Blog Abroad, Paris: On Education

I have no clue why but educational systems fascinate me… and what interest me more are the differences between them, across cultures. It’s funny, stepping out of the University of Toronto and into Sciences Po in Paris. Both are very well-reputed schools on their own terms, but so different from each other. Below is a bit of a post slash ramble put together after my first week of classes at Sciences Po. I’ve put in edits wherever I feel like I have gained a bit of insight since first writing the post. Hope you get something out of it!


I suppose I should start with school in France in general.

When een Franz:

The French system is hilarious. Instead of marking in percentages, it marks out of 20. Not only that, but the grades it assigns aren’t proportional to the percent grades we’d assign in Toronto at all. Whereas it was pretty much possible to get a 90 in some courses back home in Econ and Philosophy, 18-20/20 here is reserved for Gods… pretty much impossible as we’ve been told time and time again. A ‘great mark’ is usually considered anything from 13 onwards.  We’ll just have to see what this all turns out to mean because it’s gibberish to me right now!  (Note. 2 months after writing this, I come back with good news: I’ve debunked this theory and got my first 18! Take that, intimidating men in suits.) My grades here matter if I decide to pursue further studies. The transcript officer back home is aware of these differences, though, which is all that matters in terms of transferring things, so no worries. It’s just a matter of jumping in and getting the hang of new things, I guess.

The structure of teaching and assignments is also super different. I find that teachers here tend to talk at us rather than with us in most of my classes (not all). This is more like what I thought university lectures would be like when I was a kid. All my profs are IMPECCABLY dressed. Duuude. It’s a huge contrast to philosophy classes back home where my ancient philo prof would come to lecture in a lumberjack shirt and sandals… something about Paris, I guess. Sometimes I wonder how these professors have enough time to think AND to dress themselves so well. Seriously. It’s actually been troubling me. Hahaha. A pashmina here, a green watch and silk tie there…


I’d been told that Philosophy in France is a lot more history-based than theme/argument-based as it is in America, a difference that I didn’t dig at aaaalll. Thing is, it turns out that nearly all my philosophy courses here are taught by profs who favor the American way of philosophising, so it’s been nice.

It’s funny, though: I’m so used to just thinking and formulating things and talking a few seconds later and it’s always been a very dynamic process in philo classes… it’s funny now in some of my French philosophy classes, to spend time figuring out what the hell is being said first before I can figure out what to make of it!

At the same time, the philo class with the densest material is being taught by a very flamboyant American professor who makes it all easy to understand, so I’m not scared. (He made a that’s-what-she-said joke when reading Plato, though. Actually, not much of a ‘though’… just really funny hahahaha) Some things might require a little more work, but everything is interesting and so, it’s worth it.

Ze Skewl

As for Sciences Po in particular…. whew! Now this is an elite school if I’ve ever seen one, hahaha. Guys walk around in suits to class sometimes. We have big, big, big shots who stop their political life to teach here. Sci Po isn’t well known outside of France because it’s fairly new in comparison to really entrenched institutions like the Sorbonne. I didn’t even know much about it back home aside from what past friends/students there had told me — in fact, I only chose the school because it had solid economics and philosophy courses (rare to have such crossover in France), and an excellent system for integrating study-abroad students, but knew little else. But then I come here and am told that 3 of the last French prime ministers came from this school! The students have to pass a ‘contest’ (translated literally from ‘concours’) to get in, and even then only the top 5% of them are admitted. It’s funny, how much easier it is for study abroad students to get into here.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that all the French kids here are geniuses. There are some here who just surf on Facebook throughout class and say the silliest things when they feel like it (just quoting a great thinker here, another philosopher there… even if it has little relevance). Also, it doesn’t mean the lecturers are perfect; there are times when lectures seem so history-based that they lose reason. But I do have really thought-provoking classes/students and really clear teachers for the most part, so it’s been great.

“Why does Everyone like ze Camembert if it is so smelly?”

The Sciences Po way of doing things is very distinct. They have a certain methodology that students are meant to abide by, a certain structure for writing essays. It goes something along the line of “pose a question (a paradox, they say… like ‘why does everyone love Camembert cheese here if it is so smelly?’)”; “show one way to answer; “show the contrasting way”; “tie them together to show that there’s no one answer”; “throw in another question”. That’s super different from the American way of “I’ll show you this. I’m showing you this. I’ve shown you this.” I like the difference, though. I always felt like essays back home made me sound like I was asserting way more than I actually knew.

Talk to Me

Another thing that Sciences Po is super serious about is… talking. Oral presentations are mandatory for nearly all the classes and make up a good chunk of marks! I find this interesting because I suppose the school’s trying to hone a next generation of diplomats and general movers in society. But at the same time, I have a feeling like spending large chunks of a class’s time listening to a student ramble on about what he/she thinks is right can make things superficial. We’ll see.

I had my first presentation today – not an exposé, but a critical reading worth a quarter of my mark. (Just after the first week too!) It went really well. I suppose that’s just because the class I’m in (Politics and Ethics) gets you thinking. The reading was on Kant, too, and he’s fun to get confused by. So all was well. We’ll take it from here.

It’s interesting stuff, these courses. They’re making me think and learn French, 2 awesome things. There’s a philosophy talk next month at Café de Flore, Sartre’s hideout as a writer. I’m thinking of checking it out with a few friends. It should be great, or funny at worst (actually, boring at worst… but the people-watching is always super at that place…) (Note. 2 months after writing this — it was a hilarious time! I went to the talk last month with a friend. The conversation topic was ‘Why do we believe what we believe?’  The talk was a good way to see an interesting cross-section of Parisians: students, scientists, philosophers, fashionable retirees, and I swear, a witch).

Well there’s the uber-long post on how school was! I was super curious about this before coming and still have a lot to learn about the structure of France’s education system. It’s interesting stuff.

I am falling a little sick from God-knows-what (everything is new! Where does one start?), so off to take a bit of a nap. Talk to you soon!




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