Here’s one you’ve probably heard—and groaned at—before: You know how you can tell Parisians are the most worldly, sophisticated people in the world? Even the children there speak French!
It’s a dumb joke, but I think it also goes a ways toward explaining why Dana Goldstein thinks the essay prompts on France’s college entrance exams cover “complex, intellectual topics” that their U.S. counterparts would never be expected to attempt. Like Michael Moynihan, I’m not quite as impressed. First, the prompts are pretty vague and, like the ones I remember seeing on similar tests as a teenager, offer a fair amount of latitude: They’re the kind of questions that give a middling student the opportunity to produce a competent response, and a stellar student room to show off. So let’s look at a couple of the questions:
1) Does objectivity in history suppose impartiality in the historian?
In almost every case here, we’re dealing translations that preserve the form of the original French sentence, and we’re culturally programmed to find this especially—how do you say?— impressionnant. I bet we’re not quite as bowled over by:
If a historian is to write objective history, is it necessary that she treat her subject matter impartially?
There’s a sort of boringly obvious “yes” answer any competent student should be able to knock out. A slightly more sophisticated version might warn against treating “past as prologue” and note the dangerous temptation to forget that our own values are an inheritance from history’s winners. The “no” answer runs through ways that excessive impartiality can prevent us from passing judgments that reveal objective truths.
Does language betray thought?
In fairness, I’m not even sure what this one means, mostly because of the ambiguity of the English “betray.” But I can think of two or three readings, all of which can be worded rather less pompously as questions I’d expect a college-bound 18-year-old to muster something coherent about.
Is it absurd to desire the impossible?
That “absurd” is doing a lot of the intimidation work here, dragging in the specter of Camus and the problem of meaning in a disenchanted world. How about:
Does it ever make sense to want what you can’t have?
Basically the same question, no longer anything we’d blink at on an American SAT.
Are there questions which no science can answer?