The French, who pride themselves on being the most cultivated, intelligent, and well-educated nation on earth, spend a larger proportion—7.4 percent—of their national income on education than any other country. But they're not getting value for their money. By the OECD's criterion of illiteracy—the inability to read and understand 25 lines of text in simple modern language and summarize it in five lines—France has more illiterates than any other developed country: 40 percent, compared with 20 percent for America, 14 percent for Germany, and 7 percent for Sweden.
France's highly centralized education system was once legendary for its excellence. But test scores show the magnitude of its decline. French children in the 1990s made more than 12 times as many mistakes on the same spelling exam as did their 1920s predecessors. The decline in teacher quality bears part of the blame: when a conservative French newspaper recently published a series on the state of French education, more than 200 of the 600 letters it received from teachers contained spelling errors.
The decline of literacy in France results from a mixture of egalitarian mischief-making and sheer lunacy—all too typical in education policy throughout the West. To cite one egregious example, the Ministry of Education's response to the enormous problem of educating Arabic-speaking children, most of whom live in bleak housing projects on the outskirts of French cities, has been to draft in extra teachers from Morocco to teach them more about Arabic culture—the assumption being, apparently, that teaching them Montaigne and Flaubert would be racist. Morocco took the opportunity to rid itself of Islamic fundamentalist teachers and earn a little hard currency; but the Arab children the emigres will teach, prevented from assimilating into French culture, will find it harder to escape from the ghetto.
France used to offer parents a very wide choice among government schools, but in the name of social equality and justice, the Ministry has suppressed the parental right to choose a child's school, decreeing that children should now attend the school serving their home area, whatever parents think of it. This policy has so widened the gulf between the social classes as to make it virtually unbridgeable. The bourgeoisie now generally have the better schools to themselves, and they can escape mediocre ones by sending their children to private schools or using their influence. The poor have no such option. Class has become caste in France, thanks to educational egalitarianism.
The Ministry has adopted every foolish tenet of "progressive" pedagogy. Children must learn to learn, educators say, not learn anything as potentially damaging to their health as a fact. Teachers shouldn't correct student errors, since to do so might damage student self-esteem. The directives emanating from the Ministry read like Swiftian parodies.
The noble French ideal of education as a means of inducting every child into civilization has vanished in the egalitarian mania. Appearances are deceptive, however: underlying the egalitarian ideology is professional self-interest. There are 900,000 teachers in France, and more than 500,000 backup staff. The worse things get, the more teachers call for extra resources, that is, higher salaries—a sadly familiar story.