The blogosphere has had a bit of fun with a reports on the difficulty of the baccalauréat, the national qualification examination for entries into French universities.  The questions seem impossibly hard to some American eyes and raise questions about the comparative quality of the two school systems.


A piece entitled “L’impossible, l’échange et l’objectivité au programme du bac de philo” in yesterday’s Le Monde seems to be the origin of the discussion.  It’s in French and naturally, as an American, I therefore can’t read it in the way a French schoolchild could read the New York Times.  (Then again, English is much more useful for a Frenchman than French for an American, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Charles Bremner, the Paris Correspondent for The Times, seems to have brought the debate into the Anglosphere.

I did not envy my son this morning when, along with 331,575 teenagers across France, he sat down at 8am for the four-hour ordeal of le bac philo.

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 ?). [More questions below]

You can’t just wing it with a ramble around the subject. Like most French disciplines, structure and method are vital. The reasoning has to follow rules and you must cite the appropriate great thinkers as you set out your argument.

In a post titled “Are You Smarter than a French Teenager?The Spectator‘s Alex Massie, a Scotsman who did university in Dublin and now writes from London, picks out these questions:

For the Literature Stream:

1) Does objectivity in history suppose impartiality in the historian? 2) Does language betray thought ?

For the Science Stream:

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

Arthur Goldhammer of Harvard’s Center for European Studies is dutifully impressed:

Crikey! Is it absurd to desire the impossible? A question from the philosophy bac in the science track!!? No wonder the students are on strike. This sounds more like a May ’68 slogan than a subject for the philosophy of science to my no doubt coarse Yankee ears (coarsened by a B.S. and Ph.D. from MIT to be sure, so I have learned a little science in my time, and in my spare time a little philo as well). Cultivating paradox is one thing, philosophy of science is another.

Center for American Progress fellow Matthew Yglesias (a Harvard philosophy graduate) dutifully if briefly answers the questions and quips, “I think it’s safe to say that Barack Obama’s nowhere near turning us into France.”  The American Prospect‘s Dana Goldstein takes that a bit further:

As we begin to debate national education standards here in the United States, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the truly high standards foreign nations hold their students to. I’ve already written about the Finnish national curriculum. Now check out these sample questions from the French baccalaureate exam, which students begin taking today. Bonne chance!


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?

Reason‘s Michael C. Moynihan retorts:

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.”

His fellow libertarian journalist Julian Sanchez likewise thinks Americans are too easily impressed by tough seeming questions, observing that “the prompts are pretty vague and, like the ones I remember seeing on similar tests as a teenager, offer a fair amount of latitude: They’re the kind of  questions that give a middling student the opportunity to produce a competent response, and a stellar student room to show off.”  Quite so.  There are no right or wrong answers here. Further, Sanchez suggests translation syntax is part of the problem and suggests some rephrasing. 

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.

That’s exactly right.  In my teaching days, I frequently posed essentially identical essay questions to undergraduates taking a survey course and to graduate students in a much more specialized one.  The difference is in the quality of the answers I expected at those levels.  The purpose of test questions is — or, at least, should be — to give students an opportunity to apply their store of information and developed reasoning skills, not to elicit a rote response.

Beyond that, as both Bremner and Moynihan point out, the American system is simply more egalitarian than the French one, such that “Fewer than half the children of working class parents earn the certificate that gives passage to university.”  Indeed, there’s no such thing as a national entrance exam in the United States.  The SAT and ACT — which are being phased out in many schools — are glorified IQ tests, designed to provide a standardized means of assessing the aptitude of students applying from different schools and different parts of the country.  

There’s much room for criticizing American public schools but there’s been enough of that over the last quarter century or so that we needn’t revisit that topic here.  Suffice it to say, the typical American entering college freshman is less well prepared academically than his counterparts in much of the developed world.  

Then again, a university education is far more accessible to Americans than to Europeans.  Most public colleges and universities take all comers, requiring only a high school diploma or an equivalency certificate.  There is also an entire system of junior colleges and communty colleges where students who lacked the interest or the aptitude to excel in academics as a teenager can remediate and re-enter the system.  There are no similar second chances in much of the world.

Perhaps the average American kid hasn’t given much thought to the absurdity of pondering the impossible. Thankfully, however, fewer things are impossible in such a system.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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