'Is all truth final?': French baccalaureate kicks off with philosophy exam

Martin Bureau, AFP | Pupils take part in the first written test in philosophy as part of the baccalaureate (France's high school diploma) at a school in Paris on June 15, 2017.

On Monday, as the final-year baccalaureate exam kicks off in France, thousands of students poured into schools throughout the country to sit one of the most demanding – and perhaps dreaded – exams of all: philosophy.


For four hours, students turned their critical minds to elaborate on deeply philosophical questions such as “Is desire a sign of our own imperfection?”, “Is all truth definitive?” or “Does culture make us more human?”. They had to show their grasp of Plato, Kant, Schopenhauer and other great philosophers studied throughout the year, and display their knowledge of some of life’s great themes such as Duty, Desire, Existence and Time.

“France is one of the only countries where you don’t just study the history of philosophy, but there is a programme of ‘notions’, like justice, conscience and freedom. Students aren’t just asked to display their knowledge but to think about a problem themselves by using the notions they studied during the year,” Marie Perret, a philosophy teacher in a high-school near Paris, told AFP. “The philosophy exam has always carried strong symbolic weight in France, and that’s linked to the Enlightenment,” she added.

It may be tempting to say how French it is that students should ponder the meaning of life in their crucial final-year exam, and in some ways it is. In France, philosophy is a serious matter. French President Emmanuel Macron takes pride in the fact he was once the assistant of renowned French philosopher Paul Ricoeur and is fond of quoting him and other philosophers. French thinkers Raphaël Enthoven (who has a child with former first lady Carla Bruni) and Bernard Henry-Levy, for example, have become celebrities.

Philosophy has been part of the 'Bac' ever since the exam was created by Napoleon in 1809 – although it was in Latin at the time. In the last two years of secondary school at the lycée, it is taught as a subject in its own right, with some students studying it for up to eight hours a week.

“For four centuries, some of the great universal philosophers from Descartes to Rousseau, Diderot, Helvétius, La Mettrie, Condillac, Montesquieu, Comte or Toqueville have emerged from France. In the 20th century, Bergson, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Simone Veil, Alain, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Ricœur and many others have extended this beautiful tradition that has made France an exceptional breeding ground for philosophical creation that it shares with the whole world,” wrote Libération newspaper, adding that France’s philosophical richness is down to the fact that it is taught in schools.

This year, over 750,000 students will sit the baccalaureate exam in France, with ages ranging from 11 to 76 years old. The majority of students are expected to pass: the pass rate was nearly 90% last year, up from only a third in the 1980s and only three percent in 1945.

Exam results come out on July 6th – which leaves barely three weeks for exam markers to hand in their copy. Marking the philosophy exam brings its own set of challenges because of the subjectivity of its subject matter, explains Philosophie magazine, in an article titled “Is the ‘bac philo’ a lottery?” published in its latest edition. “In June every year, while students are sitting the philosophy exam, the same debate arises. The marking criteria is the object of very intense discussions,” the magazine explains.

One undisputed fact, however, is that philosophy plays a central role in French education and will continue to do so. In the overhaul of the baccalaureate announced by Macron this year and set to be introduced in 2021,philosophy has been kept on as one of four key written exams. The new format will also include one oral exam, and also continuous marking for the first time.

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