France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

June 13, 2008

Bac Philo: Learning how to think independently, by rote

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 7:54 am

One of the advantages of waiting until nearly seven years after I arrived in France to start my French journal is I don’t write a lot of ‘those wacky French’ or ‘that wacky American in France’ stories. Thus I hope to interest not just Americans with histoires that confirm the French are wacky, but French people as well, with a point of view that is both independent and informed or at least not totally ignorant about French modes. With the bac philo, however, I have to disclose right away that the following treatise is based on only the slimmest understanding of this French rite of Spring. Hopefully my French readers will forgive my audacity in the interests of having a new perspective.

If I understand correctly, the various bacs — French, History, Philo — are end of high school tests. There’s even a ‘bac blanc,’ taken the year before the end of high school to get you ready.

At first glance, the Bac Philo — to which 150,000 students will be subjected Monday and for which they’re now cramming (even the kids on my nightly soap opera, the Marseille-based Plus Belle la Vie, are seen turning their attention from their amorous misadventures to Kant and Kirkegard) (thank goodness the weather is still on strike) — would seem to fall under the French Exception, as France Culture’s morning host Ali Baddou noted on today’s program. But does it really?

As explained by Baddou’s guests, the students have six months to read various philosophers, all dead, and to develope an independent way of thinking which they must then demonstrate in a four-hour test. This will somehow be ‘corrected’ by the profs. I’m not sure how a teacher would go about correcting a student’s explanation of his/her independent system of thought. Seems contradictory.

But to get back to the question: Is this really a French exception? At first I thought, cool, we didn’t have to study and then take a test in philosophy at Mission High School in San Francisco…. But then I recalled trying to wade through Plato (didn’t make it), and discovering Camus in Ralph Saskie’s literature class in my junior (demi-final) year of high school. It seems to be that integrated into a literature class, and thus making part of a composite — studying ways of thought, and reading stories that depict thought in action — we have a better chance to understand the whole, and how it applies to life, then if we’d had to read exclusively Philosophy for six months *and* from what we read then come up with our own independent system of thought. And the pire — the worse — to have to do this at 17 years old. Moi, j’ai 47 and I still don’t have a system.


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