The Pros & Cons of the French Elitist Grandes Ecoles

The French Grandes Écoles System is characterized by one unique Ultra-Selective Exams – “Concours” (pronounced as Kongu) or 科举 (pronounced in Chinese dialect Fujian as “Kogu”) a la the 1,300- year Chinese Imperial Exams dated since 600AD till 1905. Napoléon Bonaparte had great admiration of the Chinese mandarin meritocractic selection system, he was influenced by the Jesuit priests who were mostly working in China coastal province Fujian, decided to implement “Concours” for his newly established military engineering college  “École Polytechnique” (aka ‘X’).

Like any system, there are always two sides : the pros & the cons. Kogu served China well for 1300 years, producing top mandarins who ruled China with the most intelligent scholars through layers of selective exams from county (乡试选拔”秀才”) to province (省试选拔 “举人”) to the capital (京都 殿试选拔 “进士” – 前三名状元 /榜眼 / 探花). The Cons came from its Implementation “devils” – too focus on one syllabus ( literature), privileged family / political class with unfair inner-circle advantage, corruption, cheating, etc.Those real talents who did not play well within the rules were excluded outside the gate (李白, 杜甫, 吴承恩, 蒲松龄 李时珍, 曹雪芹 …). The Kogu was the key reason of China’s decline after the 18th century, having missed the European Industrial Revolution, due to the Qing Empire’s inward looking closed-door policy.

The French Concours also has done well for France since the Great Napoléon Empire till the glorious 30 years of the Fifth République after WW2. Like the Chinese Kogu, Concours has its many cons too : 1) biased in narrow syllabus (predominantly in the less applied but abstract French Math); 2) Privileged to the rich and self-perpetuating class of grande-ecole family tradition; 3) the real talents like Évariste  Galois (the greatest mathematician of the 19th century) failed École Polytechnique Concours  twice; 4) Locking the most talented Scientific youth in preparing for Concours, the excellent French tradition of scientific invention & discovery spirit since 16th to 19th century has been replaced by complacent, privileged, bureaucratic elitism. From the 1980s, France has been lacking behind the USA in the next revolution of Information Technology in the Internet & Mobile Phone Age.

System Flaws Biased Elitism Losses
Kogu 科举 Literature 八股文 Rich Officials / Merchants 官商 Failed talents 落第才子
Concours Abstract ‘Pure’ Math Educated / Upper-class French Entrepreneurs, Scientific talents

Two World’s of Higher Education

The Making of the French Ruling Elites From A Small Circle:

Self-Perpetuating Elitist Class : Imagine a large, potentially flourishing country (France) which is held back by its own selfish, self-perpetuating elite alumni…

Peter Gumbel: Elites d’Academie

Utter Elitism : Louis-Le-Grand (the Prépas to École Polytechnique & École Normale Supérieure)

Before Concours, Prépa life is like catching TGV Speedy Train; but after passing it, life is partying next 3 years …

« Tu bosses dur pendant deux ans, et après tu es tranquille en école jusqu’au diplôme », témoigne Louise R, 29 ans. Une fois la grande école intégrée, ces surentraînés de l’étude sont nombreux à partager une sensation de vide, le rythme de travail étant bien moins soutenu. Jérome D, 21 ans estime« perdre son temps » dans son école d’ingénieur parisienne : « Après tant d’efforts et de renoncements, quelle n’a pas été ma désillusion ! ». Également passé par une école d’ingénieur, Benoît M juge que durant les trois années qui suivent la prépa, « On n’apprend finalement pas grand-chose ».


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