Friday, July 27, 2018

What I really enjoyed about France

I am going to make some comments here that are likely wrong.  They are based on my observations at the moment, that is all.  Please sprinkle liberally with the phrase “to me.”

What is so appealing about France?  Culture – the arts, history, even philosophy – is a normal part of public and private life.  Quotations of poetry, references to painters, discussions of wine or food or you name it that includes the history of the subject.  The humanities historicize everything.

Why are the humanities so prominent in normal life?  Because French humanities education is so good.

Why is the education good?  I suppose this goes in a circle. Because the culture values the humanities.  I don’t know.  But French school children are taught directly how to think about – no, let’s be careful, how to talk about, how to write about, but there begins thinking – art, novels, film, and so on.

I would routinely go to films where large blocks of seats were reserved for school groups.  Wong Kar-wai, King Kong, Charlie Chaplin.  High school kids at the former, grade school in the middle, quite little children at the Chaplin.  I began to expect it.  Similarly, I learned to expect large numbers of children at the opera, or certain music and dance and theatrical performances, and most of all at art museums.

At a different level, the French president can, in public speeches, say things like “Who understood Baudelaire better than Walter Benjamin?” and no one bats an eye.  This is normal.  Sorry, I could only find the speech, from the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair, in German.

The French criticize their own music education.  I suspect they are comparing themselves to their neighbors, to Germany and Austria – hardly fair.  They criticize their language education.  Why can’t they accomplish what the Dutch do?  An American hardly has any place to comment.

French culture is more top-down and elite-driven than in the U.S., yet the split between high and low culture is less important – maybe unimportant.  Everyone reads Asterix.  The resentments I see in the U.S., in both directions, are minor in France.  Liking poetry or jazz or theater is all right; having no interest is all right, too.  The arts do not work so well as class signifiers.

It must be hard to be a genuine cultural protester in France, to try to reject French culture, which has a literature full of weirdos and literal criminals.  Everything is embraced so easily.  Maybe too easily.  Maybe that is a criticism of the French arts, that the appreciation is too enthusiastic.  I am not the one to make that criticism.  I loved it.

In the United States, literature, reading, feels like a hobby, one of many.  In France, it feels like participation in civilization.  This is appealing, for many reasons.  Perhaps it just pumps up the importance of my hobby.  I don’t think so.


I remind myself that although I am writing at the blog again, I have no fixed schedule, no quota of pieces, no godly purpose.  The easy ways to see if I have written something are an RSS reader – how I keep up with all of you – and the email subscription off to the right somewhere.

Thanks for the immediate comments on my adventure with French.  Encouraging!


  1. Yes to all. Also: private schooling does not have a prominence that it's gotten in, say, the UK. Public school system is strong and doing its job. Neither is there a parallel tuition-paying private university system like in the US. Elite schools exist; but the path towards Les Ecoles Normales is (ideally) open to all.

    Going to the opera and classical music concerts is much more affordable (gov't funding = sensible ticket pricing) and every-day than in my country, Canada, and assume in the US.

    The media cover arts and culture like there's no tomorrow. There are thriving philosophy and literary magazines written for general public. Radio France channels, esp France Culture and France Musique, are doing extraordinary work (don't judge them by their websites).

    And what was interesting to me, as a writer, is that their publishing world does not have an entrenched agent system. A French friend who studies literature tells me that you could send a ms. to Gallimard directly yourself and somebody will be sure to read it.

  2. Thanks for this very nice post.

    I've heard the same comments from Helen who lives in France and is British.

    I think that books and literature are still "sacred". We refuse to merchandize culture and it remains something special.Hence the fixed price for books, which is a huge opportunity for indepedant bookstores and from what I've seen while travelling, paperbacks are cheaper in France

    And all this works because we accept to pay a lot of taxes to fund field trips to the theatre and museums, to have free or almost free access to libraries, to subsidize music schools, to fund association who'll organise activities for the kids...

    And I've discovered through discussions with foreigners that we still have a lot of cultural shows on TV, something I wasn't aware of because for me, well, it's normal life.

    I don't know if the cultural gap between the upper classes and the working class is narrower than anywhere else. Yes, everybody reads Astérix, that's for sure but there's still a big difference and we still don't do enough to help children and teenagers from poorer neighborhoods.
    Apparently, it's even worse in the US. How sad, really.

  3. Very interesting. All of this is interesting.

    I thought about including something about Virgule, a thriving literary magazine for 11-year-olds. Oh boy, the cover story this month is about Alfred de Musset! There is a companion magazine devoted to art history, and another to history and archaeology. Actually two for art history, one for 8 and older, one for ages, honest to God, 4 to 7, and again these are not art but art history magazines.

    When I saw the number of magazines at the Lyon public library devoted to philosophy, not academic journals but regular magazines, I about burst into laughter.

  4. Oh, I love this post. It makes me long all the more for Europe in general and France in particular. I love America, we seem to have become so very uncivilized. And, how can I even begin to talk about teaching? This quote of yours makes me want to weep:

    "But French school children are taught directly how to think about – no, let’s be careful, how to talk about, how to write about, but there begins thinking – art, novels, film, and so on."

    Let me respond with a quote, I remember it quite distinctly, from one of our Supported Education teachers as she explained a new computer program:

    "And you don't even need to read with the kids anymore!"

    I'm still twitching. And, if I hadn't retired in June I'd be applying to teach in France.

  5. Oh man. That's rough. Daniel Pennac, a novelist who was a school teacher for a long time, has a terrific book about reading and teaching called The Rights of the Reader It includes his secret technique for getting bad students interested in reading. (The secret: reading aloud).

  6. Yes and no. My kid has known only French schools and now is a teen. My criticism of the system is too much rote, not enough analysis. A lot of emphasis on the what and not the why. Also, they get funneled into streams--humanities/sciences/no university--fairly young, certainly before they have life experiences that might lead them to have an interest in a certain career.

  7. Roteness is a good part of the criticism of French language and music education, or so I understood. Too much solfege, for example.

    I am an advocate for more what and less why. This book blog is mostly what. American schools, in the humanities, could use way way way more what.

  8. I have to echo DtO and Emma concerning the resources poured into culture and public education in France. In the U.S., the very idea of a "Minister of Culture" would be ridiculed. Affordability is a significant factor. I saw a play in Paris for 11 Euro. Several months later the same play, same production, same cast showed up at a well-known theater in the Bay Area with tickets going for nearly $100 - and an audience consisting, predictably, almost entirely of older people. And book prices are regulated by the French state so that they remain affordable. Emma's observation about cultural shows is apt: On weekday evenings, I marveled that French television was filled with talk shows on politics and culture to a degree proportionate to sports shows on Sunday afternoon TV in the U.S.

    This too is a generalization, but I find that the French take democracy a lot more seriously as a concept and a practice than do Americans.

    In any case, the old canard from Oliver Wendall Holmes about not minding paying taxes because with them he buys civilization appears to be a demonstrable truth in France.