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How We Learn #1


On the whole, I think I had a good education. When I was growing up, I lived in Beirut, Lebanon which was then under a French Mandate giving it a status that was slightly higher than a colony but not by much.

The French considered it their duty to educate those of us who did not have the good fortune to be born French so they established “lycees” in all their dominions. A lycee is a combination middle school, high school and part college.

Each lycee throughout France had the same curriculum as all the other schools in France. A centralized and uniform system rigidly controlled everything. This meant that early grade history books invariably started with “Our ancestors the Gauls….” Whether our real ancestors were Phoenicians or Israelites was beside the point.

Our school was called “Mission Laique Francaise” which translates as “French Secular Mission” so you might say that our teachers were secular priests spreading culture and civilization instead of religion. Besides imparting knowledge in the sciences and the humanities, they taught us how to think rationally and ask questions. We did not have “true or false” tests but had to write essays in most topics giving reasons for our point of view based of course on our mastery and interpretation of the facts. This was an excellent preparation for higher education and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

In other respects there were serious deficiencies in the mode of teaching our school espoused. Many of you have heard about the English “public schools” where teachers not only inflicted corporal punishment but mocked, ridiculed and exposed pupils to humiliation. I see now with hindsight that some of that sadism was also present in our own teachers. For instance our graded assignments were always returned to us in class publicly following a system of “worst first” and with sarcastic comments. The longer your name was not called the more relieved you felt. The best assignments were handed out last.

Our physics and chemistry teacher had a sixth sense for sensing who had not prepared the homework and unerringly homed in on those unfortunates with unanswerable questions seemingly enjoying embarrassing them in front of the class. I guess the concept of self-esteem had not yet been invented.

Editor’s note: More musings on education to come in the next post. Please volunteer your own experiences in the comments section and we will publish them.


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Lamine senezac Recent comment authors
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I recently watched Cinema Paradiso, set in southern Italy just after WWII. There are schooling scenes, and it’s horrifying to me today the way the teachers would beat and berate and control the children. I wonder if maybe teachers used to think of children as less than human? Or somehow that the abuse was in the greater service of humanity or something? I wonder when we figured out that kids had feelings, and it mattered how they were treated? I mean, today, we have aggressive anti-bullying campaigns in schools to protect kids from each other. Now we rarely consider if… Read more »

Lamine sene
Lamine sene

I attended the prestigious Lycée Van Vollenhoven of Dakar in Sénégal between 1962 and 1969. Reading Simone’s description of her Lycée, I felt like she was actually narrating my own story. We shared the same ancestors, the Gauls!