It’s The End of the World as We Know It

Exams are done and I don’t have to deal with the French education system anymore! Woohoo! However, as good as it feels to be finally done with school for the year, it also means I’m done here.

So many goodbyes to be said. So many said already.

But in the meantime I’m running like a crazed chicken trying to do EVERYTHING before it’s all over. Including shutting down my bank account, which will be interesting. Oh the glories of French bureaucracy. You might be the one thing in this country I most definitely will NOT miss.

University and France: Part 2

I know it’s been about a week, but I’m ready to start back up into this little mini-series! Please forgive me, I’ve got 18 1/2 hours of class in three days. Whew.

Okay! So. Once you finish Lycée, you theoretically take the BAC or which there are three. Math, Literature and Economics. Each BAC contains other sections (science, math, lit, etc.) with one major focus. I think the idea is to make sure everyone has the basic tools they’ll need in their areas of study.

Anyway, once you pass the BAC, you “apply” to a university. My understanding is that, with the exception of a few “Grands Écoles,” any university is required to accept you as long as you’ve passed the BAC. And this is where things take a turn for the jank. You see, almost all the universities in France are public. Which means for France that tuition is unimaginably low (at least for an American). I don’t have a statistic to cite, but I’ve heard Aix-Marseille is something to the order of 300 euros, Sécurité Social included (sécurité social is their health insurance. It has nothing to do with US “social security”).

So that means that the grand ol’ Fac de Lettres (the college within the University that I happen to attend) looks like this:


Yes. I did just represent the entire school with a kind-of “worst-case scenario,” but I know my IU Bloomington friends probably don’t have any idea what it’s like to be in a university where the walls are regularly covered in graffiti that isn’t corrected for months, if it ever gets corrected. They are doing some wall repair and repainting, but good god. Look at where I’m coming from.


The long and short of it is, largely free education can have some pretty interesting draw-backs, the state of the Fac being one of them. The others are coming up later. Don’t worry. I love reminiscing over the Fac.

The French and Education: Part 1

Welcome to a sub-set of my adventures: French Education. I feel like I’ve had enough University here to know a bit about how it works (and doesn’t), SO it’s time to start my new game show!

Okay. Just kidding. But I am going to do my best to educate you all on what this is:


Yeah. I know. Reassuring. HOWEVER, I feel I must start here, at French “Lycée” (high school):

France- Nathan 019

So much difference, right?

Anyway, to start off, French education is at least superficially similar to the US right up until the third year of high school. I say superficially because these are also the people who start teaching english in what would be 4/5th grade.

However, “Junior” year our young French students, full of teen angst and hormones, must decide what area of study they’d like to go into for the next five years.

Yes. That’s right.

You see, the last two years of French high school are basically two years of college prep courses focused on whatever you plan on studying in University (because unlike the US, ALL French students are direct admit into a single major program that they are more-or-less restricted to). This intense studying is all for the purpose of passing the ever-famous “BAC” or Baccalauréat.

The BAC is basically like if you took an AP test and pumped it full of Impossible Steroids. Or so I’m told. You’ll see way in later episodes.

And this is the beginning of French University education.  The genesis so to speak.

And also, if you’re wondering if it IS in fact possible to be in two places at once, I recommend this lovely piece by NPR.

This is going to be an English major rant

New Reading Standards Aim To Prep Kids For College — But At What Cost? : NPR.

So, especially if you’re American and care about the education system in America, you should read this.

I am an English major (and I’m in France. I know. It makes sense if you think about it). I love more than almost anything reading. I’ve read Chaucer in old English, Shakespeare, Joyce, Stevenson, Fitzgerald, Dumas, Bradbury, Austen, Woolf, Brian Jacques of the Redwall series and so many more. I don’t tend to like non-fiction. Not for fun anyway. Don’t get me wrong, a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. is incredible. The Declaration of Independence is fantastic. All these kinds of things are wonderful things to learn.

But why in English? Why not in History? The speeches by MLK Jr. are a perfect way to capture the hopes, feelings and power of the Civil Rights movement, so why not use it? Better yet, why not coordinate topics and read works like Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, A Lesson Before Dying or any of the other many classics dealing with racial issues. Why not link Things Fall Apart with colonialism in World History?

But to say, “Okay, so these works of literature are about this topic and that’s what we’re going to teach you about” is ridiculous. A single novel, if well written, is about life. It can say anything and everything about a life experience. That is the beauty of studying English. You pick out a thread of truth and develop your arguments, then find that someone else has another thread of truth different from yours, and another person has found another thread of truth, until by the end of it you hold in your hands a web of lessons coming both from you and the text.

I appreciate what is being done and the effort being put into this project. Obviously something needs to be done. But there is a certain kind of critical thinking, of imagination, of experience that could be lost if we let it. And I know that experience has done more than instructed me, it has provided refuge. A safe harbor. That’s the real beauty of being an English major.


I’m back to the horror that is the French education system. And before I go any farther, I will say that it probably isn’t a horror for the french. But for me, an English-speaker and an American, oh boy.

The problem is that the philosophies about education are almost fundamentally different. And while I thought “oh, learning is just learning, how could I ever have a problem?” I have quickly come to realize that learning is not just learning. At least as far as grades go. Because if you don’t know what answer is being asked of you, how in the world are you going to answer the question?

It goes like this. The French are ridiculously specific. For example, in a final on Modern History, I received a question somewhere along the lines of “the relation between the king and war in the modern era.” So I dutifully explained everything I could possibly think of about that. I gave several examples for specificity and clarity and in the end my teacher said, “stop giving me examples and be more specific.” I just looked at her and was like, what? She was like, “what do land and power give you?” Still confused, I responded “security…” and she was like “Yes! That’s what I’m looking for!” And then I became really confused.

It’s just a completely different way of going about things. And while it probably works great for the French, I don’t imagine I’m going to figure out this magic code fast enough to actually do well on any of these finals. But I also think that’s okay. Because I’, learning a hell of a lot more than I would be back in America. Where I will never complain about school again.

Problematique? Yeah, You’re Telling Me

It’s Mid-Term season (finally) here at good ol’ Aix-Marseille University which, as all of us college students know, means two things: tests and papers. Personally, I have no problem with tests or papers. It’s like I was designed to be a student. And I’m an English major, which should tell you a lot about my feelings towards essays and papers (YES! GIVE THEM TO ME! I WANT ALL OF THE ESSAYS!).

HOWEVER. I have a problem. French university comes at their papers…well. Differently. In fact, it goes something like this:

In America, you get a question, formulate a thesis and then discuss, analyze and synthesize all the information that supports your thesis. We’ve been learning how to do this since probably sixth grade, if not earlier.

In FRANCE, however, you formulate a “problematique.” What is a “problematique” you say? Excellent question! Basically, it’s a question that you ask in response to the question you are given in the assignment that is both more narrow and less precise and will guide your exploration of the topic and ultimately lead you to your response (known in the States as a Thesis).

Today we spent about three hours trying to figure out: a) what in God’s name a “problematique” is b) how to make a good problematique (I still have no idea how to do this) and c) what to do with the thing once you have it. Haha

It was kind of hilarious to watch my classmates try to figure out what in the world was going on. I think it might best be described as throwing a bar of soap in a bathtub. Nobody knows why its there, how to direct it or what to do with it.

If I haven’t really been culture-shocked by the French culture itself, I think this is pretty much my first tussle with Madame Cultural Frustration. My sympathy level has gotten so much higher in the last three hours haha. Oh boy. I love it. I hate it. I miss the good ol’ American way of BOOM git ‘er done. But I imagine this will be good for my intellect. Right?

One Thing I’ve Learned

One thing I’ve learned in life and in this study abroad is an idea I’ve thought a lot about. Joseph Conrad said, “We live as we dream, alone” but I don’t agree with that. I will say, however, that no one walks the same path.

But instead of being something bad, instead of taking that as some set of impossibilities, I’ve come to realize what it means. Each of us gets to choose who we are. Each of us is blessed with our own experiences, our own stories, our own smiles. Our very own smiles. Think about that. Isn’t it wonderful? Just my smile.

And yes, we meet people who we share the road with. Sometimes to share a meal, sometimes a particular turn, and sometimes the whole rest of the journey with. But even then, you cannot walk in the space someone else is occupying. Even then, your path is your own.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t smile and share it. And that. That is something worth walking for.