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Literature & Arts or Maths & Science?

I bumped recently into an acquaintance, who with an obvious sigh of relief on her face, announced that her high school daughter is doing Literature. We’re in France, hence I would like to talk first about the secondary schooling in this country.

Secondary education in France consists of Collège (junior high, 11 - 14 years old; 4 years of schooling) and Lycée (senior high, 15 - 18 years old; 3 years of schooling). Like in most high schools in developed countries, the core subjects in Collège are Math, Science, History, Geography, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Music, Physical Education and languages. At the Lycée students prepare for the Baccalauréat (known as ‘le bac’) which opens the door to a tertiary education or the workforce.

The Lycée is divided into general (for university studies), technology (for short-term studies) and professional (vocational qualification). During the first year at Lycée (known as Seconde), students choose a stream (série): S – Scientific, ES – Economic and Social, and L – Literature. The S is mainly high level mathematics, physics-chemistry and biology-geology. The L is heavily focused on French language & literature, foreign languages & literature and philosophy. ES covers economics and social sciences.

According to statistics, while a third of Lycée général students opt for S, only about 10 go for L; and the main reason is that L is generally falsely attributed to less brilliant students and perceived as having a limited job opportunity. It’s not only in France where many children are forced to choose a scientific field due to societal pressure and reason of employability.

In Australia, the UK and USA, admission to a Bachelor of Arts (BA) course is easier than to a Bachelor of Science (BSc). It’s alleged that a BSc graduate has a better chance of finding a job than a BA graduate. Accordingly, it’s not uncommon to hear Literature or Arts graduates being the subject of bad employment jokes.

Job opportunities shouldn’t be the main reason for our choice of a career?

To quote the French mother, “She’s really happy doing L. It would have been a big mistake forcing her to do ES; and S was out of the question.”

As parents, we’re aware of our children’s ability, capacity and passion; and often, they also know these. Therefore, if they want to study philosophy, literature or arts, let them. After all, our world needs people in these fields, and we wouldn’t advance in technology and medicine if we didn’t have decision makers who know what’s right or wrong for individuals, families and societies. As well, if they insist and persist regardless of nays and nayers, it’s because they are likely to be the cream of the crop in such field and will make a difference in the way we live.

A high school stream or/and degree in Science or Math doesn’t guarantee employment. What is more advantageous and sustainable is to have relevant skills (writing, interpersonal – verbal communication, critical analysis and thinking) at the right time. For instance, a major in Literature or BA is open-ended and not constraint to a specific career; and if you’ve the right skills, you can always find work in teaching, social work, research or sales. In all these jobs, the main skills needed are communication (oral & written) and interpersonal (e.g. empathy, sensitivity).

Our society has evolved rapidly and significantly, and still does. We study, work and live longer; and we need to have fun doing these because otherwise it’s a miserable voyage on Earth. There’s no such thing as the end-goal (i.e. the search for success and happiness); everything is along the way! Therefore, formal education should be relevant & enjoyable and parents be good listeners to their children’s passions and dreams so that these students will mature happily and optimistically. Stressed and pessimistic children have a tendency to grow up as depressed adults, inadequate parents and unsatisfied workers. (from my website BRolade Societal Blog -


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