Get Bac!

The French think, therefore they are...

Everyday my daughter goes online and reads posts from American and Canadian friends who are heading off to jobs at summer camp, going on vacation, or savouring the end of their high school careers. It is not the highlight of her day as she bunkers down and studies for the baccalaureate exams.

The French bac is a series of maybe 12 oral and written exams given in three or four languages at the end of a student’s junior and senior years. Their entire high school career depends on the results of these exams and will play a large role in each student’s future. And since the essay exams are often four hour tests in which a student responds to one or two questions, a lot can go wrong very quickly.

For students going to the US, there is less pressure. They simply need to pass their bac. Those going to England or Canada have been given a minimum grade required by their university. 14 or 15 points maybe required, which is difficult, but not impossible. For students continuing on in France, it is much more complicated and they won’t even know all of their options before mid-July.

Understanding the bac could almost require a degree of its own. There are three different baccalaureates. Science, Social-Economics and Literature. Some of these bacs are more prestigious than others. Each subject of the bac is assigned a value, called a coefficient. The coeff may have a different value for the same exam, depending on which bac you are taking. For example, French is coeff 2 for SE students, but 3 for L students. The results of a test with a coeff 7 are much more important than the results of an exam with a coeff 4. The coeff determines the importance of a exam in calculating the students final grade, because at the end of all those exams, that’s what you get, one final grade. No pressure there.

And if all that is not complicated enough, each bac also has a series of specialties and optional exams that allow students to earn extra points, with subjects like Ancient Greek, or Music. There is also an Option Internationale for all baccalaureate candidates striving for that extra challenge. With the OI, students may find themselves studying from a French language text book for an English language history exam.

As this blog posts, every French high school senior in the country has just finished their first* their major épreuve, the Philosophy exam; 4 hours, 1 question, ready, set, GO…. Each bac (S, SE, or L) has a different set of questions to choose from. Questions like; Does art change our perception of reality? Are politics a science or an art? Is communication the only use of language? Can we know the truth? Why protect the weak?

The entire country spends the next three days discussing the questions and expounding for hours over all the possible replies. It tops the news of the day, takes over business meetings and dominates dinner conversation. Bringing all of France together in an annual exercise of deep thought. As soon as the questions are made public today, I’ll be heading to the Flore to eavesdrop on philosophers like Bernard-Henri Lévy and hear how they would have answered. But if I didn’t have to stay close to home, THE place to head would have to be the Café des Philosophes in the Marais.


28 rue Vieille du Temple / (M) St Paul / 01 48 87 49 64

* except the OI students who already had a few oral exams last week.

UPDATE/ This year’s questions…

Sujets Philosophie Bac S 2012

1/ Avons-nous le devoir de chercher la vérité ? Is searching for the truth our responsibility?
2/ Serions-nous plus libres sans l’Etat ? Would we be freer without government?
3/ Commentary on a text by Rousseau (Emilie)

Sujets Philosophie Bac L 2012

1/ Que gagne-t-on en travaillant ? What does one earn through work?
2/ Toute croyance est-elle contraire à la raison ? Is all faith contrary to logic?
3/ Commentary on a text by Spinoza (Traité théologico-politique)

Sujets Philosophie Bac ES 2012

1/ Peut-il exister des désirs naturels ? Can natural desires exist?
2/ Travailler, est-ce seulement être utile ? To work, is it uniquely about being useful?
3/ Commentary on a text by Berkeley (Devoir et obéissance)

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5 thoughts on “Get Bac!

  1. Thanks very much for explaining! We have a French exchange student coming to us in 10 days — after she finishes her bac exams. You just described for us what she is going through. Appreciate it. By the way, what was the philosophy question? Merci!

  2. So glad I am now past the age of all this education. Whatever i do now is not going to affect my life and would be for pleasure .. And more importantly my children are past it too.
    Very interesting to explain the bac system as they keep threatening to introduce it to the UK. Then it eould bet grandchildren who are affected.
    Love Denise

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