Changing face of a French school. At a Toulon high school, student concerns have become less political, more personal due to uncertain future By Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
JEAN-PIERRE GRAS, an economics teacher at Lyc'ee Dumont d'Urville here, stands with chalk in hand before 35 fidgety students. The class, part of what is the rough equivalent of an American high school senior class, is learning about third-world agriculture. But the larger goal of Mr. Gras's instruction is to get as many of the students as possible past the hurdle that awaits them at the end of the year: the French baccalaur'eat examination. Dressed in a striped polo shirt, an oversize sweater, and jeans, Mr. Gras sets an easygoing tone. Yet while that casualness is reflected in the students' dress, it pretty much stops there. The students know -- they have been hearing ever since they can remember -- that the bachot, or bac, covering the seven or eight subjects they have studied for the past two years, will determine not only who will go on to higher education in France, but, to a great extent, what rung they can hope to attain in the French economic hierarchy. In recent years, moreover, the baccalaur'eat's formidable stature has taken on added importance, as French students contemplate the relatively young phenomenon of double-digit unemployment. Classroom atmosphere more tense todaySkip to next paragraph
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It's a reality whose pall is almost tangible. As the teacher hurries to cover the material the students will be expected to know, he answers occasional objections or inquiries with peremptory brevity, looks past others, and ignores small knots of buzz-fly gossip. With his 35 students, half of whom are repeating the year, squeezed in behind five rows of graffiti-scarred tables, it becomes soberingly clear that the young teacher's task is not an easy one.
``Sometimes it seems almost impossible to get anything done here,'' says Mr. Gras.
Things weren't always this way at Lyc'ee Dumont d'Urville. Twelve years ago the view from the classroom was a lighter, more optimistic one. Even if the teachers then wore suits and ties -- some students still rose when a teacher entered the room -- and even if student-teacher rapport was much more adversarial than today, life at this campuslike high school -- the largest in France -- seemed happier, less crabbed.
I pronounce these outlandish generalizations with some authority, because for the 1972-73 school year I was an American Field Service exchange student here. It's quite possible that in thinking back on my year here, my reminiscing is tinted rose. But as I speak with staff and students, I can't escape the feeling that, for us back then, life at Dumont d'Urville was more fun.
The baccalaur'eat hung over everyone's head then too, of course, but one's worries generally stopped there; no one imagined that with or without the bac, there might not be a place for him in his country's economy. Today, many teachers here say that when they question a student who hasn't done his homework, a typical answer is: ``Why should I bother when all I'm working toward is unemployment?''
Twelve years ago, such a response would have been unimaginable. As an American teen-ager in the economics concentration of the terminale, or senior, class, I was often told that unemployment as we Americans knew it -- then fluctuating between 5 and 6 percent -- would never be tolerated in France. But that was before the oil shocks of the 1970s, before the emergence of an industrialized third world, and before France's jarring rendezvous with post-industrial society.
The irony is that, despite an unemployment rate among French youth nearing 30 percent, the country has a crying need for more professionals, more specialized technicians, more students with two or four or more years of university education. Accordingly the Education Ministry wants to keep more students in the system through high school and beyond. Knowing this helps explain why Mr. Gras's class and others I visit during a recent two-day visit to my old lyc'ee are almost twice the size of the ones I attended when I was a student here. Political consciousness has receded
Class sizes are not the only changes I notice, as I walk the unpaved grounds and climb the unswept stairwells of Lyc'ee Dumont d'Urville. (As if to remind me that I, too, have changed, the secretary who greets me in the principal's office inquires sweetly if I might be there for a principal-parent conference.)
Some differences are minor: Sweat shirts and pants that would have been reserved for the playing field 12 years ago are now apparently a fashion statement worthy of the classroom, especially if emblazoned with something like ``Nike'' or ``USA.'' Others are to be expected: Only two of my teachers still work here, the others having retired or moved to other schools.