Through A Mirror, Bizarrely

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

The end of the university semester here in France...means it's once again time to grade a stack of papers, and as this semester saw me teaching a discussion section of an American civilization lecture course, this means I'm grading final exams which respond to questions like "define multiculturalism" and "describe the American school system, its strengths and its drawbacks."

The lecture was taught by a professor in the English department, then I met with them once a week, ostensibly to address any issues or questions which came up as a result of the lecture. My students never had any questions or issues they wanted to address, so our class consisted mainly of reading articles and answering discussion questions. I set the final exam based on these discussions, and the results seem to me to be word for word lifted from their lecture notes: I'm finding the same terminology, over and over, referring to concepts and key terms I've never uttered. For example: from their responses I have learned that America is "browning" and that Hispanics want to create a "nation within a nation." To me this sounds more like a description of France than of the US, but ok.

What really is confusing is the way I see the American education system reflected back at me. If I am to believe my students (who are, to be fair, echoing their professor), the following things are aspects of American society. Can you guess which is true, which is false, and which is both?

a) American schools are in "trouble," with classes taught by teachers who may not be certified to teach that subject (ironic, considering I was assigned to teach this civilization class when I am a PhD candidate in literature)

b) Wealthy neighborhoods feed more tax money into the local education system than poor neighborhoods, with the corresponding result in quality

c) Many parents end up home-schooling their children because they're afraid they would fail in a public school

d) Students may choose between a 2 year associate's degree and a 4-year bachelor's

e) To get into college students must have a high school diploma and a GPA (one student referred to a GPA as a document, perhaps confusing the number with the transcript); to get into Harvard you need a 4

f) Once in university students may feel pressure from fraternities and sororities. Pressure for what, they don't specify. I don't think your average French undergraduate could even begin to comprehend the intricate rites of hazing and hooking up that is the Greek system.

Some of these elements are true, and some only contain a basic element of truth, but reading them like this gives me the feeling of looking at myself in a Funhouse mirror.

My students are surprised that school curricula and funding varies according to state, whereas I still have difficulty getting my head around centralized National Education; my students are intrigued by the idea of "autonomous" American universities and I openly advocate for universities in France to be liberated from the grip of the State; my students are impressed that American students can take time off from university and come back when they want; my students are shocked at the cost of higher education in America and yet at their French university they cannot find a computer, much less a printer, on which to type up or print out their final papers. There is little to no infrastructure in place for the students-- no student newspaper, no career services, a minimally-equipped library open very few hours of the day and not at all on the weekend, a student cafeteria open only for lunch, and they still refuse to pay any more than 400 euros a year. "Studying is a right, not a privilege," is the slogan they repeat, and this slogan prevents French universities from instituting a selection process or charging tuition.

To a certain extent, this says more about France than it does about the US, and even about the way the US is perceived abroad. The French way of operating is so tightly structured that they only understand the US by transposing the facts they learn about it onto a French grid.

And so I'm left in a strange position, somewhere between the two countries. I want to give my students a clearer idea of American society, which, while flawed, is not as bad as their teacher makes it out to be. But one thing I cannot argue with is that education is not valued in American society the way it is elsewhere.

Just look at our President.