At the American Prospect blog, Dana Goldstein writes that "French teenagers are smarter than all of us" because certain French baccalaureate exams, taken by those who desire to attend college, include pretentious questions requiring the young respondents to feign familiarity with the work of various philosophes. From Goldstein:
Now check out these sample questions from the French baccalaureate exam, which students begin taking today. Bonne chance!
For the Literature stream:
1) Does objectivity in history suppose impartiality in the historian? 2) Does language betray thought?
For the Science stream:
1) Is it absurd to desire the impossible? 2) Are there questions which no science can answer?
Okay, so there is no country quite as philosophique—and, at times, absurd—as France. And to be fair, Le Bac is a college entrance exam, not a high school graduation exam. Still, the majority of French high school students sit for the test. Could you ever imagine the SAT or ACT asking students to write an essay on such complex, intellectual topics?
Well, I certainly hope the average 17 year-old American won't be asked if "language betrays thought" as a college entrance requirement. But a few points here: Many students sit for the test, but just how well do they do? As London Times correspondent Charles Bremmer notes (his son took his Bac exams today and Bremmer complains that "The French curriculum and teachers are slanted solidly to the left," demanding that his son tailor answers to political fashions), the tests have been dumbed down (or graded on a significant curve) since the 1970s, when a paltry 20 percent managed to pass. Indeed, if one looks at international ranks from PISA and OECD French scores are pretty mediocre (but still better than American scores), despite massive expenditures on education and the chin-stroking college entrance questions that ask if it is "absurd to desire the impossible."
Also, is it just me or does Goldstein sounds more like Alan Bloom than a liberal writer at the American Prospect? As Bremmer points out, some critics contend that "The baccalauréat is too elitist" and is unfair to both immigrants and members of the proletariat. Sure, we can use the test as a political and cultural cudgel ("Europeans are so cultured, so smart, so philosophique, compared to us lunk-headed Americans!"), but how would the Prospect brigade react to this uncomfortable statistic, provided by The Times: "Fewer than half the children of working class parents earn the certificate that gives passage to university."