A life in books
11 November 2010
15 November 2010

An Evening with Peter Gumbel


Peter Gumbel, author of a best-selling essay about the French education system, “On achève bien les écoliers”, will be our guest on November 16, and will talk about what has gone wrong with the school system that was once the pride of the nation – and the growing debate about how to fix it.

He is an award-winning journalist who has lived in France since 2000. The Wall Street Journal recruited him in 1984. He spent the next 16 years at the paper, working in Bonn, New York, Moscow, Paris, Berlin and Los Angeles, where he served as the paper’s bureau chief for four years. While working here in Paris for Time magazine, Peter Gumbel has been teaching at Science Po. Although he went there to teach journalism classes, he learned first-hand about the French school system. He writes:

Back in 2002, we moved to Paris from Los Angeles, in part because we wanted our children to have a great European education. French schools, with their high academic standards, seemed to offer just that, at least from a distance.

It didn’t take long to discover that the reality of school here is far removed from the magnificent ideal of a great meritocratic institution that the French themselves long boasted about. In practice, it’s a system stricken with high dropout rates, declining scores in international comparative tests, crass inequalities, and a worrying increase in the proportion of children who simply can’t read, write or do basic math even after years of schooling.  All this has given rise to a vexed debate in France about what’s gone wrong. Yet one element has long been missing from this debate, the element that’s most apparent to me and to many other foreigners here with children: the harsh and sometimes demeaning classroom culture that piles stress onto kids even as it saps their self-confidence.

International comparative studies show that French schoolchildren are more anxious in class and afraid of speaking up than their peers in the U.S., that they feel discouraged and unaided by their teachers, and overall have a much less warm and fuzzy relationship with their school.

My book about this culture sparked a big media reaction since its publication in early September, helping to feed the policy debate that is now starting up ahead of the 2012 presidential elections. Changing anything in France is a fight, but this promises to be one of the most intriguing and important ones.


“The book that has provoked a storm in France.”
– The Observer

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