French students debate mandatory philosophy exam

Some say ’philo’ is demoralizing, elitist and unrealistic

No teenager can wax philosophical quite like a French teenager, for no Western nation philosophizes quite like France. All French lycée students on an academic track are required to study philosophy: up to eight hours a week, depending on their specialization. At the end of the class, they all take a four-hour philosophy exam, a punishing rite of passage that revolves around a single question, such as:

Does language betray thought?

Is truth preferable to peace?

Is it absurd to desire the impossible?

Can one be right in spite of the facts?

Does power exist without violence?

Such has been the way of things since Napoleon. But today, this uniquely French brand of enlightenment is under attack—by those who charge that the philo is demoralizing and elitist, and that it does not prepare French students for life outside the academy.

The annual philosophy test kicks off a week of examinations, which French baccalauréat students take at the end of high school. The philo is, by most accounts, the most feared exam of the lot. Most students fail it—though more than 80 per cent pass the baccalauréat overall. In June, the French newspaper Le Figaro ran a long story about how 136 students would be forced to rewrite the philo, after an examiner’s briefcase of papers was stolen; the accompanying photograph featured a hysterically sobbing young girl.

The philosophy class itself is taught thematically, rather than chronologically—with themes including: consciousness, art, duty, the other and happiness. The specifics depend on a student’s academic stream, but no one is exempt from the basics.

The baccalauréat degree was born in the tumult of the post-Revolution. In the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte created a network of public secondary schools—to compete with the pre-Revolution system of private colleges. The “bac” was installed in 1809; that first year, exams were oral and in Latin.

From the start, the philosophy curriculum was “one of the most hotly contested issues in French public education,” writes philosopher Alan Schrift in his book Twentieth-Century French Philosophy. In the mid-1800s, the classe de philosophie was briefly abolished—only to be reinstated in 1863, because France’s minister of public instruction thought the dearth of philosophy had caused “the spread of negative doctrines among certain young people.” When philo critics mobilized again in the 1920s, a new education minister insisted that the class provided the enlightenment necessary to fuel democracy.

Recent years have seen another critical flare-up. In many debates, the philo is positioned as a stand-in for all that is wrong with French pedagogy. In his new book France’s Got Talent: The Woeful Consequences of French Elitism, the American journalist Peter Gumbel describes an educational system that leaves French students anxious and dispirited—and that produces only average test scores by international standards. “It’s a culture you can sum up in three words: ‘T’es nul.’ (‘You’re worthless’),” Gumbel writes. “You hear these words all the time in France.”

Still, some philo survivors will defend the severity of their post-lycée baptism. Cecilia de Lencquesaing, a 23-year-old Parisian who now works for a French company in Moscow, shrugs off criticism that French schools do not equip students for a rough-and-tumble working life. “It goes back to the eternal debate between liberal arts education or professionalizing degrees. I’m a proponent of liberal arts.”

Laura Vittet-Adamson, a 26-year-old who studied in Belgium, argues that the philo should not be scrapped—but rather amended. “The curriculum needs updating,” muses the soon-to-be Stanford University law student. “It doesn’t take into account contemporary thinkers. It is also Eurocentric. And, finally, it is penis-centric . . . except maybe for a quick Simone de Beauvoir shout-out.”

Perhaps today’s economy will generate enough real-world angst to inspire system-wide education reform—and a move away from the abstruse. Or perhaps France’s 200-year-old system will persist, and economically ravished students will find solace in the works of Rousseau and Sartre.

For better or worse, no student sits through France’s four-hour philosophy exam and comes out unchanged. “I went through a stage where I would endlessly spin around anything that would pop into my mind,” explains Vittet-Adamson. “What is bread? Does bread only start being bread once it is baked? And does that mean that bread is greater than the sum of its parts?” Ending with the requisite: “Is bread even real?”