Why Americans Do Higher Education Much Better than the French

Barry Lenson

Why Americans Do Higher Education Much Better than the French

American's Higher Education Much Better than the FrenchI have to admit that I really love France. I love walking around Paris and looking at the boats on the Seine. I love sitting in cafés and eating fresh-baked bread every day. Yup, France is really okay with me.

But despite all that, I have a hard time understanding why most of us Americans develop an instant inferiority complex whenever we think about anything French. It all started many years ago, when all those French cookbooks started to appear, delivering the none-too-subtle message that American food is sub-par and crudely prepared by people who have the cooking skills of Neanderthals. There was even a time back in the 1950s – the age of Brigitte Bardot and Yves Montand – when we Americans got browbeaten into believing that the French were actually better lovers than we could ever hope to become. If we are worse lovers, why are there more of us around?

And the situation has gotten worse. In recent years, a number of new books have continued to drive home the message that we Americans just don’t know what we are doing. Here are a few examples . . .

  • French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano started the latest wave of American self-loathing when it was published back in 2007. The central thesis of this book is that French women eat tons of buttery foods and fatty cheeses and – miraculously – never put on an ounce. I secretly suspect that if this is true, it is because many French women light cigarettes to keep their appetites at bay – but you won’t read about that in this book.
  • Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman explains all the extraordinary skills that Americans can learn from French parents, like how to make kids wait patiently in restaurants for their meals to arrive instead of screaming or writhing around in their high chairs the way American kids do. Okay, point taken. Americans are worse at parenting too. We are worse at everything.

Part of the problem with these books is also that the “French” people they describe are mostly white Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who live either in the most upscale neighborhoods of Paris, or sometimes in quaint, unspoiled-by-time fishing villages. You pick. The authors of these books don’t seem to remember that France is now, like America, a large and diverse country with citizens who come from many different countries and economic backgrounds.

But my real purpose of writing today is to point out one area of life where Americans really do a much better job than the French do. I am talking about higher education. And here are just a few of the reasons why . . .

  • Our college admissions process, despite its many flaws, is a lot fairer. Whether or not French high school students get into college is determined largely by how well they score on a standardized test called the  Baccalauréat (or le bac, in current slang). If you mess up on this test, your educational future is in jeopardy. By the way, the test was introduced by . . . Napoleon. That’s right, that Napoleon, back around 1810, when he was Emperor of France.
  • America likes the notion that older students can get something out of going to college. I haven’t been able to find any statistics about how many students over the age of 25 are going to French universities, but it has to be a fraction of the number of older Americans who are going to college.
  • It is much easier to change majors or specializations in America. Once you are enrolled in a French university and pursuing a particular specialty like science or teaching, it is much harder to change to another field. You have already picked a specialty, and the French government expects that to be your life path.
  • American colleges provide a much better college experience. American college students can, if they wish, leave their families, move onto attractive campuses, live in dormitories, and have a rip-roaring good time. In France, most universities do not even have dormitories and the vast majority of French college students continue to live at home with their families – kind of like high school students do in America. 
  • Online study in France is virtually nonexistent. If you are you looking for a college or university in France that offers distance learning, you are really going to have a hard time finding one.

So despite all the problems of American higher education – the high costs, crowded classrooms and all the rest – here’s one thing Americans need to remember about ourselves and our system of education. We might not be perfect, but nobody does it better than we do.

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