08 May 2013


In a talk that I gave at the local Institute for American Universities earlier this afternoon about how the French spend their time, I also summarized French economist Claudia Senik's argument about why the French seem to be less happy or satisfied with their lives compared to others.  She blames in part the authoritarian and rigid French school system for creating citizens who lack the self-confidence and the contentement (contentment or satisfaction) that one might expect in a country with so many wonderful attributes.  (See Claudia Senik's homepage here, or click here for a direct link to her paper The French Unhappiness Puzzle, Working Paper, 2012.)  My family's limited experience with the school system, at its middle school level, suggests that the system is firmly focused on staying within the lines and structure of the nationally established curriculum (this feels especially true in the maths and sciences), and that the teaching and learning within the system is generally not very creative or active or nurturing.  At first glance, it's hard to say if such schooling could lead to broadly-experienced passivity and pessimism among adults.  

I can say that I see more and more how a centrally-organized society uses its national school system to impart broader social values and practices to its emerging young adults.  This process begins early, at the crèches and maternelles (nursery and preschools) where very young French children, from ages 2 and 3, spend hours away from home in the care of others, learning how to sit patiently and how to eat meals like little grown-ups.  It is the recounting of this by some expatriate foreign mothers that has caught the attention especially of the American and English reading public. (See my discussion of one such book in Encadrement February 2012.) 

This week I had another revelation of how the school system may pass on social values and skills.  Faithful readers may recall that just over a year ago I embarked on the painful and expensive process of acquiring a French driver's license (See A is for Autoecole, April 2012).  For weeks, I grumbled about the ridiculously tricky theory questions that had more than one answer and the authoritarian teaching styles of the driving instructors.  Now I have learned that as 2nd year middle schoolers (French 5th graders), my twin sons will be taking the ASSR1 test this month, while students two years ahead of them will take the ASSR2.  The ASSR's are exams offered by the Education Sécurité Routière (Road Safety Education) arm of the National Ministry of Education to middle school-aged French kids to test them about their knowledge of the appropriate behaviors in shared traffic situations.  The parent representative of our boys' class suggested that these exams will be beneficial for the kids when they begin riding motor scooters and eventually prepare for their automobile driver's licenses.  Learning the rules of the road at age 13 is not a bad idea, particularly given the new interest among my boys and their classmates in skating around the busy streets in town on skateboards and longboards.  However, I was amazed to discover after one son took some practice exams on the traffic safety education website, that these were really quite similar to the practice driving theory exams I had taken last spring, right down to the tricky questioning.  So, I think I now understand better why I felt out of my element in driving school; it wasn't just the language.  By the time most French turn 18 or start driving school in earnest, they have the French-style examination drill down, from years of practice: they know what to expect in terms of testing methodologies and teaching styles, they know that it won't be easy to pass the exams the first time, and they know if they don't pass, everyone else is going to know about it.  These students were simply better prepared for the process and its potential outcomes.  And, it might not be such a big leap to consider the possibility that these same students may feel less satisfied or less sure of themselves later in life, when social scientists come along asking them to assess their personal happiness.  Social institutions, such as political and school systems, do have that kind of influence; some may empower their members, with the right to vote, for example, while other institutions may limit their members, say by stifling their intellectual creativity.  Senik's thinking about the French school system may be on the right track after all.

Various wheeled modes of transportation parked on the landing below our apartment

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