IT'S NOT ONLY in the United States that schools are being pushed to more rigorous standards of performance. The French government has now declared an end to the period of progressive and rather relaxed experimentation that began there in the late 1960s. By next September France's primary schools will have a new and very different curriculum that reaches back to the older tradition.
It's a political anomaly. The progressive movement developed under conservative Gaullist governments, and the return to conventional discipline is now being imposed by a Socialist government. The current minister of education, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, is a leader of the Socialist Party's left wing and earlier, as minister of industry, made many enemies among French businessmen as an aggressive interventionist. But he is also a man of intellect who places great value on a trained mind and is affronted that, as he charges, one out of every five French children is illiterate upon leaving primary school at the age of 11. The cultural left and the political left are not always quite the same thing.
It's not only reading and arithmetic that are to be drilled under the new regimen. Mr. Chevenement wants French children to know where the country's rivers and cities are. President Francois Mitterrand has been complaining for some time about the style of history that devotes much attention to peasant life in the 17th century but leaves pupils very unclear regarding who was king when, and why a number of citizens thought it desirable to cut the head off one of them two centuries ago. It's back to names and dates.
Is that elitist, as France's progressive educators charge? Mr. Chevenement makes no apologies. When he was at the ministry of industry, he got a sharp sense that France was falling behind in the technologies by which the rich countries will either earn their livings or become much less rich. Having begun with the primary schools, he intends to undertake similar reforms -- or, as some of the left complains, counter-reforms -- at the higher levels. It's not all Corneille and Racine. He is currently spending serious amounts of money to put computers into the schools.
A country's educational system is always the truest reflection of the real structure of its society. For a century France's schools have been highly competitive, highly centralized and capable of producing extraordinary minds. There has always been an articulate minority of Frenchmen who wanted to see less pressure for achievement and more emphasis on equality. But the Socialists have concluded that, in a world becoming more competitive, France cannot become less so.