Are French students taught to be more philosophical?

Around 650,000 students will be taking the most anticipated end-of-year exam of French secondary school on Thursday: philosophy. Unlike other Europeans, the French are required to be prepared to "philosophise" before moving on to university.


The annual philosophy exam is the test that kicks off each year’s baccalaureate – a series of rigorous end-of-year exams one needs to pass in order to graduate from French secondary school and move into higher education.

On Thursday, French students will put on their thinking caps when they sit down to take the much-feared "philo" exam, as most French students call it, which stands out among the other subjects not just because it starts the week-long round of testing, but also because it’s the longest.

For four gruelling hours, every student in their last year of “lycée” is asked to respond in writing to one philosophical question. Examples from previous years include, “Can a scientific truth be dangerous?” and “Is it one’s own responsibility to find happiness?”

The study of philosophy in France has a core role in secondary education. In “terminale” – the last year of high school – it is a compulsory subject for all students. Those studying humanities do eight hours of philosophy a week, while pupils studying science and technology do just two hours. 

A very French approach

French national education inspector Mark Sherringham explained back in 2006 that the teaching was vital to build a basis “of culture and reasoning in philosophy”.

“Its main objective is to develop a capacity for personal reflection,” he said.

This “search for personal reflection” is one of the aims of the French educational system, whereas other European countries tend to tackle philosophy through the history of thought.

Italy teaches the "history of ideas" to its youth while Spain teaches the “history of philosophy”. Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, among other countries, have similar curricula.

“Portugal is the only country with a similar approach to France's,” said Simon Perrier, head of an association of French philosophy teachers. “In most other countries, philosophy is taught as a chronological and historical examination of philosophies.”

Enlightened citizens?

The study of philosophy has been mandatory in French high schools since 1808, a tradition inherited from the philosophers of the “Siècle des Lumières”, or Age of Enlightenment.

The curriculum aims at producing “enlightened citizens” capable of intelligent criticism.

“The study of philosophy looks at notions that everyone can understand, such as happiness, justice and work,” said Perrier. “The aim is to teach students to reflect on what they learn every day at home and in school. They learn how to approach issues thoughtfully by being introduced to philosophical texts.”

This approach gives French students a unique relationship to the discipline, according to Pierre-Henri Travoillot, head of the philosophy department at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

“French philosophy is actually very accessible,” he said. “Our philosophers are often writers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre.”

The result, he says, is that many ordinary French people develop a love for intellectual and literary pursuits that continues later on in life.

“I’m often amazed by the number and quality of philosophical meetings that are organised in even the smallest villages across France,” Travoillot observes.

“Their success is astonishing," he said. "If there is one reason to be optimistic about France, this is it.”


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