Monday, June 13, 2005

Rite of Passage

Every year, no matter what the weather or the economic situation, a whole range of established events marks the calendar in France. The French word marronnier translates to chestnut tree; however, in media parlance it means a list of events which come around every year at the same time, like clockwork. Since the French are highly active and consistently imaginative, shaking their marronnier reveals a multitude of experiences that an expat American should be familiar with -- from public holidays through summer vacation to back-to-school day. Fashion shows (spring/summer and fall/winter) dot the year's calendar, as do famed events such as the Salon de l'Agriculture, the Foire de Paris, Bastille Day, the Tour de France, the Festival d'Avignon and the Fête du Patrimoine.

The school year ends in June. For a particular portion of the population, the second week of the month is crunch time, year after year: it's the Season of the Bac ! One ignores it at one's peril: it is part and parcel of French life. It is a rite of passage.

Expats fail to pay enough attention to the influence of the Bac on French society. This last Thursday, June 9th, was the first day of the Bac 2005. The philosophy questions were, as usual, front page news.

Bac is short for baccalauréat, the national matriculation exam that crowns the end of secondary education. It is considered to be at the same level as an American high school. Without delving into too much detail: a student who has passed the General Bac is allowed to proceed directly to university or a school which prepares her/him for the grandes écoles. There are three series in the General Bac (L = Literary, ES = Economic and Social, S = Scientific). There is also a separate Technological Bac and a further Professional Bac, both of which are more vocationally-oriented and basically designed to allow the successful candidate to enter the job market after obtaining the diploma.

Note that the Bac is not just one exam -- it's a series of exams that takes place over three weeks. The student is tested on each subject in the curriculum, during a three- or four-hour period. These are not rinky-dink, easily-corrected multiple-choice exams, either: they're all essay exams, wherein students are expected to develop a logical, reasoned argument that responds to the question or comments the text, in correct French. Of course, some subjects are tested orally, too: languages, for example. Students also may have theoretical and practical tests in electives they've chosen and prepared, such as playing piano, or judo -- or even using a third, fourth or fifth language.

One of the basic tenets of French society is that the people must be educated as well as possible, and that the state -- most definitely not the parents -- must take care of the task. The French educational system is a huge organization that has developed the Bac, originally instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808, to a fine art. Briefly - the country is divided into various districts, called académies. Students in each academy are summoned at precise times, at various places, for each exam during the three-week period. The questions are not necessarily the same from academy to academy, but professors, teachers and instructors in a given academy correct tests for that academy only. All exams have 20 points maximum. Each exam is weighted with a coefficient: the mandatory exam in philosophy, for example, counts for more (a coefficient of 7) than the one in history (coefficient 4).. To pass, a student must have an overall average of 10/20 of all exams taken. There are oral makeup exams for scores between 8/20 and 10/20 in July and September, but it's "sorry; come back next year" for those candidates with less than 8/20. A student can only try to pass the Bac three times.

During the year of the Bac, the secondary school students – and most often the parents, too -- live, eat and breathe Bac. Mock exams, corrections, possible year-end subjects: all are examined with careful attention and discussed en famille, especially if the student is trying for a Bac with honors (avec mention assez bien at 12/20 or avec mention bien at 14/20 or avec mention très bien at 16 and more)

Americans are always more comfortable with numbers. (smile) To give an idea of the scale this year's Bac, here are a few stats from the Ministry that were published in a daily paper:

Overall number of students taking the Bac 2005: 634,168

Number of students taking the General Bac: 329,833 (52% of overall)
L = Literary: 18.81% of General Bac total
ES = Economic and Social: 31.59 % of General Bac total
S = Scientific 49.6% of General Bac total

Number of students taking the Technological Bac: 184,612 (29.1% of overall)

Number of students taking the Professional Bac: 119,723 (18.9% of overall)

Exactly 4,112 lycées (high schools) are being used as exam centers throughout France. Over 4,000 different questions were developed for Bac 2005 and over 4 million separate tests will have been corrected by the conclusion of the series at the end of June. Correctors (129,441 this year) receive from 1.46 euros to 1.83 euros for each test corrected, depending on subject. Results will be given to the students on July 4th.

The opening exam of the Season of the Bac is always the philosophy exam. Students are asked to comment on a text or answer one of several questions. Grading is based on logical reasoning and argument, as well as overall coherence. Parents interested in the successful education of their children learned when the children were very young to pay very careful attention to the yearly philo questions. Many families, Amerloque's among them, discussed the questions every year with the children at the dinner table, on the first day of the Bac -- and continue to do so, even though the kids are now in university. It is one of the pleasures of living in France.

If you're an expat American, give it a try. You might be surprised, especially if your children are in a French school. Ready ?


Bac 2005 - Philo

General Bac - Series L = Literary

The students could choose to comment on a text by John Stuart Mill concerning nature and how Man can tame it, change it or submit to it.

OR

They could answer one of the following questions:

1. Are fairness and unfairness only conventions ? (Le juste et l'injuste ne sont-ils que des conventions ?)

2. Is language only good for communicating ? (Le langage ne sert-il qu'à communiquer ?)


General Bac – Series ES – Economic and Social

The students could choose to comment on a text by Kant concerning ethics and moral law.

OR

They could answer one of the following questions:

1. What do you expect from technique ? (Qu'attendez-vous de la technique ?)

2. Must political action be guided by the knowledge of history ? (L'action politique doit-elle être guidée par la connaissance de l'histoire ?)


General Bac – Series S – Scientific

The students could choose to comment on a text by Malbranche concerning the personal search for truth.

OR

They could answer one of the following questions:

1. Is being free not encountering any obstacles ? (Etre libre, est-ce ne rencontrer aucun obstacle ?)

2. Does sensitivity to works of art need to be educated ? (La sensibilité aux oeuvres d'art demande-t-elle à être éduquée ?)


Technological Bac (the majority of students taking this Bac)

The students could choose to comment on a text by Aristotle concerning imitation and art.

OR

They could answer one of the following questions:

1. Why do we want to be free ? (Pourquoi voulons-nous être libres ?)

2. Does one reason well when one wants to be right at all costs ? (Raisonne-t-on bien quand on veut avoir raison à tout prix ?)


Technological Bac (a minority: majors in industrial techniques and sciences, applied arts and music and dance techniques)

The students could choose to comment on a text by Epicurus concerning the need to be study philosophy at all ages in one's life.

OR

They could answer one of the following questions:

1. Does Art lead us to the truth ? (L'Art nous mène-t-il au vrai ?)

2. Can humanity be envisaged without religion ? (L'humanité peut-elle se concevoir sans religion ?)


Note that there is no philo exam in the Professional Bac.


The French people have long felt that education is for life, not necessarily for an occupation. This view is beginning to change slowly, since like most Western countries France has had under the force of circumstances to move from an education for the elite to education for the masses. The overall pass rate in 2004 for the Bac was 79.7 %, down from the record 80.1% in 2003 -- but quite a change from the 33% or so in the 1960s ! Dumbing down ? Most definitely. Still, it's worthwhile to take the time to examine (and discuss !) the philo texts and questions to see just how French society has been constructed. The philo questions do not spring from some ivory-tower educational vacuum: they very much reflect what France is all about. American expats who want to be happy in France would do well to take note.


L'Amerloque


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

6 Comments:

Blogger Lisa said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to explain the bac for us expats. I found the philosophy questions fascinating. How do the kids prepare to answer questions like this--or does simply being raised in France prepare you?

2:32 PM  
Blogger PutYourFlareOn said...

I think that I have missed my calling after reading those Philosophy questions, so many thoughts were running through my head but, alas, that's another blog entry on my own blog!

Intresting suggestion that you made to discuss the BAC quetsions at home. I think I will do that tonight with my husband. I am surprised to see that high school kids are being asked this kinds of questions. I studied those kinds of philosophy questions at the University, in my latter two years to be exact. I hope that my children will have the experience of going to school in France and the US. If they go to high school in France I have a feeling they will be better prepared for American University than I was leaving an American high school.

The BAC is a stressful time for students, I used to be a teaching assistant and had BAC prep classes for my students in English. The stress level, I felt bad for them...some of them doing it a second time. I can't imagine that!

Great entry! Are you coming to the blogger meetup on the 25th? I hope so, I really look forward to meeting you someday!

-Flare

2:31 AM  
Blogger PTA Mom said...

What an interesting post. I also appreciate you explaining the bac. Of course, I've heard a lot about it, but it has never been explained to me so well. Thanks!

5:54 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Lisa !

How do the kids prepare to answer questions like this--or does simply being raised in France prepare you?

(smile) Oh, being raised in France is of enormous assistance, naturally, and it would be very tempting to say "That's all they need !" --- but, of course, the kids prepare for the exam throughout the preceding two years. It doesn't take place in a vacuum. Serious reading in philosphy begins in the next-to-last year of lycée. The last year (terminale) is filled with reading, discussing in class, writing commentaries and papers and doing mock exams. It can turn into pretty heavy going for kids (and parents) who are not used to it, or who are not interested in the intellectual stimulation it offers. It counts quite a bit in the final Bac result, so it's worth spending the time necessary.


L'Amerloque

12:18 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Auntie !

You're quite welcome !



L'Amerloque

12:45 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Flare !

Interesting suggestion that you made to discuss the BAC quetsions at home. I think I will do that tonight with my husband.

So, how did it work out ?! (smile)

I am surprised to see that high school kids are being asked this kinds of questions. I studied those kinds of philosophy questions at the University, in my latter two years to be exact.

The educational systems are quite different, and both have their advantages and drawbacks. I'll never forget when my elder child came home after her first day at school and said she needed an ardoise so that she could learn to write ! Yes, the children here traditionally begin writing with a "slate", a small square of thin black metamorphic rock used as a writing tablet. In class, they write each letter on it and hold it up for the teacher to check.

I hope that my children will have the experience of going to school in France and the US. If they go to high school in France I have a feeling they will be better prepared for American University than I was leaving an American high school.

Again, it would depend on the subject, I think. In languages, for example, I find that Europeans are generally "ahead" of the US kids, while in general "science" and "health" studies/knowledge I found my children to be a bit "behind" their US counterparts. I'm referring to lycee/high school. Undoubtedly that would carry over into college and/or university. There's probably a generational effect, too.

Are you coming to the blogger meetup on the 25th? I hope so, I really look forward to meeting you someday!

I didn't even know about the meetup. (smile) I'm out of the loop on that one. Amerloque has a devoir de reserve and, alas, must remain anonymous …



L'Amerloque

9:34 AM  

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