11 October 2013

Le respect

Because I haven't attended French schools myself and parents are not typically invited to be on school grounds during the school day, there are many everyday classroom protocols that I only know about through my children.  For example, when middle school students enter a classroom, they must stand by their desks and wait until the teacher tells them to sit down.  Likewise, if an administrator such as the principal enters the classroom, even unexpectedly, all of the students must instantly scramble onto their feet to stand beside their desks in a sign of respect for him or her.  And, when raising their hand in response to a teacher's question, students raise their index finger, as if gently pointing up to the ceiling (no frantic U.S. style hand waving here!).

These are markers of le respect that are specific to a culture.  Curiously though, they imply strong deference to authority, in a society where many other social conventions seem to be intended to create social exchanges on a more equal footing.  I've noted earlier how the French offer greetings and farewells in stores, and this is in part I think to create a setting of mutual respect between the seller and the consumer for the potential economic exchange that may take place.  Once, when I was so focused on making sure I got my order right in French at the fanciest bakery in town, I forgot to say bonjour.  The bakery clerk repeated his bonjour to me three times, waiting for me to return it before he would help me with my order.  And there is what I sometimes think of as the kiss-fest that occurs whenever we go to football practice or a game.  I easily faire les bises with at least 20 people, parents, coaches, players, siblings of players, grandparents of players, etc.  It doesn't matter what the person's social or coaching rank is, we make these exchanges as a way to imply a kind of respect for each other as persons, where we acknowledge each other's humanity for just a moment even if we go on to sit or chat with someone else.  Finally, there are the opportunities for the French public to respectfully disagree with their political and economic leaders, by striking and bringing the country to a standstill, if for a moment.  This week the air traffic controllers and local train line staffs took their turn in the South of France.  (I also wrote about the strikes of last October in Les manifestations, Oct. 2012.)

Unfortunately, in some social arenas, authority figures do sometimes use their positions to demand respect from their followers but don't always offer considération (respect) in return.  We see this in politics often, even in democratic societies.  For example, we have the government shut-down in the U.S. brought about by politically powerful people who can't seem to make compromises for the good of everyone (striking is not a privilege for the government, but for its people!), and in France, we have the amazingly sexist behavior of some French MPs (members of parliament) towards their female colleagues ("France's sexist National Assembly", France24blogs, 10/10/2013), and the unfortunate comments by a presidential cabinet member in regards to the Roma population in France (Roms: le Mrap va déposer plainte contre Valls devant le CJR, La Provence, 11 Oct. 2013).  In the educational setting, the rules about respect seem to vary a bit more widely.  In U.S. schools, students are expected to act politely to their teachers and administrators, but standing up in the presence of teachers or shaking their hands is not required, not anymore anyway.  Teachers and administrators themselves must abide carefully by rules governing appropriate personal or physical contact and are expected to be mutually respectful.  In French public schools, the model seems to be be much more authoritarian and the flow of respect is largely from the students towards their teachers.  I hear a lot about verbal berating of students--students are often told what they are doing wrong and very little of what they are doing well--and this week at my sons' school, a teacher reportedly hit a student violently for misbehaving.  Yet, the school year began with the national announcement of a new secular code of conduct for all French students ("School year begins in France with string of reforms," France 24, 4 Sept. 2013).  Codes of conduct are pretty common in U.S. educational institutions, and a few months ago, I reiterated a feminist's call for a broad social code of conduct in everyday life (see La politesse March 2013). Yet, I gather from the cartoon below from a page in my French daily calendar that the question of mutual respect is still a bit of a joke at French schools.  Maybe the new code of conduct should address everyone at school, students and adults alike?

In the Ethics class, on Politeness, a student says to the teacher,
"One stands up when the students enter the classroom!"

1 comment:

P. Gillespie said...

Hi Anne,
This is an entirely appropriate line of observation in so far as comparing French and American behaviors.
What strikes me is the formality of the French academy (School Board) and the often repeated sense that "school is a place of instruction, and that education begins at home."
Such formality, expressed in so many ways (in stores, at football practice and among friends...), forms the basis of civil society.
I enjoy your blog.