A Nostalgic France Looks to the Era of the Dunce Cap
PARIS, Sept. 18 – The rage of reality television in France this season has nothing do with surviving on a desert island or competing for a husband.
It may be torture, but of a different kind.
Twelve girls and 12 boys ages 14 to 16 have been sequestered in a former seminary in the middle of France and plunged into the rigid, harsh French public school system of the 1950’s.
The result is a five-part series, “The Boarding School of Chavagnes,” on the youth channel M6 that has captured more viewers than any other program in its time slot and fueled an already hot debate about whether French learning standards have deteriorated so dramatically that schools must return to the olden days.
The show also coincides with a wave of nostalgia in France for a less confusing age: when girls in pigtails and boys in short pants wrote beautiful script in purple ink, learned heaps of information by rote, spoke to their elders only when spoken to and endured public acts of humiliation and arbitrary punishments without complaint.
In a nationwide poll released on Friday by the TNS Sofres Group, 80 percent of parents of children from 10 to 16 surveyed said they were worried about their children’s academic achievement. Only half that number said they were worried about their relationship with their children. In another poll released this week, almost half of parents of school-age children surveyed said that they would like to reinstate uniforms in public schools.
“I have heard a loud outcry in favor of a return to authority,” François Fillon, France’s conservative minister of education, said in a recent interview with the newspaper Liberation. He added: “Life is hard. The educational system must prepare youth for this challenge. Examinations, inspections, are moments of truth.”
That sentiment has been challenged by some educators, who believe the main problem facing France is how to educate and integrate an increasingly linguistically and ethnically diverse population of students, many of whom live in suburban ghettos with poor schools and little possibility of employment.
“It is simplistic and reactionary to think you can just pound your fist on the table and say, ‘Starting on Monday, we will restore authority to schools,’ ” said Hervé Hamon, a sociologist and member of the High Council for the Evaluation of the School, a group that advises the government. Despite the nostalgia for the 1950’s, he added, schools at that time were “brutal, monotonous and mediocre.”
For the television series, “The Boarding School of Chavagnes,” named after the town of Chavagnes-en-Paillers near Nantes, real-life students were chosen from among a pool of 2,000. All seven of the administrators and teachers on the show are professional educators.
Students are challenged to pass grueling exams for a fictional “Certificate of Studies.” The real certificate was a recognition of achievement for students who completed primary school at about age 11. It was dropped 15 years ago.
The series opens as students say goodbye to their families and relinquish their cellphones, computers, CD players, chewing gum, jeans, hoop earrings and body-piercing jewelry. One girl is forced to turn over her pet rat after it pokes out of her pocket.
The boys’ hair is cut military-school short; the girls’ hair is styled in braids or pigtails. “How do you want us to land chicks with these kind of haircuts?” one boy asks when he sees his new look. Uniforms that include white socks and buckled shoes for both boys and girls are worn throughout the day. Girls are barred from wearing makeup or removing their body hair. When one girl protests, a woman identified as Miss Bertrand, the girls’ supervisor, replies, “Girls your age should not be thinking of beauty.”
In addition to core academic subjects, girls learn how to cook, sew, and manage the family budget; boys learn carpentry. Every morning the director gives a morality lesson based on a maxim. “Work nourishes and exercises the spirit; work leads to freedom,” is one. “A hero is somebody who puts duty above life,” is another.
The students take cod liver oil every morning. The main course at dinner might be beef tongue or tripe. No food can be left on one’s plate.
When one student misbehaves in French class, he is required to copy passages from Flaubert in longhand. Above him hangs a poster that reads: “I obey. I listen. I learn.”
Another mischief-maker is forced to wear a dunce cap. Olivia, the most rebellious of the group, is barred from the class picnic and forced to mop the floors.
Still, compared with real schools in the 1950’s, the televised school is the French version of “Happy Days.” There is no corporal punishment as there was half a century ago, and most meals and activities are coeducational, though sleeping quarters are not.
“It’s like one of those horror films that makes people laugh,” said Claude Lelièvre, a sociologist and expert on education at the University of Paris. “Like all reality shows, most of the situations are impossible.”
Even today, by American standards, French public schools seem rigid. The curriculum is centralized, so students throughout France learn the same subjects in much the same way, and generally in the same order. Students are categorized by ability at an early age, judged only by their grades and put on tracks accordingly. It is not unusual for a teacher to proclaim to a student, in front of the class, “You are a zero!”
But that rigor is not enough for many officials and educators.
Last month, Mr. Fillon announced that his ministry would soon issue a directive to return schools to traditional learning techniques, including a much greater emphasis on reading of required texts, memorization and recitations, taking dictation and writing structured essays.
He is firmly committed to the new law that bans most religious symbols, including the Islamic head scarf, the Jewish skullcap and large Christian crosses from public schools. Even Sikh turbans, which many Sikhs contend are a cultural necessity for them, are not allowed.
On the first day of school this month, Mr. Fillon hopscotched from school to school in the Paris region lecturing about the need to uphold the secular values of the French Republic. Muslim girls who have refused to remove their scarves and Sikh boys who have kept their turbans have not been admitted to class.
Mr. Fillon has also praised a new book entitled “And Your Children Know How to Neither Read Nor Count,” by Marc Le Bris, a veteran teacher and principal, that demands a return to older methods of teaching. “Modern education serves nothing more than to justify the abandonment of the ambitions that we have for our children,” Mr. Le Bris writes. “We have in front of us a true cultural catastrophe.”
Yet most viewers of the television series are young people who seem to identify with the characters on the screen.
“I’m having so much fun watching these kids’ reactions,” said Nicolas Arcondeguy, a 16-year-old student at a private school in St. Jean-de-Luz, who has watched the three episodes broadcast so far. “Today, students treat their teachers like dirt. In this show you see discipline, something much harder than what we have in school. But let’s face it. This is a show. You can’t bring today’s kids back to such a strict world.”
Yves Dignat, the school director in the series (who has been a full-time teacher for more than 30 years and is a member of a theater troupe), believes that a return to the authoritarian days of the 1950’s would be “regrettable.”
“There was no appeal for intelligence and curiosity, just for memory and docility,” he said in one publicity interview. Today, he added, “students are certainly less disciplined, but their desire to penetrate the mysteries of the world is much greater.” Autor: Elaine Sciolino