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 today
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.
But other changes reflect profound shifts in the way French high school students view their education, the world around them, and their future.
Twelve years ago, I could not walk through the school's main gate without being bombarded with political tracts covering a full spectrum of ideologies, from anarchy and differing interpretations of Trotskyism to fascism. Today, there is none of this. Then, the student forum was a political maelstrom that churned such emotional issues as the war in Vietnam, apartheid, and the difficulties facing American blacks. In the spring, we went on strike and paraded through the streets to protest a law removing student deferments for France's required year of military service.
Twelve years later, the student forum functions more like an American high school drama club. As I walk through the front gates, no one is on hand to ply his beliefs. One lonely sheet of paper taped to an outside wall urges students to ``resist'' a proposed increase in university fees, but it's gone later in the day.
Space provided for students on courtyard bulletin boards is generally taken up with posters announcing concerts and parties, or hand-lettered cards proposing private lessons in math, physics, or a foreign language. But two large posters inviting students to take part in very different activities are marked with graffiti that, in so many words, say, ``We find you suspect'': One, announcing a weekend to promote friendship between the youths of France and the Soviet Union, is covered with ``Gulag, Afghanistan, Solidarnosc''; on the other, showing Pope John Paul II inviting the young to Rome, a balloon has been drawn from the Pope's mouth, filled with the words ``Yes, come join the friends of [Chilean military leader Augusto] Pinochet.''
``It's the end of ideologies,'' says R'emy Airodi, Dumont d'Urville's principal, when asked to describe the temperament of today's students. The picture he paints is not a terribly cheery one.
``Today the students are too worried about the future, too afraid of ending up in the unemployment line to go out and demonstrate,'' says the man who has been at the school's helm since 1971.
``They lack confidence in themselves, so they seek refuge in the group. I'm afraid to say they even lack a certain punch. Those of us who were young during [World War II] would have never believed it -- we thought it was important to react. But there are so many of the young today who seem to have given up. . . .''
Asked about the dearth of interest in politics, one student says he thinks that fewer adolescents think for themselves, that they tend to adopt their parents' beliefs. But another young man disagrees. If we no longer embrace ideologies, he says, it's because we are no longer sure there are any ready-made answers.
Despite his own somber appraisal, Mr. Airodi enjoys the fact that today's students seem to work more easily with adults: Gone is the general distrust of anyone over 30. ``There's a certain kindness that we didn't have before. There's nothing menacing about them.''
A number of teachers second this last point. During a few minutes of impromptu questions and answers in one of her classes, French teacher Mich`ele Senn says she finds that many students do have closer ties to their teachers now. But when she goes on to add that large classes and the specter of the baccalaur'eat make class discussion a luxury, she is interrupted by an anxious student. He reproaches her for dominating a session that was supposed to give the students a chance to share their thoughts with the American reporter.
The interruption alone says more about a relaxing of student-teacher relations than all the comments culled from the class. If class discussion was rare during my time at Dumont d'Urville, interrupting the teacher with a reproach was virtually unknown.
Ir`ene Iconomou, another French teacher, says an ``opening up'' at the lyc'ee is reflective of a larger evolution in this Mediterranean city's way of life in general. She says the family knit has loosened, as more mothers have gone to work. Many students still go home for the two-hour lunch, as almost all of them did in my day, for example, but more than ever are now seen eating a sandwich or apple within the school grounds.
And many long-held taboos are now overlooked. Pregnant students are no longer banished from the school, and former students in their 20s who never achieved the bac are accepted back into class. ``Ten years ago we never saw this,'' she says.
She adds that there are practically no more rules at the school but that the students generally do not abuse this. She wonders if maybe they aren't too apathetic to think about causing much trouble.
Mme. Iconomou is the one teacher of mine I find during my visit, although I'm told my English teacher is still here. (Apparently the tapes I recorded for him so he could familiarize his students with the American accent are still used in the school's language lab; when I'm introduced to another English teacher, his face lights up: ``I thought I recognized that voice!'')
A French woman of Greek heritage, Mme. Iconomou is as warm and tanned and attractive as when she regularly spent a part of her lunch period correcting the French grammar and literary commentaries of one struggling American. But she becomes serious as she discusses the lyc'ee today.
``I have a feeling that so many of the students come just to pass the time,'' she says, noting that this is most true among those who would have dropped out of school a year or two ago if it weren't for the government's new efforts to hold down teen-age unemployment and graduate more students. Echoing comments from a number of other teachers here, she says this ``democratization'' of the schools has led to a general lowering of standards in her classes.
``We've all been forced little by little to abandon the abstract writers,'' she says. ``Before I always started my premi`ere [junior] classes with something from Montaigne or Pascal. Now, it's only at the end of the year, and even then I only mention them in relation to other, more concrete authors.'' Students want to specialize earlier
This erosion of academic standards in the lyc'ees is not lost on many of the students here. At a time when competition and individual achievement are reinforced by a depressed economic picture, there is little patience among the motivated for weaker students who they feel tend to hold back the class.
During a discussion in an English class, a strong majority of students say they are for the old system that required choosing an academic concentration after the seconde, or sophomore, year. For the past few years, that choice has been made one year later. ``My complaint is that this means the rest of us are mixed in with the weaker students for an extra year,'' says one young woman seated at the front of the class.
Another young woman says she was unable to get into the concentration of her choice -- science -- after her grades suffered ``because of the poor students taking too much of the teacher's time.'' Whether or not that is the reason, the fact remains that only a handful of students in the class consider freshmen and sophomores in high school too young to choose a concentration that will affect the course of their life. Yet it was complaints about the early-selection system -- complaints I heard often in the early '70's -- that led to the new, ``democratic'' system, now so unpopular with a more success-conscious generation.
Michel Marin stands in Dumont d'Urville's courtyard, the picture of success: navy blue suit, red silk tie, supple leather loafers. Not too long ago, when he was a Socialist representative's legislative aide, he figured in a national magazine's list of young Frenchmen to keep an eye on. Now he works for the regional government council that covers the area between Marseille, the Italian border, and the Alps. I ask him if he understands the word ``Yuppie,'' but his only response is a wrinkled forehead.
Twelve years ago, he was the first student to greet me, with a sarcastic ``Hello American boy!'' the day I walked into our economics class. His blond hair was long, his leather jacket was black, and his bible was a paperback translation of Kerouac's ``On the Road.''
Now married and the father of a round-faced baby boy, Michel still feels close to what's going on in the schools. For six years, while studying for his law degree, he worked in a nearby technical high school. He is not encouraged by what he saw there.
``You find whole classes of students who are unable to put together a correct and coherent sentence,'' he says. ``The problem is: They don't read anymore.'' He says many students in the school had given up on finding any success in life. ``If they're not in one of the few bright areas,'' he says, ``such as electronics or telecommunications, they probably don't have much of a future. It's a whole generation that's more or less lost,'' he says.
Then father and son begin to smile, as Michel starts bouncing the next generation on his knee. Suddenly conscious that he may have painted a darker picture of the situation than he had intended -- a tendency that is as quintessentially French to Americans as optimism is quintessentially American to the French -- Michel says he hopes he doesn't sound too pessimistic.
``But believe me,'' he adds, looking down at his jiggling son, ``this boy is going to read.''