A French perspective on American education

By Florian Ingen-Housz

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 (unless he is at U of C), 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 homework for two or three years—to get an entrance ticket for one of the grandes écoles (“great schools”), or attending another universities which offer much bleaker prospects.

Last but not least, while choosing his classes, the American student is much freer than the French. A physics concentrator can take a literature class while completing his major requirements, which is, again, impossible in France.

Choosing a discipline in France results in abandoning all the others. In fact, while pursing a concentration, at most American schools every undergraduate must fulfill certain general requirements. This provides a very balanced result between freedom and requirement that few students seem to complain about.

What does this tell us? The individual is much more enhanced in the American system than he is in France or in other European countries. The student is seen as a unique person, endowed with personal and sometimes unrelated preferences. In the American system, he will be given the opportunity to manage his studies in a way that will plainly reflect his uniqueness. The system fits to the individual, and not the opposite. Exaggerating little, we might say that the reverse phenomenon exists in France. The student arriving from high school must deal with two types of institutions: prestigious but little-diversified schools, or disregarded universities with plenty of classes. As expected, the brightest students choose the first solution. As a result, they will have to reshape their preferences in order to fit into the system. In the American system, these preferences remain intact, for the system is very welcoming to diversity and seeks to attract heterogeneous students.

To conclude this parallel, we may say that much more than the French, the American universities are faithful to the heritage of the Renaissance. By that time, well educated people were above all those who had a sound body and an eclectic mind. They balanced their time between sport activities, classics studies, humanities, and sciences—not too far from daily life in U of C.