‘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.

The Great Brain Race: Many winners?

Ben Wildavsky’s The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World will be published this month.

In an interview with Insider Higher Ed, Wildavsky argues the globalization of universities is inevitable and potentially a win-win.

In the near term, we shouldn’t lose site of the fact that we remain hugely dominant – we have a disproportionate share of top researchers, 70 percent of the world’s Nobel winners, hold most of the top slots in global college rankings, and so on. We also pass an important market test, continuing to attract the lion’s share of top international students. That said, patterns of mobility could well change, and with so many new and improved universities in other nations focusing on science and engineering, that seems likely to be an area where we might lose ground.

. . . From a U.S. point of view, where we are likely to remain very strong is in our creative spark, in academia and beyond. This is something other nations urgently wish to emulate – our ability to innovate, and to use research discoveries in entrepreneurial ways.

In many competitor nations, universities have no “liberal arts tradition,” Wildavsky says. “A few are trying to change that, but for now our ability to ask questions, to challenge the conventional wisdom, to be nonconformist at times, is likely to continue to be an area where we stand out.”