Thursday, January 19, 2006

I knew I wasn't alone

I knew I couldn't possibly be the only soul to have attended a Belgian school. My post received a comment from "David," who attended one as well. What he says rings true, especially since we attended schools in the same city. Since he adds information, his complete comment follows; I'll butt in where our experience differs or where it leads to different conclusions. Or just when it triggers a fond memory.

David said...

I also spent a year in the Belgian school system: I was in (the equivalent of) 7th grade in 1970-1971. So many of your comments ring true. But some things have changed...

We had the same schedule as you, but we only had Wednesday and Saturday afternoons off: Tuesdays were a full day. The teachers must have negotiated an extra half-day since I left!

Actually, we were nearly contemporaries. I was there in '71-'72. I'm guessing my reference to the '96 teachers' strike is what gave the impression that my experience was more recent. That was a result of my doing some search-engine-fueled catching up, as well as my deliberately leaving the timeline vague. The post is dated Sunday, which is when I started it, but I didn't actually post it until Tuesday. I spent the time between making sure that significant details hadn't changed. They hadn't.

As far as the Tuesday afternoon thing, I'm stuck in a place where my memory says one thing, but my "Journal de classe" says another. I certainly don't remember having Tuesday afternoons off, and I'm not finding any evidence that that is current practice either, but without documentation in front of me, I wasn't about to insist that my memory was accurate. The fact of the matter is that I remember classes (dactylo (typing), for example) that don't show on the course schedule I have in front of me from that long-ago year. I remember there was some bureaucratic shuffling and juggling as the school administration sorted out what exactly to do with an American high-school graduate attending a Belgian high school as an exchange student. I guessed, as I wrote the piece, that I was a couple hours off on the total/week, and David's comment confirms that. Thank you!

I'm curious as to the curriculum you were in: I was in (what was then called) "Sixieme Latine" ("Sixth Latin"), which--under the then system--was the first year of secondary school (they counted down from six to one). My classes varied from one period a week (gym and swimming) up to NINE periods a week (latin), with most courses (French, Dutch, math) being four or five periods a week.

I'm jealous of your being there that young, David, though I can't say that I regret having gone when I did (I don't know how well I'd have tolerated nine hours of Latin). I had a (host-family) cousin in Sixieme Latine as well. The kids in Latin-Greque really got a dose of the classical.

As an exchange student, I was a senior, and without the classical-language background my options were somewhat limited. Add to that the fact that every effort was made to accomodate my own peculiar interests and goals, and I was in Premiere Sciences Humaines - human sciences (whatever the hell that is). Is everyone getting the picture here that Belgian students actually declare "majors" as soon as they get out of primary school? That's basically what happens.

As to "modern" languages: that's just to distinguish them from "ancient" languages (Latin and Greek). In those days, the most "scholarly" curriculum was "Latin-Greek" (emphasis on the classics), followed by "Latin-Math" and "Latin-Sciences". Next down in the hierarchy (bear in mind, this is a sociological hierarchy, not an economic one!) were the "Modern" sections, which didn't teach Latin or Greek. Finally, there were the "Technical" sections, which--as was indicated above--were more vocational training and didn't necessarily go all six years.

Your point about "modern" vs. "ancient" is well taken. You're entirely correct, and I realize that. I just find it interesting that Belgians call the language spoken by their neighbors "modern" whereas we insist on calling it "foreign." That just seems like an unnecessary barrier to me. We speak of "native" languages and "foreign" languages; they speak of "first" and "second" and "third" languages.

My younger host-brother was Latin-Sciences; he's now a dentist in Liege. My older host-brother was Latin-Math, and I remember his spending hours trying to work out the curves in a drawing of a spiral staircase. I learned then and there that India ink is so difficult to erase that it's easier to start over.

But again, one can only conclude that Belgian students and families make decisions about their children's futures on the basis of what a twelve-year-old is good at.

As far as competition goes: there were parents who were willing to go to great lengths to send their kids to what they considered good schools. I went to a Catholic school in Liege, the College St.-Louis, which had a rep as being academically outstanding (in those days the Catholic system was considered far superior to the secular state system of "Athenees" [Athenaeums]), and several of my classmates came from small towns deep in the Ardennes: they had a two-hour or longer commute, by public transportation, every day, in each direction.

I remember the College St.-Louis (Rue Grétry 55 (I cheated. I didn't remember exactly where it was in that neighborhood, so I looked it up)). One of the distractions of being an exchange student was going to speak at schools in the area. About six weeks before I truly acclimatised to the language, I spoke to an auditorium of kids there, ostensibly about what it meant to be American - what it was like to live here, etc. I could have handled "rural Minnesota." "America" was a bit more than I was comfortable chewing. Still is. The students seemed more interested in Angela Davis and the Viet Nam war than they did in corn and soybeans. I couldn't blame them at the time. I had to ask how one said "contientious objector" in French, so I could explain that little angle of "life in the States"(Belgian youth were obligated to military service for a year after they finished school, unless they were "objecteurs de consciences").

And yeah (big YEAH) to the commuting-to-school-from-out-of-town thing. I lived right on the Meuse (the river that runs through Liege, for those of you who don't have David and my common understanding of geography) and was able to walk just about anywhere in the city in 45 minutes or less, so I walked to school. Most of my dozen classmates weren't much worse off (one lived just around the corner from the school. over the hobby shop his family ran. I bought a model car there once, just to take a break from being Belgian), but we had a classmate who came in from the Ardennes as well. Ludo (short for Ludovico) was (obviously) of Italian descent and dominated discussions in philosophy class, but was otherwise rather quiet.

I want to gloat a little bit, and say that at least I can find a website for L'Athenee Royal de Liege, which I attended. All I find for the College St.-Louis is tourism sites that refer to its swimming pool. But the site for the Athenee is dismal, and the school would probably be better served without it, so gloating would be totally inappropriate. I'm not even going to link to the site, it's that bad. And the swimming pool is in the basement, just as it was when I was there.

But much of the competition was also in other, non-academic aspects: I knew a couple who lived outside of Liege, and they had the choice of two nearby schools, one larger and more academically challenging, and the other smaller and perhaps less rigorous. They sent one boy to one and the other to the other. Try that here in the states!

I guess this is where my public-school bias gets to blossom: how is choosing between "academically challenging" and "less rigorous" not a desicion based on academics? I recognize the argument that it doesn't have to be in the same school, or lead to the same diploma. What I don't understand is the insistence that it be in separate facilities. I've just had too many special education students in my classes to believe that "separate-but-equal" is appropriate.

One aspect which may or may not have been covered elsewhere: there was no distinction between secular schools and religiously-affiliated ones. They all got state subsidies, and--as previously mentioned--the (Catholic) Colleges were generally considered superior to the (secular) Athenees. I believe that Protestant, Jewish and Muslim schools were also allowed subsidies, though--having never actually encountered one while I was there--I can't swear to it.

Given that Belgium is 95% Catholic, it's hardly amazing that the possible wouldn't exist. I suspect that it's "possible" in several places in this country to establish a Hmong charter school, but does anyone know of one? And if a school's sole funding is derived from a per-physically-present-pupil-on-September 10 formula, is that a "subsidy?" Given that public school funding is solely determined by counting students, I don't think so. A "subsidy" is something that's optional - like paying farmers to keep their fields weed- and crop-free, in order to support prices (or a guaranteed per/bale price for cotton or tobacco, regardless of the market). They can plant (or raise the crop regardless), or they can take the payment. It's a choice. Show me the "choice" for public schools, and I'll acknowledge the use of the term "subsidy."

Having not seen the Stossel report, I can't intelligently comment on it. But if we were to go to a system of state funding for education that didn't distinguish between "public" and "religious" schools; that allowed parents to decide where their kids should go, rather than having the decision made by arbitrary geographical boundaries (and even more arbitrary busing...); and where the dollars followed the student--IOW, a fully-funded voucher system, with open enrollment--I can't see how that wouldn't be an improvement over what we have now.

As some have observed, we've had school choice in this country for years: just not for the poor.

I'm not about to suggest that the public-school system as we see it today is perfect. Nor am I about to suggest that we couldn't learn valuable lessons from the Belgians. What I do suggest is that, as I implied the other day, we shouldn't accept a comparison to the Belgians without understanding what we're comparing ourselves to.

David, thank you. I haven't even gotten to many of the dances down memory lane that you triggered with your response (do you remember La Gallerie, the tunnelesque street of shops with houses over the top of the street?).

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