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Friday, June 17, 2011

Bac 2011 - Philosophy

The second and most important round of final exams for the baccalaureat started yesterday.  Six hours, two subjects:  Philosophy (4 hours) and Literature (2 hours).  The elder Frenchling returned home last night in a state of utter exhaustion but still had enough strength left to do some last minute studying for this morning's History-Geography exam.  

The French school system is unusual in requiring all high school students to take at least one year of philosophy.  I have heard some criticism about this from students and their parents who question the utility of teaching 17-year olds about Kant and Nietzsche.  The loudest complaints, in my experience, come from those who choose a Bac S (Science).  After all, if one is good in math and science, why bother with the finer points of existentialism?  

Having spent the better part of my life surrounded by engineers and having built a career in IT, I am personally delighted that philosophy continues to be a part of the curriculum.  I have sat through many a meeting rather wishing that the people around me had spent a little more time thinking about free will and a lot less solving equations.  I also find it absolutely delicious that my elder Frenchling comes home from school struggling to understand the merits of a philosophical argument and we spontaneously find ourselves deep in a discussion about the meaning of life and the nature of man's illusions. 

Here are the exam questions for the 2011 Bac General Philosophie Serie L.  There are three questions and the students must choose one and then spend the next four hours formulating an answer :

1.  Can we prove a scientific hypothesis?
2.  Is man condemned to create illusions about himself?
3.  Explain the following text by Nietzsche (The Gay Science):
The virtues of a man are called good, not in respect to the results they have for himself, but in respect to the results which we expect therefrom for ourselves and for society: we have all along had very little unselfishness, very little "non-egoism "in our praise of the virtues! For otherwise it could not but have been seen that the virtues (such as diligence, obedience, chastity, piety, justice) are mostly injurious to their possessors, as impulses which rule in them too vehemently and ardently, and do not want to be kept in co-ordination with the other im pulses by the reason. If you have a virtue, an actual, perfect virtue (and not merely a kind of impulse towards virtue!) -you are its victim! But your neighbour praises your virtue precisely on that account! One praises the diligent man though he injures his sight, or the originality and freshness of his spirit, by his diligence; the youth is honoured and regretted who has "worn himself out by work," because one passes the judgment that "for society as a whole the loss of the best individual is only a small sacrifice! A pity that this sacrifice should be necessary! A much greater pity it is true, if the individual should think differently, and regard his preservation and development as more important than his work in the service of society!" And so one regrets this youth, not his own account, but because a devoted instrument, regardless of self - a so-called "good man”, has been lost to society by his death. (Translation from the Full and Free Nietzsche Portal)


betty said...

After spending 11 years working with high energy physicists I can say with certainty that damned few of them can carry on a conversation.
These are the daunted Math, Science, Technology, and Engineering high demand majors. In some engineering schools ( Georgia Tech comes to mind ) they do not even take a writing course. Not even technical writing. Much less comparitive literature or philosophy or art. Four years of thinly focused engineering. Then what happens? A friend of mine got a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in Computer Engineering ( chip design ). His paper was on gallium arsenide chips. Not one job offer. Intel said that GS chips were yesterday's news. They are not interested in ability, just the immediate job.
Would philosophy help? Not with Intel. But it would make a good evening with friends in the pub musing over the vagaries of human existence.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Betty, Have you heard of this recently published book by David Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics? This fellow is claiming that some of the odder aspects of the 1970's counterculture were embraced by physicists at Berkeley and their "search for meaning" enabled them to make significant progress in their research to the benefit of all. I find this a bit of a stretch - how does studying Eastern mysticism foster scientific progress? I guess I will just have to buy the book and read through the entire argument. What's your take on it?