In Britain, we have an absurd fixation with university league tables. In the absence of a similar system in France, I knew little of what to expect when I arrived in Dijon for my year abroad studying history at the Université de Bourgogne. The titles of the courses were not even released until the first week of classes, and the course choice was so limited that I, with a preference for modern social history, found myself writing an essay about the history of bears in the middle ages.
This is because students at Dijon are required to take courses from Antiquity, medieval, modern and contemporary periods. It was interesting to note the differences in terminology. L’histoire moderne is what we refer to as the early modern period, ending at the French Revolution, followed by histoire contemporaine, which is the period we call modern history. I also took a course entitled Temps présent, which was essentially post-war French history stretching all the way up until the 2005 French riots, and which brought in sociological concepts and demographic trends.
In their final year, history students at Dijon choose between continuing this broad historical degree, or studying ‘approaches to the contemporary world’, which focused on contemporary history, but which brought in courses on international relations, sociology, and the media. There is a significant stress on the interdisciplinary nature of history.
Similarly, a common complaint of non-British history professors at the University of Edinburgh is the monolingualism of students, which is a product of our culture. In Dijon, every history student is made to take a language throughout all three years of their degree. Interestingly, language courses are delivered in classes uniquely composed of history students, the courses being tailor-made to fit with the discipline. Other disciplines such as geography and sociology are also seen as essential to the historian, and are made requisites of the course.
Partly as a result of this rigid course structure, a French university often feels like a factory, where everybody arrives knowing their future career path and chooses a degree in service of this. One professor, while giving feedback on a student’s presentation, said, ‘If you want to become a teacher, you cannot write on the board in abbreviations’, without first asking whether said student wished to become a teacher. Skills such as critical thinking did not seem to be such a priority, and there were no tutorial-style discussions as I was used to in the UK. That being said, professors were nonetheless passionate about their subjects, and had the freedom to tailor courses to their interests.
My favourite course was entitled ‘La table des Européens’, and gave a history of food in Europe, including the development of restaurants, the arrival of colonial ingredients, and the link between food and cultural identity. It is a course only a French professor could come up with. And he duly began the first lecture with a game of finish-the-sentence, which went like this: “Italians eat… Pasta. The British eat… badly. The French eat… well.’
The events in Paris on 13 November 2015 were a sombre reminder of the importance of what we have chosen to study, prompting some difficult speeches from professors. One professor of Temps présent had a particularly important reminder for us. Terrorism, she said, is “not the radicalisation of Islam, but the Islamisation of radicalism”.
While I was not necessarily impressed by the educational system during my year at a French university, the academic experience was more valuable than I had anticipated. It is always interesting to see how another country approaches history. This is not even to mention the extraordinary opportunities outside of the classroom that a year abroad offers. It would be a great tragedy were future students to miss out on similar opportunities to study abroad.
I promised myself I would not mention Brexit. That’s it, I need to go and hide under my desk.