Why schools are to blame for the French being so glum

Evie Burrows-Taylor
Evie Burrows-Taylor - [email protected]
Why schools are to blame for the French being so glum
Photo: AFP

The French are pessimists, or at least that's what numerous studies claim and they are never more glum apparently than when it comes to the world of work. But where does the notorious negativity come from? Two French academics point the finger at schools.


It has been established by numerous polls that the French are a pessimistic bunch.
In 2011, a BVA-Gallup International survey found that despite their relatively high standard of living, the French were the most pessimistic people in the world. 
And this glum state of mind is nowhere more evident than in the workplace, according to two French academics from Grenoble School of Management (Grenoble École de Management), Hugues Poissonnier and Pierre-Yves Sanséau,
It's partly due to the way the French cling to the idea that it is a "painful curse", the academics explain in an article in The Conversation
This attitude, the academics say, goes back as to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in which the couple are condemned to a lifetime of work as punishment for their original sin. 

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Photo: Luis Jorn/Flickr

And while other nations have adopted a similar attitude to the daily grind, the French are particularly susceptible to this line of thinking, the academics explain. 
"This can be seen in the introduction of the 35 hour week in France, which reveals that the French see work as something that should be limited because it is a constraint."  
When does this pessimism originate?
Apparently, the French are destined to feel gloomy about work well before they're old enough to know what the 35-hour week means. 
According to the academics, a significant portion of the blame lies with the French education system. 
The professors say that the way children are taught in schools in France gears them up for future gloominess in their professional lives.  
Pupils are scared of being punished and of getting bad grades, and fear the 'all powerful' teacher. This all leads to a damaging lack of self-confidence they say.
And this system is introduced at a crucial time when children start learning how to live in a community and start discovering knowledge and start on the path of self-discovery.
"The French system is far more theoretical and geared towards the academically minded which can leave some students feeling out of place," the academics explain. 
Photo: AFP
"School children from other education systems are always surprised, even shocked. Handing out copies of the grades is seen as a particularly painful humiliation by those who don't perform as well."
In fact, the 2014 OECD Pisa ranking showed that 75 percent of French students shake before getting their grades. 
And naturally the students who don't do as well are left with a lack of self-confidence which follows them throughout their lives.
French academic Claudia Senik from the Paris School of Economics backs up their theory. 
“I think the role of the primary school system in France is partly to blame. If unhappiness is partly due to someone's mentality, then people are forming that negative mentality at an early age in primary schools," she told The Local previously. 
"One theory is that the grading system in French schools is responsible. In France, students are generally graded on a scale of 0 to 10 or 0 to 20 and it's very difficult to get high grades. This means the majority of pupils are used to getting bad grades. When they think about their self-worth or their value, they think about these grades, which are usually low or intermediate.
"It's something that we can solve by targeting schools and workplaces," Poissonnier told The Local. 
"At the moment, if a student makes a mistake it's considered a catastrophe. We need to start valuing these mistakes.
"And in the workplace colleagues should be encouraged to work together rather than pitted against each other. In northern Europe you see more collaboration and it's better for people. There also needs to be less of a hierarchy in offices," he added.  
Why is it worse in France?
Countries like Canada and Scandinavian nations prefer to nurture a climate of optimism and confidence in their schools, explain the two professors. 
They do this by "offering choices and opting for an active approach to education that links all the sides of being human." 
The benefit of a more positive learning environment is particularly clear in the example of foreign languages like English, which the French are commonly understood to be the worst in Europe. 
"A young French person recently awarded their baccalauréat (the exam 18-year-olds take at the end of their secondary school education) finding themselves with people the same age from other European countries will be staggered by two things: the capacity of their peers to express themselves orally and their own lack of confidence," the academics explain. 
Photo: AFP
"It's common in France to stop learning at the first grammatical error or wrong tense. 
"We favour the law of perfection," they explained. "The living language transforms into a written language, nearly dead."
Senik has also spoken of how the French would be happier if they spoke better English and other languages as it would open up the outside world to them.
"To be happier the French could do with learning more foreign languages. Of course, Anglophone countries are worse at learning, but that doesn't matter because everyone speaks English. Being happy is not about speaking the foreign language itself, but about being able to fit more easily into this globalized world, which you can do if you speak English," she said. 
Overall Poissonnnier believes that solving the problem of pessimism in France would have an important impact on the country.  
"It could result in an improvement in France's economy as well as the quality of life of individuals," he told The Local. 



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