When I was but a pale youth learning about literature at school, I witnessed an exchange between a classmate and our English teacher, who was diminutive in stature, gargantuan in brain and an expert in crowd control by means of biting sarcasm. We had been instructed to go away and produce an essay on the subject of redemption in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The pupil in question asked whether or not King Lear had been redeemed by the end of the play, since this would have a bearing on her answer. In response, my teacher asked the girl whether she was taking French as an A-level. Yes, she was. Then, what, pray, was the meaning of the verb essayer? To try, came the reluctant answer. Yes, said the teacher, essayer meant to try, and from that root sprang the word essay, which meant an attempt. And this was precisely what was being asked of the pupil. It did not matter whether the teacher agreed with her conclusion or not: the point was to try to write something meaningful.
I have no idea how the girl in question reacted to this contribution to her literary development, but it has stuck with me ever since. Indeed, it was as a consequence of that overheard exchange that I developed a notion of the French as being a nation of heroic strivers and philosophers, forever questing after intellectual perfection, even as their very academic terminology acknowledged that this work would never, could never, be completed. In short, the French were a people who understood the importance of the essai.
As it turns out, this idea of perpetual imperfection is embedded within the very foundations of the French educational system. Take the marking scheme, for example. From secondary age, pupils are marked out of 20. Unlike in the UK, where teachers start with a blank sheet of paper and add on grades like baubles until pretty soon the cleverest are bedecked with undeserved As and A+s, in France teachers start at 20 and deduct points for every mistake, whether it be substantive, or due to handwriting that does not lie within the precisely prescribed millimetre rules on the page. It is a fairly routine occurrence, therefore, for even the brightest pupil to end up with a score of 12, not because of any lack of brilliance in their arguments, but because of a slapdash approach to cursive lettering. So brutal can this system be that some schools even proudly vaunt their decision to prohibit teachers from giving out negative marks (-20, say, if you have made 40 mistakes). No wonder that you hear French people saying that a mark of 20 is for God, 19 for the King and 18 for the Président of the République, leaving a somewhat miserly 17 available for the elusive top-scoring pupils.
It could be argued that the French system is at least honest about the unattainability of perfection. Contrast this with the UK, where children are regularly told that their scribblings are Nobel Prize material, and it begins to look quite attractive. At university I lost track of the number of people I met who arrived as big fish accustomed to dominating their tiny ponds, only to suffer near breakdown when they realised that in the bigger academic pools they were but mere frogspawn. Watching their tortured falls from their gilded pedestals was enough to convince me that children could and should be given more realistic assessments of the magnitude of their achievements and that the development of humility was fundamental. The more you know the more you realise that you don’t know, as I was told by one particularly insightful tutor.
The trouble with the French approach, however, is that, for all its ruthless rationality, it singularly fails to take account of human psychology. The French grading system tells all school pupils that they will never, ever, be good enough. For a clever, conscientious child this can lead to eventual despair or, worse, a creeping indifference to the quality of their output (why try any harder when they can never get top marks?). The plight of children ranking at the bottom of the class is unthinkably worse. Not only can they never aspire to the somewhat disappointing score of 17, but it is conceivable that they will never make it above zero. Why bother at all? After a few years of being marked down, French-style, there is a risk that all the system will have created is a collection of cowed individuals, with no incentive or aspiration whatsoever. At least in the UK the prospect of a stellar musical career, however unlikely, gives our tone-deaf miniature Yehudi Menuhins the impetus to practice their violins every day.
It is true, of course, that a brutalist numerical marking scheme works better in some subjects than in others. In maths, for example, a domain where, at school at least, there are answers that are objectively right, and others that are objectively wrong, it is arguably fair enough to mark pupils ruthlessly out of 20. In the arts, however, it is an unmitigated catastrophe because, once you take away the solid categories of correct and incorrect, who is to say what the unattainable 20 would look like?
I have the privilege to teach literature to three highly gifted teenagers here in Lyon. Despite their obvious intelligence and their impressive perspicacity and inventiveness in class, whenever I set them an essay, one of them is bound to ask me what it is that they should write. When first presented with this question I trotted out the answer given by my own English teacher all those years ago: the right answer does not exist, but it is your attempt to find an answer that is intellectually coherent and interesting that counts. I was met with weary sighs. Why, I asked myself, were these French students, these girls raised from birth in the culture of the essai, so lacking in courage when it came to putting pen to paper? It was only after a good six months of these tedious and unfruitful negotiations that one of them finally put me out of my misery. But, she said, we all know that a right answer does exist. Somewhere out there is a 20:20 response, and as their teacher I should be able to tell them what it was.
It turns out, you see, that the 20:20 bonne reponse to any essay question set for the Baccalaureate is published on the internet the very next day. My students could not understand why, in this context, I persisted with the fraudulent notion that every essay would be read on its own terms. In the French system, it transpires, literature is not a landscape of nuanced greys, as I had been patiently explaining, but rather a horizon dominated by the black and white of correct and incorrect, in which the objective 20 could be found with single click of a mouse.
I am still enraged by this six months on. What hope does any literature student have of developing an independent capacity for analysis and insight if everything that they ever write is subjectively marked down as being inadequate compared to an equally subjective, but purportedly objective, perfect response dreamed up by some demi-God examiner? If I ever see my old English teacher again I will tell her just how fortunate I feel to have been allowed in my youth to make genuine, if naïve, attempts at literary insight, instead of being condemned, as my students are, to making doomed rehearsals of rote-learned points, secure in the knowledge that they will never, can never, reproduce exactly the bonne reponse that will be published the next day.
In the meantime I hope that the French examiner will write to Mr William Shakespeare, to give him the benefit of their 20:20 insight into the issue of whether or not King Lear was ever redeemed. I am sure he would be pleased to hear it.
This is not my last word on the French education system: there are of course many things about it that are better than the UK system too.
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