Ils Ne Font Pas Des Notes d’une Falaise Pour Cela

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So the French ask different questions on their tests than we do.

Charles Bremner in the Times

The philosophy test, or rather torture, is still the “royal subject” of the baccalauréat, the national high school examination that opens the way to university and adulthood. Apart from students in trades and technical schools, all pupils are obliged to take the philosophy exam.

Literacy may be declining in France like everywhere else but it says something about the intellectual skills still required of the young that about half of all late teenagers in France earn a baccalauréat that includes philosophy.

The bac, with its centralised, simultaneous examinations is a ritual of a rare kind. For weeks the media have built up to the big moment of the bac philo — the opening test — with tips on subjects and handling stress and bac memoirs from celebrities. Today, television and radio are reporting from the school gates.

The philosophy questions have just been released. My son, who’s just 18, was required to dissert on one of the following two questions: What is gained by exchange ? (Que gagne-t-on à échanger) and Does technological development transform mankind?  (Le développement technique transforme-t-il les hommes ?).

Arthur Goldhammer has the questions in French.

Alex Massie provides some of the questions in English

For the Science Stream:

1) Is it absurd to desire the impossible? 2) Are there questions which no science can answer?

Well, is it absurd to desire the impossible?

Matthew Yglesias

And from the science series:

— Are there questions that are un-answerable by science?

The correct answers are no, no, I don’t know anything about Schopenhauer, and yes. Apparently there’s also a question asking if it’s absurd to desire the impossible. I think it is.

Either way, I think it’s safe to say that Barack Obama’s nowhere near turning us into France.

Dana Goldstein in Tapped

Okay, so there is no country quite as philosophique — and, at times, absurd — as France. And to be fair, Le Bac is a college entrance exam, not a high school graduation exam. Still, the majority of French high school students sit for the test. Could you ever imagine the SAT or ACT asking students to write an essay on such complex, intellectual topics? Matt Yglesias spent a semester studying in France as a high school student. He tells me via instant message: “It was hard. Even their English class seemed hard.” And Matt, as you know, is really, really smart.

Michael C. Moynihan in Reason

Well, I certainly hope the average 17 year-old American won’t be asked if “language betrays thought” as a college entrance requirement. But a few points here: Many students sit for the test, but just how well do they do? As London Times correspondent Charles Bremmer notes (his son took his Bac exams today and Bremmer complains that “The French curriculum and teachers are slanted solidly to the left,” demanding that his son tailor answers to political fashions), the tests have been dumbed down (or graded on a significant curve) since the 1970s, when a paltry 20 percent managed to pass. Indeed, if one looks at international ranks from PISA and OECD French scores are pretty mediocre (but still better than American scores), despite massive expenditures on education and the chin-stroking college entrance questions that ask if it is “absurd to desire the impossible.”

Also, is it just me or does Goldstein sounds more like Alan Bloom than a liberal writer at the American Prospect? As Bremmer points out, some critics contend that “The baccalauréat is too elitist” and is unfair to both immigrants and members of the proletariat. Sure, we can use the test as a political and cultural cudgel (“Europeans are so cultured, so smart, so philosophique, compared to us lunk-headed Americans!”), but how would the Prospect brigade react to this uncomfortable statistic, provided by The Times: “Fewer than half the children of working class parents earn the certificate that gives passage to university.”

Julian Sanchez

The common thread I see is that almost all of these  sound rather lofty and, well, French as they are. But they can all be pretty easily paraphrased to sound less highbrow without materially altering the question. Once we’ve done that, they look an awful lot like the essay prompts on comparable American tests: Allowing the brightest students to spread their wings, but also capable of acceptable if rather more workmanlike answers. Now, probably someone like Dana looks at these prompts and immediately starts imagining the kind of complex answer that she, as a college-educated adult, would give to a question like that. Once you make that move, of course, it’s natural to think: “My God, that’s what they expect of their 18-year-olds?”  But it’s probably not—it’s what the question leaves space for the brightest of the 18-year-olds to attempt , not the baseline for an acceptable answer.

UPDATE: John Holbo

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1 Comment

Filed under Foreign Affairs, Education

One response to “Ils Ne Font Pas Des Notes d’une Falaise Pour Cela

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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