Regularly, and particularly on the occasion of the publication of the PISA reports comparing the skills level of 15-year-olds in the OECD countries, France is subject to criticism, with the level of French school students barely reaching the international mean (and tending, generally, to fall), despite a level of education expenditure that is rather higher than the OECD average. This is because, in France, educational tradition regards learning as an end in itself, and as more important than learning to deal with the concrete needs of everyday life, with which the student will have to cope as an adult.
This situation is not new, as is attested by the article we reprint here from the pen of Marc Bloch. Writing in 1943, he deplores all the failings which the school students that we once were – and those currently studying in French schools – have already experienced: a culture of cramming, an “obsession with exams”, a neglect of critical thinking, a culture of elitism, an inward-looking attitude and a lack of enthusiasm for concrete applications… These are characteristics of the French education system which, as Marc Bloch stresses, count against the country, “seriously” impairing its “international influence”, providing poor preparation for the crucial issues of scientific research and affording poor adaptability to change.
Hence the urgent need for thoroughgoing reform, to offer a “secondary education... that is both open and [aimed at] training elites, irrespective of origin or wealth”, to accord a major role to the observation-based disciplines, to enable young people to acquire a “truthful, comprehensive image of the world”, and to replace the elitist grandes écoles and “rigid faculties” that have ossified around a single specialism with multi-disciplinary groupings. An urgent need that clearly did not convince the decision-makers in charge of French education, since, nearly 70 years later and despite a host of reports making much the same arguments, complaints about the French education system – such as those expressed by Daniel Gouadain in this same issue – have barely changed.