A French perspective on American Education

Essay by brandyfei July 2005

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During any discussion about the U.S., the French are easily prompted to exhibit their anti-Americanism. Still, they bow always before one thing: the outstanding Ivy League universities. This awe goes beyond naive admiration towards the opulence of the libraries, the sport facilities, and the unmatched concentration of eminent professors. To many observers, including exchange students like me, the manner in which studies are managed reflects an underlying vision of education. This vision finds its embodiment in the College here at the University of Chicago.

College is a typically American institution that has no equivalent either in France or in most other European countries. Let me illustrate the originality of the college concept by some examples. As the reader certainly knows, a graduate student does not necessarily have to keep studying in the same field that he or she studied in college. Law, which is a fundamental discipline, starts after college.

None of this exists in France. In the French system, a student has to choose his or her definitive discipline right after graduating from high school.

The student is expected to be farsighted enough to make decisions that impact the rest of his or her life. It is not surprising, then, to observe that the rate of students that drop their studies before graduating is much higher in France than in the U.S. Under the European system, the student is not given the time to make the most suitable decision.

Besides, college enables the student to feel out his coursework over four years. Since he is not overloaded with work, he can undertake a bunch of extracurricular activities simultaneously. Such a situation would be unthinkable in France: you must choose between either working like a beast-having 35 hours of class a week plus twice as much...