Two Powers Collide: French vs. American Education
In France, the most recent edition of their dictionary was published in 1935, written by guardians of the French language, called “immortals”. Currently, they are working on the newest edition, and thus far have changed the spelling of about 2,400 French words. When this news reached social media, teachers and traditionalists were furious as “many saw this as an attack on centuries of culture and history.” The language being such a sacred value, even in the technological age, shows the importance of culture to the residents of France. To others though, like Patrick Vannier who works in the dictionary service, he believes that language is meant to evolve. The modern age is constantly changing, so modernists believe that culture should follow. The ever-changing language and pop culture plays a major role in how students are taught in France. After all, students are the future leaders of France. Different education systems bring forth a variety of reforms and legislation that will improve the country as a whole.
Education plays a major role in the development of a country, as it sets a stepping stone for future generations. Schooling enriches the young mind, not only do children learn mathematics and science, but they also gain a better understanding of the world around them. Two countries that portray this are the United States and France. From the middle of the 1800’s to the 1970’s, France has been a leading educational resource compared to America, which is seen through France’s superior educational reforms and unique French language.
The background of French education stems all the way back to the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, then it was not very prominent, as learning in school was not considered to be a necessity. Once the French Revolution began in 1789, schools became “modernized.” Figure 1 shows the flag of France, symbolizing their culture after the Revolution. The revised curriculum, made by the French government in the 1790’s, included “republican morality and the public and private virtues, as well as the techniques of teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, practical geometry, French history, and grammar.” These new lesson plans changed the curriculum, as new subjects were taught. The church started to lose power when it came to schooling. Priests were not the primary teachers, eventually board-certified teachers started to work as well. This change was not significantly prominent yet, but it was the beginning of a shift from religious school system to a public-school system. This was known as the transfer of power from the church to the state.
In the 1800’s, French education equality increased greatly. During this time, France provided classical education to about 50,000 young men that ranged from the ages of 10 years old to 20 years old. Educating men was important, yet educating women was frowned upon. It was not until 1880 when things started to change for women, due to an important French politician named Camille Seé. He was the pioneer of the law that established lycees for girls. Lycees are the second, or last, stage of secondary education in the educational system in France. Women were deemed not intelligent enough to get to this level of school, so when they were able to attend lycees, it was a huge step towards gender equality. In the United States though, equal rights for women in education did not happen until the 20th century. Although American girls had to learn how to read in the 19th century, it was solely so they could read religious material and teach others about it. One sees how France clearly surpasses the United States in the matter of equal education for woman, as they were the ones who made it legal first. France wanted to make higher education equal for both genders since primary school was already there, whereas United States twenty years later had to get equal rights in school in general. Through the reform made possible by Seé, one sees how France made gender equality more of a priority than the United States, overall showing how France leads them in education due to their moral viewpoints.
The second wave of important educational reforms in France were the Jules Ferry laws. Taken place from 1881-1882, a man named Jules Ferry, the Minister of Education, established free education to all French children. Ferry is pictured in Figure 2, where he was the Premier and Minister of Public Instruction. Up until 1881, parents or guardians had to pay for their child to receive an education. During the time these laws were being enacted, the London Times wrote, “The violent discussions raised by the Ferry Laws have drawn the attention of many people on this side of the Channel to the all-important subject of education at home and abroad, and it may not be without interest to give a brief account of the educational system of France.” The relevance of this article shows how big of deal this was to people in France, and in Europe itself. In Ferry’s speech to the National Assembly, he says, “I believe that there is some benefit in the form of arguments, the principles, the motives, and the various interests by which a policy of education may be discussed.” With France being so strict and well-known for cultural importance, the shift is a bit surprising but obviously important, according to Ferry. Education being free means more access to children, but also demonstrates that learning is not bought anymore. A child could be sent to a private school if the guardian chooses, but most kids went to public. In America though, the education system had been in place for some time. While it had evolved over time, there was no major change that shifted the U.S. in the 1800’s to France’s level of importance. In American Education, “Southern states were creating “literary funds” for their schools instead of focusing on the education of indigent children.” While the southern part of the United States was not focusing on the children that needed education, France had a turning point. From this, it is seen that French education is better as the whole country improved. America was ignoring the poorer families, just for the benefit of the rich, as it was families with money who were able to have their children attend school. One sees the difference as France focusing on their country in a crucial time of need for education, whereas America is not interested on bettering their system. The Ferry Laws made impacts all over France, as it helped all children gain access to one’s right to education.
While the Jules Ferry Laws in 1880’s improved the future for educational reforms, it stirred up a lot of turmoil between the church and state. The church and state had been fighting for power since the late 1700’s, but the Ferry Laws made it clearly prominent in France. Soon enough, religious staff that were once teachers became replaced by state appointed officials. Church-based schools in general were replaced by state mandated ones. In Figure 3, the picture shows a French meeting taking place regarding academic policies. After academic policies were integrated the church began to have significant less power, as the state was clearly taking over. The churches were angry, as, “the evaluative state is more powerful than the ‘state control’ model.” This change in powers shows the shift in education, making an impact on the culture. Government itself starts to have more power in the way children are taught. It used to all be about religious teachings, but with this new reform outcome, that was not necessarily the case anymore. These laws were very useful in the change of education in culture, and that shows how France evolves and strengthens their country.
The French language has had a major impact on American departments of French, making a prominent effect in the United States in the late 19th century. Whether it is elementary teachers teaching students the French language in boarding school, or a public high school teacher teaching French 1, American students are learning a main part of another country’s culture, their language. It is hoped that in America, “More of us will reflect upon the historical and institutional importance of the teaching of French.” In another published scholarly article, it is said that Americans should look at the French language more closely. The cultural background of how the French language came to be is interesting enough when taught, so out of few other languages taught in the United States, this shows importance. With France having this much effect on languages taught in these schools further shows how French education is better. After all, one had to learn the language from the French education system in order to teach it. But besides the language being taught, people like Jean Paul Sartre, the founder of existentialism, were recognized by American articles for their outstanding achievement. In the scholarly article that Yale Studies published, they discussed positive points about French education, as it was pointed out that, “this well-designed and thoroughly reliable institution [French education] was consistently able to produce not only literate citizens, but leading intellectuals of the era.” The French liked to recognize themselves for their intellectuals, not other countries for theirs. With Yale Studies talking about French intellectuals, with Sartre for example, goes to prove the intelligence people in this country had. This goes to show between America and France, France is the leading educator due to the accomplishments made known not just by one’s origin country, but by others.
In the middle of the 20th century, education took another turn towards upgrading. One sees this with the classical, technical, and modern style lycees. Lycees, also known as vocational schools, were officially “modernized” in 1959 set in place by a decree. France was soon recognized by their education minister, Jean-Pierre Chevénement, in 1985 due to his announcement that, “80% of an age group are able to reach baccalauréat level.” Following this announcement and decree, means education is going in the right direction, as lycees and higher education grew increasingly fast. More and more people were becoming educated, and with this came the desire for higher education to hold an important, steady job. Not only did people want to achieve this, but were now able to afford it. Collegiate graduates increased, and therefore continue to do so today. Since equal and fair education was a significant issue in the late 1800’s, France has come a long way since then.
In comparison to the United States, France has an overall better education system. This is seen through the various educational reforms, which have made profound impacts on France. The French language itself makes a positive effect in another country, America. In the United States, French is the second most taught language besides English, showing how one country’s culture is prominent in another’s. Seé’s reforms were able to create equal gender equalization, while Ferry laws were able to create free and public education for children. By the end of the 20th century, the number of people attending secondary schools and college were as high as ever. Overall, America can improve themselves by making a legislative effort to improve the quality of education for all, just like France has done. Therefore, showing how French education is better than America’s goes to prove how other countries education systems are different, and that everyone can learn from others.
 Bilefsky, “Tempers Flare Over Spelling.”
 “French Education,” London Times, 6.
 Cowen, Higher Education Systems, 66.
 Albanese, “French Education,” 1.
 Corbett and Moon, France Continuity, 108.