Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Les Grandes Ecoles Chinoises

Note Added (2022): Wikipedia has a long entry on this topic.

The American intellectual elite are endlessly fascinated by the French Grandes Ecoles, which employ a rigorous examination system for admissions. See example below from today's NY Times.

In the past I'd read that the British and French based their civil service and educational examination systems on the much older Chinese model, but was not sure to what extent it is true. See here for an interesting discussion.
... Brunetiere believed that French education was really based on the Chinese system of competitive literary examinations, and that the idea of a civil service recruited by competitive examinations undoubtedly owed its origins to the Chinese system which was popularized in France by the philosophers, especially Voltaire. This definite conclusion that the French civil service examination system came from China is adopted by several authors ...
Summary of the case of Britain and colonial India can be found here. Amusingly, 19th century British writers opposed to the new system of exams referred to it as "... an adopted Chinese culture" (p. 304-305).

NYTimes: ... Born out of the French Enlightenment, the grandes écoles have long been the cradle of the governing class. “Normaliens” (graduates from École Normal Supérieure, whose 12 Nobel laureates include Henri Bergson and Jean-Paul Sartre), “Gadzarts” (from École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts et Métiers, like Jean-Lou Chameau, president of the California Institute of Technology), “X-iens” (from École Polytechnique, including the physicist Sadi Carnot, the philosopher Auguste Comte and the mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot), and “Enarques” (from École National d’Administration, including almost all recent prime ministers) occupy a place in French national life similar to Oxbridge graduates in England or the Ivy League in the United States.

Internationally, however, these institutions have far less clout than their Anglo-American counterparts.

... The grandes écoles run along very different lines. Admission is selective, with candidates generally required to complete a grueling two-year preparatory course. This “prépa” includes intensive study in mathematics, economics, philosophy and literature, plus at least two foreign languages. Of 1,079 candidates who took the entrance exam for the business school HEC in 2009, only 50 were offered places, and most of those already held master’s degrees from other institutions. The competition for science places is even tougher.

... Yet he, too, alluded to the new reality of global competition: “When I was a student we spoke of ‘le défi américain’ — the American challenge. Now we speak of ‘le défi asiatique’ — the challenge from Asia.”

How will France face this challenge? Dr. Tapie pointed out that while France “has only 1 percent of the world’s population, we make up 33 percent of Fields medalists,” the mathematics equivalent of Nobel laureates.

It was Cédric Villani, a 37-year-old professor at Lyon who won the 2010 Fields Medal, who gave the most spirited reply to France’s critics. Calling himself “a pure product of the French system,” Mr. Villani, a Normalien who has often taught in the United States, said that while American academic salaries were higher “and it’s easier to make big projects,” France also has particular strengths: “Our tradition, our quality of life, our social cohesion. My big problem in Princeton was finding a place to buy a decent cheese.”


Ian said...

What the Europeans really valued about the Chinese examination system was its emphasis on literature and philosophy. Europeans knew, of course, that the Chinese couldn't do math and science for beans, having squandered a promising head start with the binary arithmetic of the I Ching. But the empire’s academic meritocracy propelled the best exam candidates into positions of political leadership and enabled them construct a perfect, rationally ordered society. A Chinese literary scholar could even criticize his own regime with a freedom that Enlightenment intellectuals, groaning under Europe's tyrannical governments, could only fantasize about.

Drago said...

Excellent topic (and an excellent blog). Small correction - the title should be "Les Grandes Ecoles Chinoises" (feminine plural)


Guest said...

What is the estimated mean IQ for a Normalien? Inquiring minds want to know. Also, why are Frenchies so much better at math than theoretical physics?

steve hsu said...

Re: Normaliens, good question! I don't know. But is the average Normalien really better than the average MIT or Caltech grad? ;-)

Re: math vs theoretical physics, I think it comes down to the very long tradition for math in France. Math has very high prestige there, whereas here Einstein (even Feynman) is probably more famous than any modern mathematician. Eric Lander (the geneticist), who started out as a mathematician, once said something like "math is a monastic career, and I'm not a very good monk"! Interestingly, his first stop after leaving math was HBS where he taught finance, and only later did he get interested in biology. A country that lionizes mathematics has a better chance of keeping people like Lander motivated. In the US, during the cold war, a big fraction of all the high end talent was channeled into physics (reasonable, given the success of physics in WWII). Donald Knuth began as a physicist and in his autobiography he writes that everyone in his generation was channeled into physics.

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