07/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Class : Inside the Walls of French Education

Laurent Cantet's THE CLASS (Entre les murs) won the prestigious Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes , earning praise for its lively portrayal of adolescents in a Parisian high school. The film, rather than create a stilted picture of youth, gives a startling vision of the real energy of thirteen year olds. Indeed, to make this film, Laurent Cantet set up an actual class of disparate adolescents in a high school in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, who improvised together for one year in a workshop atmosphere, with no set dialogue, an atmosphere that allowed the students' own language and impulse to flourish. The first shot: girls and boys tapping their feet, eating pencils, putting their heads in their lap, hitting their neighbors.

Journalists exclaimed about the originality of the docu-fiction approach. As someone who has taught in French higher education for ten years, however, my own interest in the film was more particular: in how this portrayal of a classroom exposed specifically French ideas of what it means to raise youth -- some of which clash with my own American background. The teacher in the film, lauded as a "Dead Poets Society" champion, appeared, to my American-educated eye, somewhat conservative in his ironic authoritarian approach, despite his wit and spark. In an early scene, a student objects to the fact that no multi-cultural names are used in sentences on the chalkboard: why is everyone always "Bill" or "John", rather than "Rashid"? The teacher quips: "Do you know how difficult it would be to represent all of your cultures?" Later, he calls on one girl and she says, "Who me?" He cuts her down, in typical French ironic style: "Of
course you. Isn't that your name?"

Indeed, The Class, despite its intentions to show dynamic pedagogy at work, reveals its the opposite: how "learning" in France consists of accumulating "facts": basic mathematical and linguistic skills; points of geography and history; the properties of a triangle. A poem is discussed in terms of its meter, a country in terms of its rivers. The aim is not to inspire talents, but to accumulate enough facts to be a well-functioning citizen of the Republic. At the end of the school year, the teacher asks each student to say what she or he has learned that year, asking each to state "one thing." Each comes up with a "fact", unfortunately so badly learned (i.e. "if two sides of a triangle equals the hypotenuse, this means it is a square") that the film seems to be mocking the pupils.

As a sociological document, the film testifies to how the French educational system -- even today -- is based on the idea that one does not "educate" students (i.e. "lead" them) but "forms" them, puts them in the moule. It is telling that the climax of Cantet's film is a "disciplinary" problem. A boy is kicked out of school and forced to go back to Mali, because of an outburst in the classroom.

The film also makes conspicuous a more subtle feature of the French system: there is no pretense at social mobility for those who are not born of the native white French upper class. A black student hesitantly notes that his mother, a non-French speaking African, would like him to go to the prestigious Henri IV high school.

The teacher grins. This scene is intended as a joke.

Perhaps it is a joke. Statistically, African French are not well represented in the French elite schools (even less so in these Sarkozy years than ever before), although actual "statistics" are not forthcoming. According to French law, one cannot conduct collect statistics based on race.

I interviewed the director of this film to find out what he personally thought of the conservative agenda and elitism of the French educational system. He responded candidly: "A professor cannot speak the same way to a mother who does not speak French as he does to a student heading for the grandes écoles. The mission of a professor is, on the one hand, to help students gain knowledge like math and geography and history, and on the other, to help them become adults. Education has the aim of domestication, to help create intelligent, balanced social beings and citizens. The professor has to tame these teenagers."

It seems, in my opinion, a constrained idea of education to have "domestication" of students as its aim -- or to assume that a teacher must speak differently to an African mother than to a French mother. But perhaps this is an outsider's perspective. Francois Bégaudeau. the actor who plays the teacher in the film and the real teacher who wrote the book upon which "the workshops" were based, opined that French schooling is far less conservative now than it once was. For him, the French educational system today is much better than it used to be when he was a boy in the 1980s and felt terribly bored.

At least in today's classroom, he says, the teacher can spar and interact with the students, create lively situations, provoke them. When he taught (he has retired since becoming a writer), he did everything he could to make sure students were not bored.

"For me, when I see students' eyes shine, I know I am doing my work." He continued with a lively flair, displaying the same refreshing alertness than he showed in the film. "It is scandalous that kids today are bored. That 25% of French students polled would prefer to not go to school."

The erstwhile teacher added a twist to my opinion that his attitude was authoritarian: "No, the students love the sparring. Most of my interactions with students are these fun conflicts: it is a game to see who will get the last word."

Getting the last word is not a game high on my pedagogical agenda, which underscores the cultural divide.

This same cultural divide was replicated in reactions to the film The Class. Leaving the screening at Cannes, I heard opposite opinions from journalists about its meaning, as if they had seen absolutely different films: "What a great film," a French Belgian said. "It shows how hard it is to be a teacher today, to discipline these kids."

A moment later, I spoke to an Anglo-Canadian journalist at the press coffee bar: "A great film," he said. "Shows how oppressive the French school system still is. Everyone has to fit in, or they're out. Look what they did to that boy from Mali!"