Friday, August 21, 2009

France as a Knowledge-Limiting Society

This is an idea I've been developing for a while. I think that French society is one that is built around the idea of compartmentalized knowledge, that no one should know everything, that you learn from those who already know something, the idea that you have a certain set of knowledge, and you should not stray beyond your knowledge box.

Take fonctionnaires at the préfecture, for example. They always know better than you what papers to bring in. Even if another fonctionnaire told you to bring in a certain set of documents, the next guy you talk to will give you an entirely different list! You have no way of knowing what is true because you, not being one of those fortunate employees of the préfecture, do not have access to The Definitive List. You are completely dependent on them to give you information.

Or doctors. Many French doctors (my jerk specialist, certainly, but not my generalist) believe that they are God and that you, the lowly patient, cannot possibly comprehend anything about medecine, medications, or how the body works. What right do you have to know what is happening to your body and why when you cannot possibly understand any of it without having been through the same extensive schooling as they have? When I disagreed with my doctor's medication plan for me (because he was wrong) he told me that he is a world acknowledged "expert" and that I should basically shut my mouth and do as he said, without any real explanation as to why he was correct besides his self-described status as an expert. Even nurses are reluctant to explain things and answer questions. Without their level of schooling, we cannot ever hope to attain the same exalted state of enlightenment, regardless of years of experience dealing with our own medical problems or knowledge that we can harvest ourselves over the dreaded internet.

What about their obsession with certificates and qualifications? Despite the fact that I have a four year college degree I would probably never be hired to work in a retail clothing store because I don't have the silly sales certificate. In order to have a management position at a factory, you have to have a BTS, so a guy who has worked on the line for 20 years and has proved his worth but doesn't have a BTS can't earn a management position based on proven experience, knowledge, and leadership skills.

Even the public schools are part of this, although that is changing. Who else has worked with old school teachers who expect the kids to sit down, shut up, listen, and then regurgitate everything the teacher has said without ever questioning it or learning critical thinking and analytical skills?

While the fact that Einstein flunked math in fourth grade and that Bill Gates dropped out of college are very well known in the US, few people in France tell these stories. I can only think of one story I've ever been told about a French person who picked himself up by his bootstraps (to use an extremely American expression) and earned their way to success without having all the trappings of the elite: Nicolas Sarkozy. I knew that story, however, from reading American newspapers, and not because someone French told it to me. This is perhaps not the best example because we know how unpopular Sarko is, but in general the French don't seem to value these types of stories about self-made people who rose out of nothing to become successful. The idea of the "self-made woman" is one of the most important components of the American Dream, whereas in France it barely exists. Justice Sonia Sotomayor's personal story was a huge component of the discussions about her candidacy for the Supreme Court. Even if these people who rise from humble circumstances to great success do exist in France, their stories are not told and admired the way they are in the US.

This isn't meant to be a critical "France is so terrible because...." post, I'm just putting some observations that I have made out there as sort of an experiential sociological writing about what I learned during my time in France. These are of course just my experiences in "my" France, and I would be interested to hear what others think, especially about the idea of the self made person in France, because my experience on that topic may be part of the fact that I lived in the second worst département in France.

I also think this idea of knowledge limiting goes hand in hand with France as an extremely hierarchical society but that is a post for another day.


Jennie said...

Heh, how true. I was going to mention something about the hierarchical society too, and I think that plays a large part. Everybody is expected to play their role and never deviate from it or question the knowledge/actions of others.

Another example is at universities - there are no student evaluations of professors because the students' opinions don't matter. They are lowly students and so who cares if they don't like their professors or think thy are bad teachers? It won't make any difference because as students they don't know what it's like to be a professor because they didn't go through the same schooling, so how can they evaluate them? They are not equals at all, and for the inferior to pass judgment on the superior is unheard of! quel horreur !

shannon said...

Totally agree (probably because I was practically your neighbor. LOL.). But sometimes, I think Americans are too much at the other extreme which isn't necessarily always a good thing either.

Jenny's comment about university profs made me think about how strange it must be for Middlebury's language school profs during their first year there. They get evaluated twice during the summer weeks. They are world famous profs, lecturers, etc, and they're getting evaluated on how well they teach and if the students like them? *gasp* The horror!

My history teacher has been working the summers there for 6 years now, and he still looked at the evaluations funny. He glanced at the directions (in English), sort of shrugged (don't know how well he can read English), crumpled up the paper and threw it away, and told us that he thinks we need to fill them out with him out of the room. How bizarre? Of course, even though this guy is very intimidating at first and one of the most acclaimed teachers from Sciences-Po, we all love him to bits, so he got stellar evaluations. He told me I write "comme une francaise" and gave me a grade reserved for "natives". I didn't know this until after, but I already had given him a great review. Some people know how to share their knowledge. Others, can be super nice, but can't teach to save their life. And others are mean and can't teach.

Isabelle said...

I'm going to write my comment in French (sorry about that) this way I will feel less limited!

Je suis d'accord avec toi sur la trop grande importance accordée aux diplômes en France. Si tu veux un boulot précis, tu dois avoir le diplôme qui va avec. Je pense cependant que les employeurs ne vérifient pas toujours tes diplômes et si tu passes un bon entretien et que tu montres tes motivations, tu as des chances d'être retenue (évidemment tout dépend du domaine dans lequel tu veux travailler !).
Un très bon exemple est mon mari qui a indiqué sur son CV avoir tel diplôme (ce qui était faux) et il a quand même été accepté pour son boulot, car on ne lui a jamais demandé de montrer ce diplôme...

On parle peu des self-made men/women en France car depuis les années 80 (début d'une forte période de chômage) il y en a très peu ! Il était facile dans les années 60-70 d'obtenir un travail à responsabilités sans avoir fait d'études, ou de devenir un chef d'entreprise performant car on avait les qualités pour, sans nécessairement avoir fait d'études. Normal, c'était la période du plein emploi. Depuis les années 80 le chômage est très élevé en France (beaucoup plus qu'aux Etats-Unis à la même période).
Donc la seule solution pour s'en sortir est de faire de bonnes études. La pression est très forte pour réussir à l'école, car sans diplôme on a beaucoup de mal à trouver du travail. Et maintenant avec la crise, même ceux qui ont fait de longues études ne trouvent pas toujours un travail en rapport à leurs efforts...

En ce qui concerne le commentaire de Jennie, je pense que les étudiants n'évaluent pas leurs professeurs d'université pour 2 raisons : la première est le manque d'objectivité. Par exemple un étudiant peut donner une mauvaise évaluation à un professeur parce que celui-ci lui a donné de mauvaises notes (vengeance personnelle). Deuxièmement, les professeurs sont des fonctionnaires, qu'ils aient de bonnes ou mauvaises évaluations de la part de leurs étudiants ne changera pas grand chose, ils vont quand même continuer à enseigner !!

Eileen said...

I think you're probably noticing a few different things, soleil. Like, first, that information-getting in certain cultures operates very differently from how it does in the U.S., where you expect to go to the source of the information and get everything more or less at once.

It's too bad about the doctors though. My mom is a biology professor and she believes that people can't make good decisions about their health if they don't understand how their bodies work (frankly she says this to an annoying extent when she starts picking on me for knowing so little biology...).

But about this lack of emphasis on the self-made man in France, maybe that's why they still place so much value on the American dream? I was sort of surprised that they taught it as part of the English curriculum when I was an assistant, I thought it was all such a big crock. (Everyone knows there are millions of people & children living in poverty in the U.S. and hard work alone rarely gets you to be a CEO.) But maybe there's more to it.

But about student evaluations, I think there are two sides to that. In the U.S., depending on the school, they can maybe have a little too much power over whether you get tenure. But on the other hand, I think students are less biased and more honest than people fear. Especially since they don't have their final grades when they do the evaluation. So I think it's important... and as a teacher I'd like to know what they think, even if I wouldn't necessarily take all of it into account. Students aren't going learn as much if they hate the class.

I guess I'll stop writing. Good post =)

au soleil levant said...

Thanks for so many great comments.

Jennie - the university system is a great example, not just the evaluations but also the structure of classes, I think. From what I've heard (can't give a real opinion since I haven't been a student in a French university) it seems to be structured around large lectures that aren't based on books but on what the prof says, rather than discussion and reading like in the US. Again, knowledge comes directly from the teacher, you can't go find it yourself.

Shannon - interesting thought about the perspective of French profs on the US system. Good that the Sciences Po guy was a good teacher!

Isabelle - j'écrirai en francais aussi mais excuse-moi pour le manque d'accents, j'utilise mon clavier americain. Quand je parle des diplomes, je veux dire plutot tous les diplomes du lycée, le CAP, BEP, n'importe quoi. Pour moi ces diplomes sont un autre moyen de mettre les gens dans des "boites" de connaissance et/ou qualification. Les licenses, masters, doctorats, bien sur, aux Etats Unis ils sont importants aussi. Mais les diplomes du lycée sont, a mon avis, un autre moyen a dire que tu ne vaux que ton diplome; tu as appris le metier d'une vendeuse ou une sécretaire, tu ne sais que ce metier-ci, et tu dois rester dans ce metier. Il n'y a pas forcément les memes opportunités qu'on a aux Etats-Unis de changer du metier et apprendre quelque chose d'autre. Quand tu es fixé sur un chemin, tu dois y rester.

Eileen - the problem with health care in France is that they don't expect you to make a decision, they expect you to just do what the doctor says! No reason to have knowledge when someone else can tell you what's best for you! When I saw the news coverage in France of Obama's victory I did get the impression that for them the American Dream is a very powerful idea in France, perhaps because it is so different from their own experiences.

At Brandeis we used to have to fill out midterm and end of term evaluations and I know that several of the professors took the comments from the midterm evaluations very seriously and did try to change the class to be more in line with what we wanted, especially one of my French profs (who was not French). But Brandeis students have a propensity for taking over university buildings and protesting, so that might have influenced them too :)

shannon said...

Soleil - Re: your comment to Jenny. I've had American profs like that as well! "Who cares what the book says? This is what I say!" Other thing I've noticed about some French (and probably other nationality as well) profs. If they have a published book on the subject, that's what they teach from as well! No outside opinion.

The evaluations were as far as the American system went at Middlebury. Everything else (grades, dissertations, tests, etc) was the French system!

Zhu said...

As a French, I agree!

I realized that when I moved to Canada. For example, I was very reluctant to apply for any job where I didn't make the whole skill check-list, no matter how basics they were. And then I realized most people had a "can do everything if taught" attitude and would adapt.

For example, I started teaching French even though I have degrees in Chinese language - don't think I could have done it in France!

University is also over specialized. I can see the difference, once again. I studied Chinese language and civilization, therefor all of my classes were really deep into that (including one name "Chinese peasant in the Communist revolution from 1932 to 1934 - no kidding!). Uni. in Canada is more "a bit of that, a bit of this".

I sometimes feel knowledge is a bit too superficial in North America. So called "experts" don't know much actually. Yet, I like the fact that the society is less hierarchical and that you can actually get the chance to change career, learn new skills etc easily.

au soleil levant said...

Shannon - but in the US no matter what the professor is teaching you still get a chance to discuss things, profs have office hours, classes have discussion section, you can raise your hand and ask questions during class... again, I've never been in the French university system so my comments are really based on what I've heard, which is of course not the best thing to do, but I think that independent thinking is still more valued in the US system

Zhu - thanks, glad you agree! I don't know if French universities have general education requirements, but in the US at least we value a well rounded liberal arts education where you do learn "a bit of this, a bit of that" so that regardless of your major you have to take a science class, a math class, an English class, etc. But yeah, we do have a lot of blowhards who like to hear themselves talk without saying anything of value or having any expertise to be able to comment intelligently on whatever the topic is. Just turn on any of the cable news stations.

shannon said...

Unless you're in the business department! Many business profs have other jobs/responsibilities and have very few (if any) office hours. Getting an appointment with my adviser was always a pain!

Another reason the Middlebury profs must be in shock their first summer... their office hours are all the time. Nowhere is safe! LOL.

French universities (at least the public ones) are like the British ones. You study your major and that is that. We warned about that. If we took a class at the Paris unis, we were told that those students would have been studying that area and strictly that for years, and so we would probably be behind no matter what. Sometimes, I wish our universities were like that, because maybe I would have came out with an end goal.

Jennie said...

I wish US universities would get rid of general education requirements. it's such a waste of time. We could have 3 year bachelor's degrees that way and students would learn more in their chosen field. I wish i could have spent all my time learning French instead of taking environmental science classes where I had to identify leaves (WTF how will that help me in life if I want to teach French?!?!) Plus the gen ed classes brought my GPA down since I didn't care as much about studying for those exams.

au soleil levant said...

I think that general requirements are a strength of the US university system. I know sooooo many people who entered university with a clear cut idea of what they wanted to major in, what job they wanted, what masters program they were going to apply for, etc, and then changed their minds halfway through their degree (myself included). I think gen ed requirements give you a good opportunity to explore new fields that you might otherwise have never learned about and find out what your passions are. In general I think a well-rounded education is a good thing to have, it's important to understand a little of everything in our information-charged society. We change so much during our university years (or I did, and my friends did, at least), it seems strange to think that all 18 year olds might have to choose what they want to do for the rest of their lives (in the case of France, where they have almost no possibility of ever changing metiers) and that they won't eventually tire of that topic or find that their interests have changed.

But I definitely understand where you are both coming from, Jennie that you had a clear idea of what you wanted to do that hasn't changed, and Shannon that you would have liked more direction. It depends on the individual person. Maybe some universities could offer more focused programs?

Eileen said...

Yeah, I would never have taken a linguistics class if I hadn't had elective requirements. I loved some of my classes outside my major, in fact I wish I'd taken more time before digging into it. So I agree with you soleil--I think this way we graduate with a bit more balanced view of the world. Nothing is perfect though.

Jennie said...

I definitely think all types of classes should be offered, but it should be up to the students to decide if they want to take them. I just don't like how they are forced on the students, which usually means the students don't care as much about them. I would have been much happier if I could have chosen which electives to take (or not to take), but I simply didn't have the choice.