College, à la française

Posted on April 27th, 2012 by

Our professor pulled out a packet of tissues and set it on the desk.  It made a small plastic noise as he pulled out one of the small paper squares.  I assumed he needed to blow his nose, but he didn’t bring the tissue to his face.  Instead, he lifted it to the white board, using the tissue to wipe away the black marker he had written there only a few minutes earlier.

It wasn’t until then I noticed there was no erasers in the well-used looking classroom for our translation course.  The tray beneath the long white board was almost barren save for a few markers.  The surrounding walls were dingy, and the windows on the right of the room were all open in response to the very poorly controlled heating.

In my other class at the University of Nantes, I sat in the largest lecture hall in which I have ever been.  The professor needed a microphone both because of the size of the room, as well as the hum of student conversation beneath her explanations of the old French Monarchy.  The huge desk at the front of the room from which she lectured was decorated with graffiti and shredded posters, only half removed.  In contrast to the other classroom, this hall was frigid, not having yet warmed up for the morning class.

By no means were the conditions  squalid.  The classrooms house the professors and students just fine; the professors profess and the students stude.  But it certainly is not an intentionally cultivated learning space like the one we have carefully constructed at Gustavus.  Nor does it encourage the same level of community and exploration together.  It is state run, public, school, with few alternatives in competition.

The French are a proud people.  They are proud of their food, their wine, and their history.  They are proud of their architecture, their cities, and their language.  They are not proud of their universities.  In France, a university is not a part of a student’s identity like it is in the United States.  Here, it is simply a fact of life, much like an address.

The French university system is state-run, and practically free (my semester here studying abroad is more expensive than a completed doctorate in France).  There also aren’t large differences between the universities.  The diploma isn’t from the University of Nantes or Lyon—they all come from Paris in the name of the Republic.  Even the few private universities are required to administer the same tests and give out state diplomas (if I understand correctly).

All of this uniformity and accessibility is a consequence of the fact that in France, higher education is a right and not a privilege.  It is accessible to all, regardless of wealth, and universities everywhere are funded and run under the same national direction.  While I love this, it admittedly translates to a system that lets people in who are often not ready.  The classrooms are noisy, and full of people who really aren’t there to do the hard work of learning.

At Gustavus, whose sticker price is over $40,000 a year, you better believe we want our money’s worth.  We evaluate teacher’s and classes, and teaching is adapted to the needs and expectations of students.  Goals are set and improvements aimed for.  We expect to be taught: it’s a service for which we pay.

In France, it’s not a service paid for.  You have to work for it.  Assignments are not repeated, emailed, and communicated multiple times over to students to make sure they don’t forget them.  Homework is not tailored to the life schedules of the students.  Professors don’t take part in writing students’ papers.  Almost everyone gets in, and the ones who survive are the ones who work.  American universities select students through price and tests.  French universities select students once they have gotten in: if you flunk out, that’s the selection.  I have definitely noticed this bluntness with professors, whose criticism is very direct, and not padded by compliments.  The grades here are also much lower.  Everything is over 20, and a 15 is considered pretty good.

As much as I think education should be more accessible, I actually do think it should be harder to get into college in France.  I’ve heard too much about French students not being prepared or committed.  And they talk a lot during class.  On the other hand, I would really prefer if American universities could be kept around car prices rather than house prices.  As with most problems, I don’t think either extreme is the answer.  There are lessons that can be learned from both sides.  France has championed accessibility, but should perhaps have higher academic requirements for getting in.  They could also probably pay a little bit more, and slightly improve their facilities (though this is not a huge problem really).  In the United States, we have championed excellence through competition, but at the cost of accessibility.  Our education is a privilege, but if we could bring the price tag down, it would be more available for all people.


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