“Je suis nul!”
Until reading the other day about a new critique of French education, I hadn’t thought of that self-denigrating little expression much since I taught English to high-school and college students in Aix-en-Provence almost 25 years ago. It translates, more or less, into “I’m useless!” – and I heard it pretty often from my pupils as a rueful commentary on their spoken English. Perhaps the words aren’t so different from those uttered by students around the world grappling with a new language.
But I got a glimpse of the expression’s particular connection to French educational attitudes when I was introduced to a class of 10th graders at the start of the school year and one struggled to get out a few words in English. “Oh, he’s not very good,” the teacher told me out loud in front of the entire class. Over and over, students of 15, 16, or 17 would tell me, apparently repeating what teachers had told them, that they were no good at, say, science, or literature — as if their abilities were already set in stone. The kids were by and large a great bunch, full of exuberance and opinions on all kinds of topics, but at times they exhibited a troubling negativity and self-doubt when it came to things academic.
Now comes a new book by Peter Gumbel, a British expat who teaches at Sciences Po, France’s elite Institute of Political Studies, lambasting the French education system for humiliating children, neglecting teamwork, character-building, and positive reinforcement, and fostering pervasive low self-confidence. In an excerpt of On achève bien les écoliers (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don’t They?), published in Sunday’s Observer, Gumbel writes that when he moved to Paris and enrolled his two daughters in school, the rigor he had expected was accompanied by a worrisome downside:
There were obvious symptoms: tummy aches and other signs of stress, an unhealthy phobia about making mistakes and flashes of self-doubt. “I’m hopeless at maths,” my eldest daughter declared one day. “No, you’re not, you just need to work at it harder,” was my reply. “No, daddy, you don’t understand anything. I’m hopeless.”
Gumbel cites international studies showing that French kids “are more anxious and intimidated in school than their peers in Europe or other developed countries.” And his critique, which has already provoked huge controversy in France, has significant implications for the nation’s higher-education system. Despite the steller academic qualifications of his Sciences Po students, who must pass notoriously difficult exams to be admitted, Gumbel reports that they don’t exactly appear to be reveling in the life of the mind:
The big surprise for me was not how bright these students were – and most are very, very bright – but how low their self-confidence was. Getting them to participate in classroom discussions was like pulling teeth. Exam time was trauma time: every year, several burst into tears during the oral.
In The Great Brain Race, I write optimistically of the potential of meritocratic college admissions standards around the world to allow young people to get ahead based on what they know rather than who they are (whether family background or nationality). And in the United States I haven’t had much patience for the self-esteem movement in K-12 education: we know that American pupils tend to have a much higher opinion of their academic abilities than is warranted by the evidence. But the message of Gumbel’s book certainly gives me pause. (Hat tip to Paris-based literary critic Natasha Lehrer for drawing my attention to the Observer article). If, as Gumbel maintains, France’s success at upholding high scholastic standards, and its exam-based path to upward mobility, goes hand in hand with a K-12 system that squelches students’ self-worth, that hardly seems the pathway to creating universities full of students who are worthy heirs to France’s great tradition of free thought and analytical rigor.