out dissertation does not block originality out at all. There is a word in French that is almost impossible to translate in its full meaning in English, the word rigueur. Rigor in English is akin to harshness and then only to some form of intellectual inflexibility, whereas in French its meaning is just as close to discipline as it is to harshness as in « rigueur de l’hiver » for example. Dissertations imply intellectual rigueur, and the rigoureuse structure dissertations are made of is too often mistaken for obtuseness and an obsession for rules and rigidity. Rigueur, as in intellectual discipline allows for deeper ideas than the ones that come up spontaneously in the mind, because the idea and/or chain of thoughts has to be demonstrated, as well as its implications, and inserted into a greater mechanism that advocates a thesis. They’re not always fun, they’re difficult to write, but in the end, good dissertations make sense and are far more creative than what their reputation says about them, because they create original, interesting, logical theses. In no way are originality or creativity excluded from the exercise, although humility in their writing is necessary.

    In my opinion, the French educational system is built around the idea of rigueur, washing away those who are not able to follow its rigors. That is the only problem with rigueur, when it becomes far too stringent with the people, in this case the students, that are submitted to it. That’s why I think that intellectual humility is a good thing, especially in places where we are in the position of learners, meaning that thinking twice about a question, thinking it out in order to make it make more sense and forcing oneself to more discipline/rigueur in a thinking exercise such as an essay is good, but instilling fear of being stupid is wrong, as are public humiliation and over-competitiveness in a learner’s environment, as Cloud has pointed out (French Med schools and CPGE’s are evil, they cause unnecessary suffering and bring insufficient reward).

  • Cloud

    Mon Dieu, quand je lis les commentaires, je me dis que certains devraient aller en médecine ou en CPGE, au lieu de râler parce qu’un professeur a dit que leur travail était mauvais (chose extrêmement rare à ScPo d’ailleurs)

  • Leah

    I think your point about the nature of the ScPo classroom stifling the intellectual and inquisitive processes is very true. I have encountered several times professor’s rejecting my ideas, my remarks or even my dissertations because the format, the methodology wasn’t to their liking. In one class, the professor gave me a failing grade on our Galop essay. When I enquired as to my low mark, he said that my sentences were too long. He verified that he understood the points I was making, and, in fact, that he agreed with many of my points. It was a superb analysis! And yet, my sentence structure was bizarre, and thus he felt it deserved a failing grade. Besides the fact that such a justification seems like arbitrary grading to me, even if my sentence structure was too long, what happened to appreciating creativity, and someone’s well-developed thoughts on a new subject? Can’t we rejoice in learning, be excited when a student discovers a new subject and through their research, produces a great work of academic analysis?
    Also, despite what several students have said in their comments on this article, in my 9 classes at ScPo, 7 of my professors have remarked aloud on the grade they gave the students’ work. And, like you mentioned, it was not all positive feedback. In fact, most of it was far from positive. While I’ve come to understand from my fellow students (mostly French, as I’m in French courses), this IS the norm. Or if not the norm, at least not surprising.

    But the discouragement professors (and sometimes students) push onto students, especially foreign ones, is manifested in other ways, as well. For example, my second week of class, I raised my hand to summarize the reading we’d done for that session. My professor stopped me after a few sentences, saying that my accent sounded too undignified. He asked where I’d learned such French, since it was obviously from somewhere in the countryside. I replied that my family is French, as was raised in a small, rural town. He proceeded to ban me from participating in class discussions until I could speak with a proper accent, like my classmates. What really irked me in this situation was that my command of the language wasn’t being criticized. If it had been, I would not have been so bothered. I learned French as a second language, and in the U.S., without the opportunity to readily immerse myself in French culture. Thus my command of it is inherently weaker than someone who speaks the language natively, and definitely weaker than someone who lives in France. However, to criticize my ‘drawl,’ when there was nothing inherently wrong with it, aside from the fact that the professor didn’t like it, was just downright humiliating. I speak nearly fluent French, and everyone else around me understands what I’m saying when I speak in French. My country accent didn’t prevent my professor from understanding my comments. There was nothing productive to be gained from such a remark. This wasn’t a language course, where the goal of the class was to improve my skills. It was a conference attached to a cours magistral, and my comments were valid, despite the fact that my accent was not to his liking.

    Additionally, even if professors are perfectly amiable towards international students, and don’t humiliate their students by reading their critiques of their assignments before the class, sometimes the other students in the class adopt that behavior. Numerous times, I’ve heard students mock an international student’s question about a detail of French history that they had not learned, or laugh at their fellow classmate’s attempt to get a real, useful answer to the question they’d posed to the professor. Why breed such insecurity and hesitation, even defensiveness, in other students? Aren’t we here to learn? And if the American student didn’t know who Charles Maurras was, they learned something today when the professor answered their question about him.

    I love learning. I love going to class and learning. But, I can’t say that about the majority of my classes at ScPo. In fact, the only classes where the atmosphere created by the professor and students is enjoyable and conducive to real learning are the 2 classes I’ve taken with mostly international students. These are also the only two classes in which the professors haven’t verbally berated the students’ work in front of the whole class. Coincidence? I think not. The students, the product of the education system in France, have contributed to my hesitance to engage in class just as much as the system itself has.

    What surprised me even more was seeing that the experience at ScPo Dijon is very, very different. Admittedly, they have a much smaller student body, so the professors know each student and can tailor lectures more towards the needs, even interests, of those students. But, the learning environment is so different. In the classes I took there, I sensed no condemnation, no bitter competitiveness, no judgement from the professors or students. And if I wanted to (or did) complete an assignment in a manner that reflected my American academic upbringing, and not the standard French style, my grade was not injured. The professors judged the merit of my work based on the content, not the form, despite the fact that the methodology was the same in Dijon as it is at ScPo Paris. In my limited experience, it seems like the flaws or negative products of the French education style are more apparent and strongly manifested in Paris. How can we change this, and make the education (and educational experience) at ScPo Paris more encouraging, and conducive to non-stigmatized, uninhibited learning?

    I know this was very long, and I apologize for that. My only justification is that I’m glad to finally see a forum for this discussion.

  • Clément

    I think the United States and France are probably two extremes and the best way to go would be some sort of middle ground (and this is a very dull way to introduce my comment on both sides of the Atlantic – reflective of both supertight French academic orthodoxy and the ridiculous American concern not to offend anyone).
    In the U.S., nothing is ever stupid or mediocre, even though some Ivy League students sometimes make comments that would best fit the common wisdom of a high school dropout – or suggest that Harry S. Truman succeeded John F. Kennedy, but really don’t know anymore, and see no problem with saying it outloud. Well, at least they were of the same party. Thank God there are only two of those. A’s are given out like candy, the worst work is given a « gentleman’s C » which leaves us to wonder what D is for (F, like hell, is the eery place where nobody we know will ever go). On the other hand, precepts/tutorials are actually interactive, and with the right group of students (smart upperclassmen can actually put up a good show), can turn out to be very interesting (albeit marred by the occasional clueless South Dakotan who thinks « like » is the conversational space bar).
    In France, the student’s most honed skill is shutting up, and that is one we are universally gifted for. Only the smartest (or rather the teacher-approved) have the nerve to ask questions, but most of the time we sit in silence, bored to hell by everlasting presentations read outloud by our unfortunate colleagues, who more often than not look like they’re about to be waterboarded. Grades are a concern, although not much greater than in the U.S. (witness the senseless freshmen who think B+ is as close as it gets to the end of their world of cotton candy). But at least we have the decency not to tell people who are nowhere close to right or smart that they are, although we need to find better ways to get positive results out of this criticism – so that they can work harder and do better. Certainly public humiliation is no good, nor meaningless single-digit grades.
    As for what your teacher did, that’s unusual and reprehensible. Grades are usually not said outloud, they’re too much of a sensitive subject. And comments should be written down and confidential.
    The French system should probably draw inspiration from the American system when it comes to involving students in class, rather than force them into a top-down relationship – making them « part of the conversation », as it were. And Americans should start to, well, get real. America’s best days are not ahead, at least not relative to the rest of the world, and Americans will not « win the future » with touchy-feely good motives – lest they be overtaken by « tiger moms »…

  • Daisy

    I’m very impressed with the discourse that’s followed this article. I think education is a highly sensitive subject, but the comments are extremely nourishing and mature. I can agree with those who feel as though American students are too brawny in the classroom. But the question this poses is- is it better to be confidently outspoken but haphazardly incorrect, or to remain silent without the heart to be right? Ultimately, it comes down to how these classroom environments help us to be members of society- apart of a company, a team, or a community.

    One of the most important points in this debate, as Cake pointed out, is that the successful are more likely to contest my article because they are the product of this elite driven system. So for them, the French system contributed to their success. I take Sc Po kids as an example of those who weathered through to the top. However, what defines any society is its ability to equalibrate social classes. With this notion of elite and idiot, boundaries are blurred between perceptions of a sophisticated society and the realities of a broken system.

  • Cake

    What your maître de conférence did never happened to me as far as I’ve been in Sciences Po (it did a few times when I was in high school). I agree with Pauline, this is quite a horrible thing a teacher can do, and most of them are understanding enough not to go so far. However, except for the part « There is no such thing as a stupid question » (there is, indeed), you’re right to point out the main problems of French education that makes the less rigorous students fail so hard at 15 or 16 y.o.. Students from Sciences Po may tend less to approve your point precisely because they have succeeded in that hardship.

  • Pauline

    I think you’re quite right on many points in this article. However, I don’t think that what your teacher did in class for your galop was pretty normal. I am French and this kind of things happen, but I’m sure it can’t be raised as a norm. I hate when professors are doing that, and I can’t help myself at the end of the course to complain about it. I just have memories from primary schools, but I don’t remember anything in Sciences Po. Everything is on the copy, and it is enough humiliating sometimes like that. But I agree there’s a lot to change in the French education system.

  • Pauline


    While I agree with you on the shallowness, especially in tutorials, of some students’ comments in North-America (I am myself on exchange in Canada), I think you are missing the point of Daisy’s spot-on analysis. She is saying that our harsh grading and failure-highlighting system is not giving every student an equal chance, that it is not encouraging them towards progress but rather keeping them in a spiral of low self-esteem and thus actually increasing their failure (the exact opposite of what it aims to do). I for one completely agree with this. Let us be clear that we’re not talking about the good students here, because as Daisy pointed out, they are highly praised and encouraged. We are talking about students who may show some difficulties at school from the start, and who because of repeatedly harsh criticism and grading, have been MADE to think of themselves as inherently bad students, during all of their schooling. I don’t mean to pretend that everybody can be an excellent student, I mean that an educating system that undermines student’s confidence in their own ability is neither fair nor efficient.

    Now, saying this doesn’t mean : « we have to adopt the American system OMG it’s the best one! ». Of course Daisy brought up what she knows best about to compare, i.e. US education. But we just have to think in terms of efficiency and of a positive approach to teaching. It means we have to work on changing the ideas about teacher-student relationship, especially the way teachers assess students’ abilities. It also PARTLY means (because there are mainly other aspects) that we DO have to encourage students to ask more questions, especially at a young age, because if you’re afraid to ask because you think you might sound stupid, then it means you lack self-esteem and you’ll probably never really ask anything. And then guess what? You have a class where, I’m sure you’ve experienced it, only the good students participate and are involved, while others don’t even feel comfortable speaking out, and just shut up (or rather, chat with others). There is such a high judgmental attitude in French education towards « sounding stupid », first from the teachers and then from the students among themselves, that students prefer not trying rather than risking making mistakes and being mocked/laughed at. But here’s the big news : if you don’t make mistakes, you don’t learn! Everybody knows that. Except we act as if we don’t.

    Also, I find it very ironically (if not sadly) funny that in your comments (especially Basile), you actually concur with Daisy’s observations, since you do show a very judgmental attitude towards others and a starking close-mindedness to mistakes/imperfection/errors/stupidity as you might say. Once again, I agree that some remarks Americans make in tutorials ARE stupid/useless, but do you think it’s just better to encourage students not to speak? Is that the kind of educational system you want, « Okay guys : bright students, you’re allowed to talk, but stupid ones you can just listen and shut up because anyway you’ll just bother us smart people, with your dumbass questions and comments »?? Very appealing. If we go back to younger kids, where the real stakes are, how would students know if they’re about to say something that will sound stupid for the rest of the group? Well they don’t necessarily. And if you basically make them understand that they risk ridicule anytime they speak up, then they won’t speak, even when they DO have something interesting to say.

    Now, you have a point I think about American education giving students too big of a sense of confidence (ego even) about their opinions, to the point that some tend to think that everything is valuable and worth sharing just because they thought about it. It’s first of all a matter of balance : encouraging students to speak out is good, telling them EVERYTHING they say is valuable no matter what they say is too much. But the key thing remains to NOT mock/reprimand a student that say something irrelevant. There is a way of saying things, and this is where we have a problem in France, in the harshness with which we say them, and where Americans may have a problem too, in the ‘over-gentleness’ they use (one doesn’t need to say « good point » or « very interesting » every time someone opens his mouth, the main stake is just to maintain a climate where everybody feels comfortable speaking).

    But actually, I rather think the main reason why we French exchange students are sometimes quite shocked/appalled to hear some of those remarks is because of their very different approach of learning (not of participating) they have. They do not value half as much as we do the organization of the thought, whether it is orally or when writing. I found that very disturbing at first, when they just don’t care about structure in presentations, or about balancing a statement with another interpretation, with a deeper analysis. And it doesn’t make things better when some TAs say, like you quoted Ziz : « I prefer quantity rather than quality ». They just sometimes don’t deem as that important to structure what you say/write and to analyze it at several levels (to ‘intellectualize it’ as we could say), whereas we are formatted to do so since, eeer… FOREVER in dissertations and exposés (I’m not talking only about scpo of course). Which is also why we find what SOME of them are saying sometimes shallow.

    VERY sorry for this tl;dr comment, I guess I had to get this rant out of me! Anyway thank you Daisy for this great article as always.

  • Ziz

    I am currently an exchange student in the United States, and I completly agree with Basile. Speaking of students’ intervention during the discussion sections that go along with the lectures, my TA told us  » I prefer quantity rather than quality ». As a result, all the students speak to say nothing, raise points we have already talked about, and are always encouraged by the TA with some « good » or « interesting » whereas it is definetly not. The US education system makes US students so confident about themselves that they don’t even remark they are saying nonsense or useless things.

  • Basile

    You wrote « There is no such thing as a stupid question? » but anyone who has been in an American classroom knows there is… I remember hearing students raising the most stupid points and the professor answering « good point » to any remark. The French way might be rough, but at least students think twice before speaking, something i desperately missed hearing when I was in the US.