"Is a work of art always meaningful?"
"Is a person's conscience only the reflection of the society they live in?"
"Am I what my past has made of me?"
No, you haven't inadvertently ingested a controlled substance. These questions and others like them are part of a bizarre annual French ritual, the "Bac Philo."
Let's take that one word at a time.
"Bac" is short for "Baccalauréat," which is the annual high school exit exam which all students must take. This is a national, standardized test. Every year, on the same day, at the same hour, all students across the country take the same one.
The most notorious in the panoply of sections that makes up the "Bac" is the "Bac Philo" — the philosophy test. It is mandatory, and it consists of a four-hour, sit-down essay, without notes, on a question like the ones above. (Students can also choose to comment on a text, although in practice almost none do. This year, the authors were Cicero, Spinoza, and Tocqueville.)
The yearly ritual of the Bac Philo has become an ingrained part of French consciousness. Every French parent with a child taking the Bac has also gone through the punishing rite of passage. The days before the test, celebrities are asked on TV news programs to reminisce about their experiences. On the day of the test and later, as soon as the essay questions come out, intellectuals are interviewed about what their own answers would be.
The Bac Philo is a wonderful example of everything that is so great, and everything that is so frustrating, about France.
Let's start with everything great. Isn't it actually a good thing that France is so in love with its love of intellectual things? Isn't it nice that a society has collectively decided to take seriously the stuff of ideas?
The French public instruction program has made an official and hundreds-of-years-old decision that the job of school isn't to train you for a job, it's to train you to be a citizen, who will hold a piece of the country's destiny in your hands through participation in the public sphere. Democracy can only endure stewarded by enlightened, responsible citizens, lest it devolve into demagogy. (As, we are inevitably reminded, happened under the Vichy Regime.) And in order to be an enlightened, responsible citizen — or so we cheese-eating surrender monkeys believe — you have to spend at least some time grappling with the Big Questions, and understanding the intellectual traditions, such as Greek, Medieval, and Enlightenment philosophy, that shaped the world we live in, as well as its institutions, such as liberal democracy, free market capitalism, and the modern scientific method.
All this I believe and agree with. It is a high ideal, and one that I wish the U.S. — especially the U.S. — would draw inspiration from.
The problem is the way it has been implemented.
Let's, first, start with the way philosophy is taught. As a high school philosophy teacher friend of mine joked, everybody who chooses to become a high school philosophy teacher is either a far-rightist or a far-leftist (he was the former). That's pretty much been my experience. Or, something close to it. There are also those who were far-rightists or far-leftists when they joined, and now are just time-servers. I pity them. Decades of trying to fit the world's greatest ideas into the hormone-filled brains of maniacally texting, acne-dotted adolescents would be enough to destroy anyone's spirit.
Today, school manuals are far from the grandiose visions I've laid out. Post-'60s, France's ministry of education has been far too afraid to believe that it actually stands for something in philosophy and now manuals are pretty much just lists of authors and bad summaries of what they thought. This is the best way to convince teenagers what most of us secretly suspect, that philosophy is just a bunch of bla bla, since none of these losers can agree on anything and are all just making it up as they go along.
Finally, the essay. The Bac Philo is a four-hour essay test. But not just any kind of essay. You have to write a very specific kind of essay, une dissertation. The dissertation is a form of essay writing that is so deeply and artificially codified as to make kabuki look like an epileptic fit. Taking a stand — answering one of those questions with either "yes" or "no" — is absolutely prohibited. Instead, the author must restate what other thinkers have said about the issue, even when they contradict each other, and try to reconcile their differences (without seeming to do that).
The intro of the essay must be about rephrasing the essay's question into another question, called a "problématique" (I never found out what that means either, and I always got top grades on my philosophy essays), and that question is the one your essay must answer (without actually answering it, which is hopelessly gauche). No, I am not making this up — I wish I were.
Again — everything works to reinforce in students the notion that philosophy (and really all schooling) is purely formal and without meaningful content. Exactly the opposite of what it should be.
More damning, by far, is that the best way to write a good dissertation, I have found, is to have parents who wrote good dissertations. A four-hour essay is exactly the kind of test that rewards the soft human capital skills that only birth in a high socioeconomic background home affords, with its insane emphasis on subtleties of style, vocabulary, and hair-splitting conceptual differences. Thus an exercise meant to reinforce and symbolize republican equality instead serves to entrench class differences.
If you fail at your Bac Philo, all of official France tells you, you must be an idiot — really, if you follow the internal logic to its conclusion, unworthy of citizenship — even though, in reality, your problem might just be poverty or immigration, and if you had been taught the right way and tested the right way you would have thrived.
In the end, what was supposed to be a lofty instrument for building culture and equality ends up being an empty, meaningless, ritual.
But after years of being drilled into them as a teenager, I still enjoy reading Bac Philo subjects and imagining the dissertation I would write.