How Do I Define American Education: A Bi-Cultural Perspective
An exploration of the American and French educational systems and their outcomes on both cultural mindsets.
As Einstein said: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one learned in school.” What we learn in school impacts our lives in many ways, that’s for sure, whether it is in our choice of career path or in our abilities. But it’s the way we are equipped to deal with life that sticks with us, beyond our knowledge in math or history. This is why we put so much importance on education and school: it’s the most formative time of our short lives. Because education is such an important asset in the West, it’s bound to differ from one culture to another, and to therefore have different outcomes on people’s lives, mindsets, and cultures in general.
As a 21-year-old young woman born and raised in Paris, France, I have experienced the French educational system from age zero to 13. From then on, I was lucky enough to enter first the British, and then the American system, which I am currently in at the American University of Paris. This sort of “bi-cultural” — or even international — background is what has allowed me to have a critical perspective on both systems, and inspired me to explore just how much the way we are taught affects us. Disclaimer: in case that wasn’t obvious already, all that follows is solely my own opinion and perspective, and is clearly not an assertion of fact.
The biggest comparison one could make about French vs. American school systems is negative reinforcement vs. positive reinforcement. In French schools, students are constantly reminded of everything that is wrong with their work or their attitude — I distinctively remember having the remark “too chatty” on every single one of my report cards — and always expect the worst. In high school, teachers often represent everything that young people don’t want in an authority figure: giving orders without any explanation, “just doing their job”, being very strict, and not enabling any sort of informal discussion or intellectual stimulation. At least that is what I experienced: sticking to the textbook. This, as anyone can imagine, is not very motivating, and causes students to strive for the strict minimum. You will rarely hear a French university student say they probably got a 15 out of 20 on an exam. Instead, you will hear them say things like: “I hope I got above 10 so I can pass.”, and being entirely satisfied when they do. In the American system, teachers do whatever they can to build up your confidence, stimulate discussion, and make you believe you deserve and can achieve the best. Not only are there many incentives for kids to work hard — like a shorter school day, from 8 AM to 3 PM, compared to the French national 8 AM-5 or 6 PM day — there is also this lovely thing called grade inflation. This creates university students who on one hand know that they don’t need to do a whole lot to get a good grade, but on the other still want to work hard to get the best grade possible and be proud of themselves. You will very rarely hear an American university student say that they are aiming at a C-; but you will definitely often hear them be disappointed in an A- and sending emails to the professor. I don’t know if I just went to good American schools and crappy French ones, but in my experience, American teachers and professors always tried to make the learning experience a stimulating and interesting one for students, and barely “stuck to the book” at all.
If we look specifically at the systems themselves, they are again, very different. In the French system, where the end-of-high-school diploma (Baccalauréat) is considered by many to be superior to the American high school diploma, students have to choose paths as early as the age of 15. Indeed, as you enter your second year of “lycée”, you have to take your pick between “L”, which stands for literary, “S” for scientific, and “ES”, for economy and social. Depending on what branch you pick, your studies will have a different focus. For example, literary students have to take philosophy as a requirement in high school, whereas scientific students have to take high-level science classes. Then, once you pass the much sought after “bac”, you are faced with another decision, entirely more intimidating: what you want to do with your life. French universities do not offer “liberal arts” and do not have “general requirements” in order for you to graduate, as these have already been completed in high school. Instead, they offer students with already-constructed programs that last three years, after which you receive a “license”, equivalent to a bachelor degree. So, in short, confused eighteen year-olds have to decide exactly what they want to study on the spot, and if they change their minds after six months, well, they have to start all over again. Indeed, “transfer credits” don’t really exist in the French system. Despite this, it’s important to note that French university costs about ten times less than American schools do, which might explain the lack of options. In the U.S, you are offered choices and multiple options very early on, which, as opposed to French decisions, are actually quite pleasing. I remember the thrill of being able to choose what classes I wanted to take as an eager 15-year-old, and having the option to take so many music or arts classes — which I would have never had in France. Speaking of options, having the chance (in certain schools) to take higher level classes like IB or AP added to that sense of control and intellectual stimulation during high school, which the French system very much lacked. Though general requirements are in place in all the main areas (Math, English, Science…), you can graduate high school having had a totally different experience than your friends: if your abilities lie in Science, you will be able to focus your studies on that, whereas if your friend is more of a literary mind, they will be able to focus on arts and social sciences. I am the perfect example of that: all I had to take in high school was AP Environmental Science and Geometry in order to graduate, amongst all of my Literature and Psychology classes. In college, this system is even more “liberal”, and lets you not only design your own path but also transfer “credits” from other schools, and change your area of study three times in the course of a year if you want to. Typically, general requirements are finished off during the first year, while the remaining three are used to focus on your majors and minors. Lastly, French schools barely offer any extra-curricular activities, whereas American high schools and universities offer a wide range of them: from sports to theatre, to charities and magazines.
Because of these very different styles of preparing students for the professional world, people come out of these educational systems notably different: with different perspectives and expectations on life, the professional world, themselves, and society as a whole. I would like to specify that the idea here is not to figure out what the better system or society is between French and American, but more to understand just how differently we are educated and how much that impacts our lives and cultural mindsets, in both positive and negative ways. In France, many people come out of high school or university pretty discouraged, as the system is tailored to suit people who know exactly what they want to do, and are extremely motivated and determined. This is why so many people drop out of university, or end up stuck in careers they hate for the rest of their lives. This “negative reinforcement” attitude ultimately never really goes away, and in a sense we will always associate work with negative things, but also with the lack of choice. I believe this is also one of the reasons for the high unemployment rates of this country: if you make young people believe they will never be good enough, make them strive for the minimum, and scare them away from furthering their education, they will likely be easily discouraged by hardship and therefore end up believing that they don’t have a chance. On the other hand, the people who do succeed in this system are pretty much capable of anything: not only are they forced to be on a very advanced level intellectually, they have to learn to be hard-working in order to get what they want. In America, although many people don’t go to college for economic or geographical reasons, those who do adopt an entirely different mindset: “I can do anything”. This very positive way of seeing life allows them to not only aim for the very best and believe in themselves, but also to be extremely versatile in their professional life. Because they were given so many options and choices during their education, it is completely okay and accepted for them to switch careers as many times as they want in the course of their lives. For example, I will always remember the realtor with whom I visited apartments upon moving to New York City, who was telling me he had a Bachelor’s degree in English literature, had gone on to write, then got into Finance, and finally became a realtor — all of this at barely 30 years old. But although this outlook is definitely called “positive” for a reason, I believe it also has its downsides. Being taught to strive only for the best creates a nasty sense of competition that is strangely instilled in almost every American I meet: the absolute need to be the best. Sometimes, it’s okay not to be the very best at something, because you can’t be good at everything in life. Further than that, I believe that it is sometimes better to be able to do only one thing but do it extremely well, than to do five and be average at all five. The American educational system also creates a society of people who generally feel quite entitled to many things, and I think that also reflects on the culture as a whole, feeding into the stereotype that “Americans think everyone speaks English and thinks in dollars”.
Overall, it is extremely difficult — and probably unnecessary — to try to declare one system better than the other. In my view, they are both very different, in positive and negative ways. What is important, though, as Einstein suggested, is what you make of your education. Indeed, even though that is what we are equipped and conditioned with and definitely has a huge impact on our lives as individuals and as a people, it comes down to the experiences you let yourself have, the decisions you make, the people you meet and the places you go. As a bi-cultural who often struggles between French and American ways of life, I have learned that it’s not all black and white, and that you can actually be both — it’s called being international!