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Friday, November 22, 2013

A Liberal Critique of the US, UK and French School Systems

Further reading of The Demands of Liberal Education late into the night revealed a chapter in the book that was just as interesting as the discussion about autonomy:  a look at three school systems from a liberal perspective.

Before we start, we should clarify what Levinson means by "liberalism." (No, it is not a synonym for Democrat or democrat.)  Liberal political theory, she says, has three important elements:

1.  A belief in and an acceptance of pluralistic societies where there simply isn't one conception of the good.  Modern liberal societies have a wide range of ideas and values and ways to live and there is no way that all these people will ever arrive at one set of shared values.   Diversity is a fact and we all just have to deal - the idea of assimilation is dead in the water.

2.  Nonetheless, there has to be some sort of public process by which the state and principles of justice are established.  The process must have these characteristics:  it must be public/transparent, all citizens must be able to participate equally and freely and everybody has to agree. Even though society is diverse and can't agree on the good, they do have to come to an agreement about the process.

3.  The outcome of all this is the creation of institutions:  constitutions, democracy, personal liberties, and government responsibilities.

Already I can see all kinds of problems with this but we'll set those aside for another day.  Let this suffice for now as the set of liberal principles Levinson is using to make her argument for liberal education.  Starting from the fact of diversity people should be educated in state schools for tolerance, respect and autonomy so they can participate equally and freely as "active citizens" in the process and the creation or maintenance of democratic institutions.   That would be my summary of her argument.  If you are more familiar with her work than I am, please feel free to correct or revise.

In chapter 4 Levinson takes three school systems, the US, the UK and France, and critiques each one from a liberal perspective.  She sees a continuum here with the UK on one side, France way over on the other side and the US somewhere in the middle.  Since I have experience with two of these systems, I will add my thoughts to her analysis.

The United Kingdom:  In the creation of autonomy Levinson talks about the importance of "cultural coherence" - how we learn to be human and how culture is the base from which we go out into the world and have the capacity to judge for ourselves.  The UK system allows families to separate themselves and have their children educated in ways that are consistent with religious, ethnic and cultural commitments.  The US allows for this too but the difference is that in the UK, the state funds the establishment of such schools.  Is this a violation of church/state neutrality?  Not necessarily since, in theory, just about any group can do this.  So a family can choose a school that most closely fits whatever their values are at home and the state will support that choice.  There is a national curriculum that all schools must teach and this could be seen as the unifying element here in the creations of citizens.

From a liberal perspective, what is wrong with this?  The fact that the diversity of society is not necessarily reflected in the school.  Yes, tolerance and the value of diversity  is taught as a value but parents can opt out of having their children be exposed to it.  How meaningful is this when the child is surrounded by other children from the same socio-economic, religious or ethnic background?  Some of this happens anyway in all three countries in the sense that the larger community may be fairly homogenous and the local public school usually reflects that but is state support for a "millet" system really the best way to prepare children for a pluralistic society?  One can learn that society is diverse in sort of an abstract way in such a system but nobody has to actually live it and here Levinson is very clear that this is not just about educating children from very traditional illiberal backgrounds in the art of tolerance but also for the children of modern secular families.  A child who is raised to think that religion is the opiate of the masses, she says, has just as much need to expand his or her horizons by meeting other children from religious backgrounds so they can see that their parent's position is relative and that reasonable people can disagree about values and the role of religion in society.

The United States:  The American system does not (though there are attempts to do this) fund private schools be they religious or secular.  As an aside here, in Innocents Abroad by Zimmerman, he contends that that the "school choice" movements in the US to subsidize private education through state support was something brought back to the US from the American teachers who went abroad.  They saw worlds where the separation of church and state was a common value and yet that did not prevent the states in question from directly or indirectly funding private schools.  Having seen that, they changed their minds (clearly a good result of an education in autonomy) and came home to tell their compatriots in the homeland, "Country X funds private schools, so why can't we do that here?"

It's hard to say a lot about the US educational system overall because it's not really one system.  Education is local, not national.  There is no national curriculum, just a few standardized tests.  Local school boards have a lot of power to shape the schools and parent involvement is high.   Levinson sees the American system as being very inclusive.  The public space that is the school is very accomodating of difference - the public and the private are allowed to overlap.  If the child's parents have a religious reason for the child not to attend sports class, it's very likely that the school will adjust to meet their requirements.  Parents can ask for (and often get) some sort of arrangement that respects their linguistic, cultural or religious differences.

This is the system I grew up under in the 1970's.  Though multiculturalism was not yet a concept that guided the curriculum, there was, I think, a conjunction of two different worlds that both had tolerance as a very strong value.  I grew up on the West coast of the U.S. which meant that even the most conservative people I knew had a kind of "live and let live" and "mind your own business" mentality.  There was a lot of religious diversity in my school and I was clearly not in the majority. Cultural diversity came with the arrival of refugees from Southeast Asia.  Suddenly there were children in our classroom who didn't speak English and came from what was for us, very exotic places.  And lastly, just one decade prior to this was the cultural explosion/implosion called The Sixties and my hometown at that time was something of a magnet for American internal exiles - people who tried to effect change, it didn't happen to the extent they wanted it to and so they created their own institutions and communities where they could live as they liked.  There were communes, co-ops, gay and lesbian households, alternative colleges and the like. Whatever I learned in school or church, I was also exposed to many adults who simply opted out and I grew up knowing that was an option.  You can leave and I really have to wonder to what extent all that influenced my decision to migrate.  I do know that my first impulse when there is some discussion about what to do about people who are different, is to propose, "How about we just leave them alone?"

What does Levinson see as the limitations of uber-tolerance and accommodating private differences in a public school?  Well, for one, parents can opt out and they do.  If they don't like the diversity of the local public school, there are many alternatives.  Granted, parents have to pay for that and that's a problem for families with limited incomes.  There is a danger that only the children of the middle classes and up get to tailor their children's education to their values which may be very illiberal indeed.  As a result of this diversity will suffer because if the majority of Catholic kids go to the Catholic schools then the kids in the public won't be exposed to children raised in that faith.  Another issue is that it's not easy accommodating everyone.  Can a public school really be everything to everyone in a country of immigration?  And how well does it achieve a balance between respecting individual cultures and creating an American identity and the cultural coherence required by children in order to become autonomous free-thinking Americans?  If being an American is open-ended and all-inclusive then doesn't that weaken that identity?  There have to be boundaries somewhere (otherwise the term "American" is meaningless) but it's not entirely clear where they should be set and who gets to decide that.  To be brutally honest, from other cultural perspectives, it looks like complete cultural chaos - not something that other countries want to emulate.

France:  And that brings us to the French system.   Where the Americans are trying for equal inclusion, the French try for equal exclusion.  Those private differences, be they religious or ethnic or sexual orientation or cultural, get parked outside the school gates.  There is a national curriculum that all schools follow and there are standardized tests that everyone takes.  The system has a very strong commitment to equality though it has been demonstrated by Bourdieu that the reality is not quite that.  My children were raised in this system and you can read what the younger Frenchling wrote about it here.  One of the merits I see in the system is that since they are not trying to be everything to every individual group, they have more time to focus on academics and civic education.  Barring other influences a French child will, more than likely, leave the French school system with a good solid education, a very strong French identity and a clear vision of what it means to be a citizen of the Republic.  This is "cultural coherence" on steroids.

But there are other influences that compete with the school in this community project.  In a bi-cultural family like ours, what the Frenchlings got at home did not necessarily correspond to what they were being taught.  This is not to say that I as an immigrant mother tried to undermine the school but I did speak English to my ladies and, every so often when they shared something a teacher said, I invited them to think of it a bit differently.  There is another way to look at it, I said.

One experience we did have as a family with the French system that I think is worth mentioning here is the time we spent in Japan.  The girls attended the Lycée franco-japonais de tokyo and what I saw was the French system in a completely different context.  The instruction was in French and followed the French national curriculum but they still had to make changes.  Some of them were implemented because the population was very different - mostly French expatriates.  There were English classes, for example, taught by native speakers at the college level and not just grammar classes but creative writing as well.  Basic Japanese was also part of the curriculum.  Some of the differences that were imposed by the Japanese were things that would have simply never happened in France.  Girls and boys, for example, were separated for sports.  I was told that there was even some question of having the children wear uniforms but that didn't happen.  The relationship between the school and the surrounding Japanese community was also a source of some tension.  Sometimes the children before and after school did not behave in ways that the Japanese felt were important.  I heard that they complained that the French children were too loud and boisterous and didn't show the proper respect to elderly people on the street.

Even though this was a French school, the Frenchlings still experienced culture shock when they were re-inserted into the French system in France.  It simply was not the same experience.

What does Levinson think of the French system?  Well, she clearly finds it "illiberal" in that it does not value or promote diversity.  Erasing differences leads to homogenity - one identity for all with very little room for personal expression.  She's arguing that it's a "cookie-cutter" system  and the kids get coerced into a sort of bland sameness.  She points out that under such a system there will be a great deal of tension between the public space and the private one with some children being forced to live double lives with one set of values and standards at home and another in public.  The children who don't experience this, of course, are the ones who are native French and who are likely to be getting a consistent message from their parents that reinforces what they learn at school. Those kids will get "cultural coherence."  It's the children of immigration that have to learn to cope with conflicting messages between the school and the family and might feel devalued in the public space because they must hide what they are.

I understand her criticism and I think there is a lot of truth in it.  I would counter her argument on several grounds:

1.  It is perfectly possible for children and adults to have a double cultural life in the same way that they learn to deal with two languages.  Under an OPOL (one parent, one language) system children learn when it is appropriate to use one language or the other.  Culture can be exactly the same way.

2.  At school or in any other public space, there can be one way of acting and another way at home.  Where the two conflict is in itself a lesson in diversity.  Regardless of the lack of pluralistic expression at school, the fact that bi-cultural children experience diversity by moving from one reality to another makes both relative.  They know in their bones that all systems are contingent.  Period.  And they learn to negotiate between the two (or more) cultures.  As adults they can draw from both experiences and make up their own minds as to what they wish to retain from one or the other.

3.  To those who say that this is bad for the community as a whole and terribly for children and turns them into insecure unhappy adults who burn cars when there really is a very deep conflict between what the outside world thinks and what the religious or ethnic group holds, I see what they are saying but I also agree with Scott Fitzgerald who said,

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."  A very useful skill for going global.

4.  School is not the whole world and in today's world it's lost a great deal of its former authority as the semi-exclusive source of information about the world.  Whether the school system likes it or not (and they don't) it has become just one source among many.  If a child or young adult doesn't really agree with something a teacher says, he can go on the Internet and learn what other people have to say.

 Furthermore, French society is more and more diverse (a good thing for some, not so good for others).  The child spends a great deal of time at school but he also spends time playing with other children in the neighborhood, watching television, surfing the Net, going to church or the mosque, going to camp and so on.  So, I'm not all that concerned that French schools try to mold children in a particular way because there are other forces operating here.

5.  The French system contains an "opt out" - one that is subsidized by the state (a bit like the UK). If parents don't like the public school's value proposition there are private schools:  religious or international, to name two.  I've even seen Montessori schools in Paris.  To be accredited these schools still have to follow the national curriculum but they are free to provide another kind of education.  Right now there are 9,000 Catholic schools in France with 134,000 teachers and over 2 million students.

6.  The very fine education that French students receive in the public school is THE ticket for those kids to go out and explore the world beyond France.  The skills the French system so ably teaches are ones that are highly prized by other countries who are more than happy to welcome educated French migrants to their shores temporarily or permanently.   The system does not teach diversity as a value but it gives children the means to seek it out as young adults or adults.  What I'm saying is that the French system itself, however closed it may appear, contains the seeds of exodus.

The last is something that does not please some of the French and I can see why.  They are making an investment in their children's future that may be lost in the short run if the adult decides to leave.

But I would argue that it makes the choice of staying in France and being a part of French society a meaningful choice.  The French are not "captive citizens" - many of them have the tools, skills, and curiosity to leave if that is what they wish.  My great fear right now for the United States is that between the inconsistent academic standards and the price of a good education which requires loans, that Americans have been educated in tolerance and diversity but at the expense of getting the right skillsets to seek out diversity later in life - diversity outside of American culture however wonderfully hyphenated it may be (not to mention the serious disadvantage of leaving school owing obscene amounts of money which ties them to the home country).  That may make Americans much less globally mobile than the French.  And for me, that would have strong implications for American democracy.


Laure said...

Ca donne tellement à réfléchir ! Merci Victoria pour tous tes articles, quel plaisir de lire des réflexions argumentées et nuancées...

French Girl in Seattle said...

As the French mother of an American-born (and, so far, American educated,) third culture child, I found this well-thought, well-written article particularly interesting. Thank you, Victoria. I'd say your insights into the traditional French school system are "right on." I, for one, am happy my son was exposed early on to two cultures (and not superficially,) speaks two languages, and is able to travel successfully between France and the United States and function in both cultures. He may not realize this today (even though he is quite proud of his French roots,) but this is a fantastic opportunity that is not given to all children - or adults. Well done. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Meric, Laure. C'est un vrai plaisir de lire et partager les idees. Et c'est en ecrivant que ces idees rentrent bien dans ma tete (pas evident apres la chimio):-)

Veronique, And isn't it amazing how, through our Third Culture Kids, we become Third Culture Adults? Our children are in some ways also our teachers.

Anonymous said...

It has been noted but a couple of young french students that the relatively short hours of the average American school day is not necessarily a great contributor to a rigorous academic program. When one of these French students was participating in a conversation with her American friends whining about the nasty SAT's she was reported to have said - really try writing a four hour philosophy exam as ONE of your qualifying exams. She was not impressed.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Victoria. I think I had a similar upbringing to yours, except that it was in a hippie enclave on the East Coast rather than on the West Coast. I have experience attending school in the US and UK, and am the parent of a kid in the Japanese public school system. I know enough French to read (but not speak any more) -- it was an economic necessity growing up, with all the tourists from Quebec -- but use Japanese in daily life and at work now, so in some sense I have lived the carbon-copy inverse life of yours.

I would have to say, of three school systems with which I am familiar (US, UK, Japan) the US ranks the lowest in general expectations. US kids are shockingly ignorant for their age levels compared to the UK and Japan. I also didn't find the US system particularly more "free" than the UK one -- the dogmas were just as strong, just different.

Ah, but I am going on too long, when I owe you some text on the US-Japan FATCA IGA. Gomen.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@ anonymous, My Frenchlings had the same reaction. From their perspective the US looked like a paradise for young people - all that free time since the hours were so short. And multiple choice tests? Not nearly as tough as all (and I do mean ALL) those essays.

@anonymous, I would love to hear more about your life in Japan and about the Japanese school system. We saw shades of it at the French high school in Tokyo....

The US system is weird. Go from one town to another or one state to another and the academic standards are all over the place. It's perfectly possible to get a good education in the US - it just cost money (either private school or a residence in the right neighborhood). That's true in France too to a certain extent but not anywhere near the US system. And there is a commitment (even when it is not realized) to equality of opportunity for all which the US does not even pretend to be a national objective. Captive citizens....