‘Je suis nul’

“Je suis nul!” (“I’m useless!”) is a common expression for French students, writes Ben Wildavsky, who wonders on Chronicle of Higher Education if France’s schools are sapping students’ confidence.

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’s Sciences Po students have passed exceptionally difficult admissions exams. They’re very bright, but have no self-confidence, Gumbel writes.

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, Wildavsky extols “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).”

But high scholastic standards and an exam-based path to upward mobility won’t help France if the K-12 system turns the brightest students into anxious, timid crybabies, Wildavsky writes.

It makes American over-confidence look not so bad.

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  1. Considering that the majority of French college grads seek to work for the government, this might not be a bad thing. French video and computer game designers all moved to the US and Canada, because it’s nearly impossible to launch a start-up in France.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    It makes me grateful that our American system offers so many avenues to success. While getting into an Ivy maybe the ultimate is academic successful for a young student, there are many ways to circumvent the system to get a high quality education. We’re not dependent on one pathway to success.

  3. Gumbel gives little evidence that there’s really a problem in France. His daughters may have been distraught because they weren’t yet fluent in French and, having come from weakers schools in Britain, may have been behind their French peers. Perhaps his Sciences Po students don’t talk b/c they’re self-conscious about their English (assuming he conducts class in English). Or maybe he’s not such a great discussion leader. OK, students are more anxious than in British schools, but maybe that’s just an inevitable result of a more rigorous system. Lax academics is certainly a cure for academic anxiety, but is this a cure we want to give?

    He claims “there are 16,000 new teachers entering French schools this term who are undoubtedly very clever by haven’t the slightest idea about how to teach, and that is scandalous,” he said, “The key to good schools, as other countries have discovered, is having good teachers.” Um, what other countries? The US? Britain? Yeah, in the US there are all sorts of fancy methodologies afoot –I presume this is what he means by “how to teach” –but I’m not at all sure that these methodologies are effective. I’ll bet there are tons of excellent teachers in France.

    It sounds as if this guy is sounding off without really knowing what he’s talking about.

  4. I love Gumbel’s statement, “The key to good schools, as other countries have discovered, is good teachers.” Yes, that’s what Duncan, Rhee and Gates are saying, and, of course there’s some truth to it, but the key to EFFECTIVE schools is good curriculum, as France, Japan and other nations have learned. This is something we Americans can learn from France.

  5. As the author of the book being discussed here, I just wanted to thank you for picking up the debate – and also take issue with Ponderosa’s post. My personal experience as a parent and teacher were merely the starting points for my book; before I even thought about writing it, I went off and discovered (to my surprise) numerous international comparative studies which demonstrate conclusively that French schoolchildren on the whole have lower self-confidence than many of their peers in other countries, and have been conditioned by the school system to keep their mouths shut in class.

    As for the 16,000 teachers, that was the Observer dropping part of the quote: in fact, 16,000 new teachers set foot in French classrooms this term without any formal training whatsoever, an unintended but nonetheless ghastly result of the French government’s cutbacks. But even teachers who do receive training get very little guidance about teaching methods that have proved effective in France and elsewhere.

    I encourage you all to rush out and buy the book!

  6. Mr. Gumbel,

    As a veteran from the trenches of an average American middle school, it bothers me when non-vets glibly assert that “there are better ways to teach.” How do you know? Have you spent time in many public schools in Britain and America? I guarantee you that in most American schools, you’ll see a lot of kids talking –and not in productive ways. Talking over the teacher. Talking to each other. Please don’t glibly assert that “there are ways” to channel this constructively. “There are ways” to bring democracy to Afghanistan too. Despite the fact that American education schools teach these “ways”, the majority of teachers at my school feel battered and worn down at the end of the day from contending with this tsunami of talking. Outsiders have the luxury of crafting their utopian visions of education without having to endure the consequences. From my perspective, France is smart to keep the talking genie in the bottle. This is one reason the average French kid learns a heck of a lot more than American kid..

    For decades cooperative learning has been preached in ed school as an unquestionably superior modern form of education; lecture, we learn, is malpractice. Transmitting bodies of knowledge is passe; exercising generic “thinking skills” is the new way. Have these modern methods resulted in any detectable rise in achievement in America? On the contrary. Does evidence matter to you?

    Please read Diane Ravitch’s Left Back, about the 100 year war on French-style traditional education in this country. And read E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit, which explains why reading comprehension is not a skill, but a result of background knowledge in the domain about which one reads. In other words, teaching content -something our modern ed schools discount –is teaching reading. The fashionable approach of teaching metacognitive reading strategies is largely a fraud, yet this is what our teachers learn in the ed schools you seem to respect. In our eagerness to be modern and make critical thinkers, we’re making self-assured ignoramuses. The only education that truly liberates a mind may be a good, old-fashioned liberal arts education.

    In my view, the French are wise to disregard the careerists, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen of American education schools.