The French Study of Philosophy

I was reading an article on the BBC website (, where the author, the BBC’s French correspondent, describes how his daughter is doing the literature as opposed to the scientific version of her final high school exams, which seems to consist, to a very large extent, of a massive amount of delving into the minutiae of philosophical argument.

So my question is this. Number one, for those French people here do they perceive this particular educational arrangement and for the rest looking in what are their thoughts?

And what is the point of it all ?

I’m not French, but the Spanish system is similar.

By giving students “tracks” to choose, rather than individual subjects:

  • the school can plan the classes at the “track” level, rather than by individual student. You won’t get someone picking Koiné and Chemistry, because there isn’t any track offering such a combination.
  • the students can start focusing on those subjects which are the basis for the coursework they want to do later.
  • the tracks themselves serve as an orientation for the students. If you can’t wrap your head around Chemistry (which is included in all the Science tracks), perhaps you should be looking at careers in the Humanities.

Well, there was a time when your life path was determined largely (if not solely) by who your parents were, so this is an improvement, I guess.

I don’t think that is a good model at all. That is almost the opposite of a general liberal arts education and it does not even make much pedagogical sense. There are plenty of people that want to focus mostly on say, English literature but would benefit from and do well in some scientific courses. The reverse cross-training, especially general writing, is even more important.

The approach you describe is just a form of educational pipelining and stereotyping that does a disservice to both the students and society at large. It is an especially bad idea when students get tracked into an exclusive specialty at a young age. The much maligned U.S. educational model is mostly a myth when you look at overall outcomes, the world-wide rankings of a great many of our colleges and universities and the number of foreign students that sacrifice a great deal to participate in it. Most students aren’t expected to specialize in much of anything until the graduate school level and even engineering students usually have to take a broad range of other courses. You generally can’t study law, medicine or even advanced business until you have done well in a wide range of courses in many disciplines.

However, that’s not my take on the article cited in the OP. From a quick read, the author appears to be complaining about the amount of philosophy his daughter has to take and the uselessness of it all. But I believe that a hefty dose of liberal arts has been the norm in Britain as well, and many other countries, and indeed was the genesis of the great universities like Oxford and Cambridge – much to their credit and the benefit of the nation. And I say this as a science person myself and fully cognizant of the importance of STEM. I agree about diversity of learning and cross-training but that’s the whole point. Many important scientific discoveries have been made by scientists coincidentally familiar with multiple fields, and if they can bring a philosophical perspective to science and are good communicators, too, damn – that’s the winning combination!

In France, high school is divided in a number of tracks. Firsst there are “general” tracks vs technological tracks. Then the general track is subdivided into so-called “series”, each with a strong emphasis on some subjects : L is literature-oriented, S is science-oriented, etc… Then there are subdivisions : for instance litterature and mathematics, litterature and music, litterature and languages for the L serie.

There aren’t only just small differences between these series. Someone with a science specialization might have 4 or 5 times more math lessons than someone with a litterature specialization, for instance.

The “baccalaureat” (end of high school final exam) is a big deal in France. As a result of specialization, the exam in a specific field will be much harder and will weight more in the final result. For instance for the mathematics serie, maths and physics might have a weight of 5 while say, history will only have a weight of 2.

Within the L serie, the most common sub-serie has French and Philosophy as main disciplines, with the highest “weight”. So succeeding or not at the exam as a whole will be highly dependant on succeeding or failing in these disciplines. And it so happens that for some reason, and for all series, the French exam takes place one year before the end of high school, contrarily to all other disciplines. As a result, for pupils in the main L serie, since they already got their final grade in one of their two main disciplines, what is going to matter the most by far during the final exam is their grade in Philosophy, so they’re likely to be invested a lot in studying it.

We get our general writing starting in 1st grade, don’t need to sign up for it. Every single subject requires writing abilities except maybe Draftsmanship and other purely-visual ones (“maybe” because some teachers still do give some essay questions or require written essays as part of homework).

I was Pure Sciences with Draftsmanship and that still had me taking Spanish Grammar and Literature, English and History of Philosophy in 12th grade.

We also have tracks in Belgium but there are subjects that you must take, “core subjects” like French, history, geography, maths, Dutch, English and sports. Everybody has to take those. So, you’re definitely going to work on your general writing skills. And you also have to take scientific courses, even if you’re in a “literary” track.

Tracks only come into play to determine how many periods/week you have of some topics. For instance, if you’re in the “Maths-Science track”, you’ll have 7 hours of maths and 6-8 hours of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. In “Latin-Maths”, you’ll have 7h of maths, 4h of Latin and 3h of sciences. In the “Languages track”, you’ll have Dutch, English and Spanish/German (12h) + 3h/5h of maths and 3h of sciences. There are also “Economics” and “Sports” tracks. Plus plenty of intermediary combinations. IIRC there were something like 20+ possible tracks in my last two years in secondary school.

But no track allowed you to completely stop studying one of the “core subjects”. It was about having more of what you liked/planned to study at University and less of what you didn’t like/didn’t plan to study at University.

Also bear in mind that all those choices are only available in your last two years at secondary school (ages 16-18). There were much, much less choices before that. In your first two years (ages 12-14), you can only chose between the “Classics track” (core subjects + 4h Latin) and the “Modern track” (core subjects + 4h of a bit of everything, depending on the school)