By Yanan Wang:
The first weekend that I arrived in Paris I saw my host sister, Alice, for no more than 15 minutes. She introduced herself, we kissed cheeks in the manner of the French, and she ran off to meet her friends for dinner at a café. Alice had been working all day and needed to take a break, my host mother Geneviève explained to me. She was studying for her “bac”.
The French baccalaureate—colloquially referred to as “le bac”—is a series of standardized exams administered to students in their final year of high school. Covering a wide range of subjects, the baccalauréat diploma is the primary determinant of the level at which a student can pursue his or her post-secondary education. Since it was introduced by Napoleon in 1801, the bac has been considered a rite of passage for the French: at family gatherings, it isn’t rare for members of the older generation to reminisce about receiving their bac while the children are in the midst of studying for their own.
But the nostalgia of today’s French grandparents is perhaps misplaced, for the bac is not what it used to be. Over a dinner of white asparagus and sliced goat cheese, Geneviève and her sister Mou bemoaned the inflation that has hit France’s education system. With the success rate for the bac sitting at approximately 80%, the tests no longer hold the same prestige that they once did.
Paris’s Latin Quarter is a historic part of the 6th arrondissement that plays home to several prominent higher education institutions (including the École Normale Supérieure and La Sorbonne). Along its picturesque avenues, many students sit on curbs outside, talking and smoking cigarettes in between classes. They dress in the way that you would imagine Parisian chic to look, with wardrobes complete with black leather jackets, high-heeled boots, and patterned scarves.
This Monday afternoon, two of my classmates and I ventured into the region to interview university students for a presentation. We made our way to a group of two girls and a young man who were standing outside of building by the Panthéon. We told them we were students from the United States, and they warmly agreed to answer our questions about universities. As it turned out, they were third year law students at Paris II, which has a reputation as France’s preeminent law school.
“Do you like university?” we asked them. “Do you like your law courses?”
They smiled. “Yes,” said the tall, lanky boy with jet black hair. “Education in France is excellent and not very expensive—but we do not have much choice.”
He was referring to the fact that French students must specialize and choose their career path very early on. At the start of high school, they are sorted into streams based on interest and competence.
“What about you?” he asked. “What are you studying?”
My classmates and I looked at each other. “On ne sait pas! We don’t know yet!”
He shook his head in disbelief and said, “C’est magnifique.”
Yanan Wang ’15 is in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at email@example.com.