The French and the English have never seen eye to eye: Monarchy versus Republic; Protestantism versus Catholicism; frogs’ legs versus fish and chips.
But nowhere is the divide still so stark as in the realm of education. Both countries have, since halfway through the last millennium, considered themselves at the forefront of academia and original thought, but their differing approaches have created systems of education highly removed from one another and between which switching is far from easy.
The first problem I had with studying in Geneva (formerly part of France and still pertaining more to the French rather than Anglo Saxon system) was, of course, the language barrier. This, however, was surmountable. What was much more difficult to deal with was the differing approach to studying itself: lecturers were seen as infallible, rote learning facts was the most important aspect of an exam and presentations had to follow an extremely rigid structure which left little room for manoeuvre.
Indeed, when undertaking a presentation at the University of Geneva for example, I was asked to submit my plan to the intelligent, passionate PhD student who ran the seminar. On seeing said plan, he almost had a heart attack: instead of grouping all of my sections under three sub titles as is the norm, I had submitted twelve self-contained sections. This was quite unacceptable and after much discussion, I was forced to change to the three subtitle approach because, as he claimed, all academic work follows this principle. Regardless of whether he was right or wrong, his reason for insisting on this particular structure was invalid and quite at odds with academic practice, notably the need to analyse all preceding knowledge.
This stereotypical French approach to education, however, is not confined to the French speaking world. Studying French as I do necessarily implies contact with native French speakers who play an influential role in teaching. All teaching staff are not the same (I have had some fantastic French educators), and particularly those who have lived out of the hexagon for a long time are particularly distanced from the system in which they grew up. Unfortunately, those who are fresh out of France can still be stuck in their narrow view of academia and will teach, therefore, in the manner in which they have always been taught.
But how have they been taught? The difference lies in the system’s rigidity: there is a set way to go about doing anything. Everything must be just so and rules must not be broken. Creating structurally identical work seems to be the goal. If we take essay writing for example, the French system dictates exactly how the work is to be laid out: it takes the form of thesis-antithesis-synthesis and must be adhered to rigidly. Presentations are of a similarly inelastic nature and trying anything different is subject to scorn, disbelief and annoyance from academic staff.
In Oxford, things can unravel in a similar vein. Strict essay conventions are demanded by certain language tutors, strict structures are strongly suggested for oral work and at times this can certainly dampen creativity in writing as well as in thought. Even in tutorials there can be a certain repression of creativity as some tutors explain to you exactly the essay which they wished to see, unwilling to look at different approaches to the question at times. I was recently told that I had to “play the game” with reference to an essay title; questioning its validity was just not on.
The French system does have its merits, the most obvious of these being that sound research and justifiable conjecture cannot be trumped by the desire simply to be original, as can be the case here in Britain. However, what is clear is that this system does repress individual thought to a certain extent and certainly creates students who are very similar and will always advocate the party line (i.e. whatever line their teacher takes). Apparently things take a turn for the better in French Masters programs and it is not difficult to see why most employers there demand both an undergraduate and a master’s degree. However, for British students who are accustomed to questioning and engaging more than their French counterparts, this neighbouring system can be both restrictive and frustrating.
But don’t go hating the player(s): hate the game.