Tuesday, June 14, 2011

12 out of 20

I first became familiar with the French grading system when I was an exchange student back in high school. Sitting in the front row of my history class I waited nervously for the professor to hand back our first papers of the year, 12/20 was written in bold on the top of the page. Oh no! 12 out of 20?! That's not even a C.

Practice brioche 
And yet to my surprise, my neighbors both leaned in to congratulated me. You see, as an American (and a competitive one at that) I was obviously shooting for a 20/20. When I shared this objective with my French counterparts they giggled and said "That's impossible, even the professors don't get 20/20. No one is THAT smart."

The topic of grades is on my mind because I just finished a week of pastry making exams. I don't think I mentioned this... but back in September I started taking an evening course in pastry making. I began a paralel blog about that experience here: www.eatinginparis.com because the collection of crazy stories from that class clearly deserved their own place online. The various tests went well and I am now waiting until July 5th to get my results.  If I score a 10/20 or higher I will have earned my Certificat d'Aptitude Professionnelle en Pâtisserie and be a State certified practitioner of pastry making.

In France you are pleased with a 10/20, happy with 12/20, thrilled with a 13/20 and anything over a 14/20 is going straight on to the fridge at home. If you get 10 or higher you can consider your grade a success, you have obtained the moyenne which is translates to the average and have therefore passed.

The classroom
If in the States I handed in my work and my teacher gave it back to me saying she thought it was average I certainly would not have been pleased. I was after comments like, great! good! nice work! Followed by a big letter A. We of course use letters as grades which is understandably odd to the French, but what is even more unusual to them is that people regularly get A's and to top it all off we have invented something called the A+. If A is the best anyone can possibly do (which any naturally skeptical French person will tell you is not possible) then what on earth does an  A+ represent? Better than the best? How can that be?

The fact that we use letters and they use numbers is interesting, but not that interesting. The real crux of the matter here is that from beginning the French are told that being average is realistic and a good thing, while Americans are told they are awesome, no make that awesome plus. This seemingly basic difference is in my opinion, the first crack in the cultural divide that separates our two societies. Acceptance of average and being told with brutal honestly that perfection is unobtainable, colors the way French people see things far beyond the years they spend in the classroom.

My final exam presentation
For example, one of my favorite French friends just spent three weeks in New York city. While sitting along the Hudson one day, he was approached by a slightly older man, who struck up a conversation with him about politics. They spoke of Dominique Strauss-Kahn which lead them to a discussion about the Jewish culture which lead them to the topic of circumcision. From here, my straight friend told me, the previously innocent conversation took a turn for the worse and my friend's new acquaintance inquired about the nature of his penis... curious both about the presence of his foreskin and the size of it. The reason I am telling you this story comes next... My friend's response to the question about size was this, "Well you know, I suppose you could say it is average in size." Average! A perfectly honest answer that I doubt you would hear from the mouth of an American.

I would know because weather it is penises or pastries I, an American, am still unwilling to say out loud that I would be happy with la moyenne. I want a substantially above average grade for my pastries and fingers crossed I will get it.


Elisa said...

Ooh! I want to you to teach me all there is to know about French pastry!

I wish we could feel more comfortable with average in the US.
Miss you!

GeekGoddess said...

Bonjour. Stumbled upon your blog when googling "how to marry a French man" just for kicks. I, too, am an American francophile. I am working on my M.A. in French. What an exciting life you lead. I love France...the culture and the food. I'm coming to visit this year over Christmas and am hoping to stay more permanently as an ESL teacher. The food all looks great! Please feel free to follow me on twitter or FB! - À Bientôt ,Melissa twitter.com/TheBroadwayBaby

Louise said...

Oh Madame Bouron you are so amazing. When you come to Ireland we'll expect you to produce this for breakfast you know......

Madame Bouron said...

You better believe it Louse! Warm brioche, toasty almond tarts.. I'm on it. Can't wait for Ireland!

Madame Bouron said...

Hi Elisa! That's all part of the grand plan! You can be my first student to practice on ;)

La Rêveuse said...

Thought provoking article. :) I agree, and saw much of the same while I was there, but I also felt that sometimes the French accepted less because it was good enough, and "tradition", rather than improving things because they felt they were worth it.

I was good at sniffing out the best products, the most delicious bread, looking for the nicest produce and walking away if I didn't get what I wanted. I was able to share some of my finds with french friends, who were happily impressed. I have an American friend who bought a tea shop in Paris and has won over the French with her pastries, thé gourmande, and her delicious lunches.

One of the benefits of being American is that when told you can't achieve, it gives you the gumption to prove them wrong. ;-)

Bon courage et bonne chance!

Anna said...

I have to say I don't agree with your analysis on the two grading systems..It isn't that we, French students, are satisfied when having average grades, it's just that teachers here are more severe than in the US, their expectations are higher - maybe too high.
Just for the principle they'll never (or hardly ever)give you a 20/20, even if your work is excellent, because that's supposed to be perfection and no one can be perfect. The French system is not about cheering students and telling them they're amazing, teachers rather give grades around "la moyenne"/the average because they expect you to push your limits, that you can always do better. Because if you get grades above 15/16 you might feel contended and fulfilled, and you won't try to improve anymore. It's a culture of excellence. In the "classes prépa" it's FAR worse (sometimes you can be happy when you get a ...4) Not everyone is like this but it's a widespread mentality. 12 can be a good, an average or a bad grade depending on the teacher, I'd say it's most often considered a bit better than average, not good but OK.