Date Thesis Awarded
Honors Thesis -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only
Bachelors of Arts (BA)
Modern Languages and Literatures
The baccalauréat, or bac for short, is an exam culminating the secondary education of students all across France, conferring a diploma and the title of “bachelier” to those who pass. The bac also dictates the organization of the lycée, or high school, because students prepare for different versions of the exam, so their paths diverge in regards to both subject matter and future trajectories. In this paper, I will demonstrate that as the baccalauréat has democratized over the years, it has evolved into an increasingly restrictive instrument of selection, whereby the elite are selected through the unofficial but unmistakable hierarchization of its tracks.
The term “elites” and “elite selection” are integral to my work. Firstly, I define the elites as those holding power in terms of wealth, knowledge, and/or privilege; those whose socialization and credentials give them an advantage in the educational system (Pierre Bourdieu would define this as “cultural capital”). As such, I consider teachers to belong to the elite because they are both educated and highly aware of the correct strategies to make regarding subject or track choice. My use of the terms “advantaged” or “privileged” when describing social class follows a similar logic. Likewise, I typically consider “disadvantaged” students as those belonging to families with markedly less cultural capital, wealth, or privilege, and acknowledge that while racial or ethnic background does not always mean one belongs to the working classes, race and class are still heavily linked in France due to its history of colonization, and so students from minority backgrounds often fall into the “disadvantaged” category. I use “elite selection” and “elite formation” somewhat interchangeably; both refer to the process of developing (or maintaining) the nation’s future elites. However, “selection” is also meant to hold a connotation of exclusion, because those who are not selected to progress towards being a member of the elite are left behind.
This paper is organized into three chapters. In the first chapter, I provide a history of the baccalauréat and notable reforms since its inception in 1808, setting the reader up to understand past trends in elite selection and formation and how these trends have evolved along with the democratization of the bac. In the second chapter, I explore how the modern-day system maintains inequalities through the insidious hierarchization of tracks, and how science and math tracks — specifically Track C and Series S of the most recent versions of the bac — select the elite and exclude the rest. In the third chapter, I dissect the “Baccalauréat 2021” reform, including the reasons why President Macron’s administration believed it was necessary, the concerns and pushback from actors within the system, and the potential exacerbation of inequities it may bring about. All three chapters will include my analysis of how French culture and values reinforce and perpetuate this elitism, from the French insistence on egalitarianism over equity, to the misdirected belief in meritocracy, to the institutionalization of elite pathways.
Through my paper, I will address questions such as: How has elite selection adapted to the times? Why does opportunity for differentiation within the baccalauréat perpetuate inequalities? Will the 2021 reform likely make a difference regarding these inequalities? I use concepts introduced by sociologists such as Samuel Lucas, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, and Pierre Merle in order to both contextualize certain phenomena of elite selection and attempt to answer some of these questions.
In a time of deepening social inequalities, being able to understand how and why the education system perpetuates these inequalities is crucial. Research on elite selection tends to focus more on institutions of higher education than on the baccalauréat, and so my work aims to bridge this gap. More broadly, I hope to reveal the way opportunities for differentiation within the school and belief in meritocracy reinforce social inequalities and hinder the attainment of true educational equity.
Thurman, Nori, ""La Noblesse de Diplôme": Evolution of the French Baccalauréat as an Instrument of Elite Selection" (2021). Undergraduate Honors Theses. William & Mary. Paper 1610.
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