Bac parenting

From strollers...

Yesterday I wrote about the thrills and wonders of the French Bac. As a Mom who grew up in the US, I’ll never know what it is to write the bac. This shocks the natives. “Quoi? You didn’t pass your bac? What did your parent’s say? How did you succeed in life? Wow, your writing must be total crap!” They can’t seem to wrap their minds around the fact that I don’t have my bac because in my country, they didn’t offer the bac to public high school students. So I sigh, assuring them that I got into UCLA, so I couldn’t be a total idiot. They remain skeptical.

to independence

Even now, decades later, the bac effects the adults around me. Mr French has been yelling at me for weeks about not being strict enough with E as she studies. We’re talking about a kid who gives herself a curfew, reads poetry for kicks and has already gotten into a fantastic university. Just last night he nearly fainted when he discovered that I had not thought of getting new batteries for her calculator, just in case the original batteries happen to die in the middle of her math exam.

My Parisiennes are in a tizzy, too. Some have taken off work for the week to be there 24/7 for Jean-Jacques as he crams. Others have fled to the countryside, abolishing any possibility of an potential distraction for little Georgette. These are the very same Moms who would encourage these very same kids to stay in the playground unsupervised for hours when they were in grade school and who let their minor children head to the French Alps for a week of ski and brewski on the slopes, without helmets or adult supervision. In June of their kid’s senior year, these mamans break forth from their cocoons and spread the wings of parental protection over their developing caterpillars as they inch along in their studies (guess which subject we’ve just reviewed for the science exam…)

they'll always be kids!

This week they are stuck to the stove, preparing hot, healthy breakfasts, lunches and dinners and they read and review the philosophy subjects, so they are up to the task of testing and challenging the petit Louis. Pharmacists recommend brain energizing plants, waiters in cafés start shouting merde (the French version of break a leg) and the whole neighborhood gets into the act.

If all goes well, Marie Claire will be going into a very excellent Cours Prépa, or a place called Science Po. Which means the students will be living at home for the next few years and all this parental coddling has just begun. Of course, I am jealous, because my daughter will be going half way across the globe to pursue her studies. I can’t complain, because I set myself up for this, but its not easy, either.

Especially, when I get the French reaction. They think it is fairly nuts and bordering on irresponsible. I try to explain that it is an American tradition; we’ve been chasing our freshly adult children off to the wild frontier, in search of new territories, since the foundation of our country. We say it is for their own good. It helps them develop. But even to my own ears, this is starting to ring untrue. Have you smelled a growing teen recently? Tried to keep one fed? Universities have coin-operated washing machines and meal plans. Could it be, as the Parisiennes suspect? Was the American university system established to maintain the sanity of the nation’s parents?

A Children's Paradise

Now, excusez-moi, as I go prepare E’s meal. Something no mother should be doing for her legally adult child who is not eating with the family, but I am afraid they may revoke my citizenship if I refuse to comply (and I really do want her to do well.)

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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