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I'm a sucker for newspaper headlines employing word-plays on Rene Descartes, aren't you?

This was last month when The New York Times ran a feature datelined Paris by Alan Riding about French high school seniors, more than half a million of them, taking a nationally required four-hour test in which the kids have to write a five-page dissertation in which they must "discuss an abstract subject."

And the Cartesian headline, "They Think, Therefore They Are Very French," pays tribute, of course, to Rene Descartes' famous intellectual wisecrack, "Cogito, ergo sum."

Or for those among us for whom Latin is indeed a dead language, "I think, therefore I am."

Mr. Riding writes in the Times, "France is still the only country in the world that requires the study of philosophy in high school. But more than instilling a smattering of knowledge about Hobbes or Voltaire or Locke or Marx, this policy aims to teach young French men and women how to think ..."

Last year, he reported, the exam questions included, "Is reality always realistic?" and, two years ago, "Can self-knowledge be sincere?" and, "How do you know that a problem is philosophical?"

Other questions (the country is divided into regions with differing sets of questions) included, "Is reason a guarantee against deception?" and "Is a philosopher necessarily a man of his times?" with an option instead to discuss Saint Augustine's discourse on war and peace.

Can you imagine the typical American high school senior handling any of these questions with distinction? Or even being able to understand the question, never mind supply an answer. How would you do on such a test? Or I?

The French mark the tests more rigorously for students who major in the humanities and less so on those who are studying social or pure sciences. The goal of the exams is to encourage young people about to move on from high school into university or into the work force, to learn to analyze. Some of the kids think it a waste of time yet one concedes, "Perhaps it developed my critical faculties, who knows?" And another, a young woman headed for college, said, "It has changed my whole way of thinking. I feel like it has been a voyage into history. I have learned how to reason."

In this country, meanwhile, in the New York Daily News of the very next day, the board of education issued a report, a sorry account of math and reading scores from the second grade through high school in the city's public schools. In this study, citywide, kids through all those classes scoring at or above only the 50th percentile, and broken down by ethnicity, showed these results:

Seventy per cent of whites scored at or above the 50th percentile; 42% of blacks; 36% of hispanics; 65% of Asians/Pacific. Math scores were pretty much as bad. And from 1991 to 1994, scores went down, not up, right across the board.

Then the schools chancellor tried two weeks later to remove a school principal in the Bronx. The principal's sin: in the 800-child intermediate school, as many as 200 a day cut class, teachers were late or didn't show, 7th graders left back for poor performance were then hastily promoted to the 8th grade so that this spring they could immediately graduate into high school, and reading scores dropped yet again.

Was the principal sacked (he'd been dropped once before, then given a second chance)? The president of the local school board defied the chancellor. "We have the right to hire and fire, not him."

Once, the public school system of this country was the envy of the civilized world, the best free education offered anywhere, from elementary school through the great city colleges and land-grant universities. Our children attended these schools and worked hard and were held to certain standards and by the time they were old enough for college, were usually prepared to cope with the work and didn't have to go right into a remedial reading and writing program as a freshman.

What happened?

I suppose in just about every major American city you could write your own tale of woe, recount your own public school horror story.

Here in New York we have a local community school board setup which has, by and large, been a scandal and disgrace, a ripoff of the schools and the children and the taxpayers as well. The local boards in many districts function as patronage and job-sale operations, and as arms of the local political machine. The children come last, if at all, very much an afterthought. The teachers' unions have as their first priority the care and feeding and job security and tenure and the like of their dues-paying memberships. Every year or so the schools chancellor quits or is ousted. And the politicians? They posture and chase votes and play to the pressure groups, whether local boards or unions or parent blocs.

While in France this spring 570,000 teenagers wrote dissertations on philosophical questions.

What happened to American public education?

Is it the teachers? Single-parent households? Drugs? Too much television? Violent and unruly students? School busing? Community boards? Society in general? Voters who defeat school budgets? Government?

I lived four years in France. Children then (and probably still) had a longer school day and school year and were assigned homework and were expected to maintain certain standards. Not all did, obviously. But those who did were ready, at 17 or 18, to move on to college or into the job market, able to read, to write, to think.

The French don't think this is asking too much of their children. Would it be asking too much of ours?

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