Dunce caps are chic in France

French nostalgia for the harsh schools of the 1950s has made a hit out of a reality show that puts 24 students into a recreated boarding school.

The show also coincides with a wave of nostalgia in France for a less confusing age: when girls in pigtails and boys in short pants wrote beautiful script in purple ink, learned heaps of information by rote, spoke to their elders only when spoken to and endured public acts of humiliation and arbitrary punishments without complaint.

In a nationwide poll released on Friday by the TNS Sofres Group, 80 percent of parents of children from 10 to 16 surveyed said they were worried about their children’s academic achievement. Only half that number said they were worried about their relationship with their children. In another poll released this week, almost half of parents of school-age children surveyed said that they would like to reinstate uniforms in public schools.

“I have heard a loud outcry in favor of a return to authority,” François Fillon, France’s conservative minister of education, said in a recent interview with the newspaper Liberation. He added: “Life is hard. The educational system must prepare youth for this challenge. Examinations, inspections, are moments of truth.”

On the reality show, students who misbehave are told to copy long passages from Flaubert in longhand, wear a dunce cap and mop the floor. All take cod liver oil every morning.

French schools in 2004 are more rigid than American schools, with a centralized curriculum and ability grouping. And the education ministry is planning to “return schools to traditional learning techniques, including a much greater emphasis on reading of required texts, memorization and recitations, taking dictation and writing structured essays.”

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  1. I can’t believe the American school system is being beat out by the French… How embarrassing!

  2. I’m a chemistry teacher in France and I would like to add some comments :

    Actually in France, progressive educators have near total control over the schools and the curriculum. Ability grouping is forbidden in theory in primary and middle schools. And I think that the return to “traditional learning” is, unfortunately, not for tomorrow.

    What happens in France is that we make the same pedagogical errors that you made in America twenty or thirty years ago.

    But, thanks to Joanne Jacobs (and other education-related bloggers), I can see a return to more commonsensical approaches to education and schooling. I also read lots of books by Charles Sykes, ED Hirsch, Diane Ravitch…

    And that really gives me great hopes.