Thursday, June 7, 2012

What is Ecole Normale Supérieure?

The French "Grandes Ecoles" system of higher education is very difficult to understand for foreigners. Pointing out the features that are unique to that system only creates perplexity and confusion. Instead, let me point out some features that are common with some schools in the US (the other system with which I am familiar).

Consider the "Ecole Normale Supérieure de la rue d'Ulm", quite a mouthful of a name! (It is also called "Ecole Normale Supérieure", "ENS", "ENS Ulm", "rue d'Ulm", or "Ulm" for short.)

  • It is old, dating from the late 18th century. Part of its fame comes from famous alumni in its long history. It has developed its own vocabulary and traditions.
  • It is primarily famous for its "undergraduate" students (roughly). For example, the totality of French-raised Fields medalists are ENS alumni, but their PhDs were obtained at a variety of universities, and their research work as graduate students was not done in the labs of ENS. As far as I can tell: Strasbourg (Schwartz, Thom), Sorbonne (Serre), Paris 6 (Connes, Lions, Werner), Ecole Polytechnique (Yoccoz), Paris 11 (Lafforgue), Paris-Dauphine (Villani).
  • It has sister schools that are independent of it but that have roughly similar goals and structure: ENS Lyon (also sometimes called "ENS" in context, for example when one is in the town of Lyon) and ENS Cachan.
  • It teaches academic subjects covering the spectrum of arts and sciences. No preeminence is given to science over the humanities.
  • It is tiny: only 2200 students! ENS Cachan and ENS Lyon are similarly small.
  • Traditionally it largely left students free to learn whatever they wanted and to follow their intellectual pursuits in whatever way they wanted, with the idea that they could be trusted to do something worthwhile with that great freedom. (But it is not clear how much of that tradition still exists nowadays.)
  • It is the best in its category: no student accepted at ENS ever turns it down, except for some scientists who choose to go to Ecole Polytechnique instead. (Ecole Polytechnique is for sciences only and has a different style)
  • Many of the students are very, um, aware that they "are the best"...

    So I think that someone from the US and who would be looking for a rough and simple analogy could consider that ENS Ulm, ENS Lyon and ENS Cachan are the French Ivy League schools, and, among those, consider that ENS is the French Harvard. (Similarly one might perhaps consider that Ecole Polytechnique is analogous to CalTech.)

    The single most outstanding difference between ENS and Harvard lies in their mission: Harvard educates students to serve society, but the particular ways in which they will serve are left undefined. In contrast, the three ENS schools (Ulm, Cachan, Lyon) exist to educate students who will serve society in well-defined careers: the students are primarily future academics, teachers, and researchers. (Thus, for example, Ivy League schools recruit students with excellent grades but who also additionally show some other, non-academic potential, whereas the ENS schools recruit solely on the basis of academic performance.)

    The next most important difference is financial. The ENS are public, and the French state aims to offer the best possible conditions to help its most promising young people become leading academics: one way in which it does that is by paying for their studies for 4 years (in return, the students commit to serve the state for 10 years.) That is, the ENS pays the students, whereas Harvard asks the students to pay.

  • 29 comments:

    1. " no student accepted at ENS ever turns it down, except for some scientists who choose to go to Ecole Polytechnique instead." :

      I am aware of one student who turned down ENS Ulm to study CS at ENS Lyon.

      P.S. The "captcha" test on this blog is becoming so hard that only cylons will be able to pass it.

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      1. Yes, I am pretty sure that every statement I wrote in this post has some exceptions. I considered writing qualifiers and inserting weasel words everywhere to make sure that everything would be error-proof, but decided against it... I'm only trying to get the main point across!

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    2. Could you elaborate on what it means to "commit to serve the state for 10 years"?

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      1. The meaning is evolving. It used to mean: commit to being a civil servant for 10 years (working in a job paid for by the government). Then nationalized companies were included, then more and more jobs were included, and now I am not sure how broad the definition is.

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    3. In regards to the 10 years, is there an exit clause? Say payback $x if you don't serve?

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      1. Yes, if you leave early you are supposed to pay the state back for the money that you received as a student. It is rare and I don't know the details.

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    4. Claire,

      I just have to point out, Harvard has become very forward-thinking (well, at least in US terms) in terms of trying to make Harvard affordable, with extremely generous financial aid policies:
      http://www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/financial_aid/hfai/index.html

      For many, Harvard is now no more expensive (or possibly even less expensive) than top US state schools.

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      1. Yes, thinking in US terms, where higher education is extremely costly, Harvard is now no worse than many (already very expensive) state schools. But compare that to a free education where in addition you get paid, so that you don't have to think about money for 4 years so as to be free to focus on your learning! It's incomparable.

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      2. I can't compare, but let me play devil's advocate. Since college, my education has been paid for. (My parents paid for college; post-college school was covered.) However, I worked all the way through college, including summers, and did outside work in graduate school when opportunities arose. This provided spending money and covered other expenses. I think I got a lot out of such experiences. Perhaps there's such a thing as being "over-free" to focus on learning.

        I've on the record as being a proponent of Harvard making tuition free (entirely, for everyone). My well-versed colleague has suggested there are reasons this wouldn't be a good idea. One particular reason that resonates with me: we don't value that which we get for free. If you're paying for your education -- if you've made that commitment that it's taking money out of your bank account -- won't that make you work all the harder to get something out of it? For many, I think the answer is yes. They don't value the education when they don't perceive the cost of it.

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      3. Even if Harvard was tuition-free, there would still be living expenses. Peanuts for many, but quite a lot for quite a lot of people.

        I have to object to your statement that "we don't value that which we get for free" - say, your spouse... also, students don't get ENS quite "for free': for mot of them, succeeding in being accepted is the result of 2 or 3 years of hard work.

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    5. The most confusing thing for me: is ENS just a normal school or is it a superior one?

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      1. Haha. "Ecole normale" is the traditional term to describe schools training future teachers. "Superior" trains for higher education. Logical, is it not?

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    6. It teaches academic subjects covering the spectrum of arts and sciences

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    7. Claire, I heard you were going to ENS and you'll teach the algorithmics course there. Congratulations!

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      1. Thanks!
        Yes, I'll help teach part of it. Yes, being at CNRS/ENS is exciting!

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    8. Oh, you're hired as DR CNRS, not as professor?

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      1. That's correct. But I can still help with teaching, and hope to have many interns to do research with!

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    9. If you want us to believe that ENS or X are the French equivalents to Harvard and CalTech (implicitly, **in Computer Science**), you need to justify this claim by some objective factor (e.g., placement of graduates into other top teaching positions, citations, papers, awards), not just by reputation within France (which, indeed, is sky high). There is a difference between the statement "Cambridge is the Harvard of the UK" and "Université de Ouagadougou is the Harvard of Burkina-Faso".

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      1. No, not specifically in Computer Science, but in general. Also, if you read my post carefully, you will see that I compare them to Harvard as undergraduate institutions rather than as graduate schools, so "citations" and "papers" are not the right measures - similarly Harvard's sky high domination in the US is first and foremost for undergrads, not for grads (although its graduate schools are excellent).

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      2. ENS has no clear counterpart in the US, because of its emphasis on basic science, oriented towards research, and humanities. There is no "business schools", no technology classes, no law school.

        Polytechnique is a different beast. It's supposedly an engineering school, but students learn hardly any engineering while at the school (they may learn some in some "application school" later), and instead get a wide-ranging education in many scientific and nonscientific matters. Also, it's a military school...

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      3. All liberal arts colleges in the US are like that, and, I believe, also most Ivy league schools in the tradition (until, say, a generation ago).

        Best among liberal arts colleges: Williams, Amherst... They have around 2000 students, all undergraduates. No graduate school.

        Polytechnique is definitely for science-oriented students only. No one there is getting a degree in the humanities! That makes it similar to MIT/Caltech/GeorgiaTech, all schools where students get an education that includes nonscientific matters as well as science. They're the closest kind of schools, I think. But ofcourse all such analogies are imperfect...

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    10. Pourquoi comparer l'X a Caltech dont les promotions sont vraiment minuscules dont le resultat est un cursus tres "sur mesure" ? A premier abord j'aurais eu tendance a la rapprocher de Berkeley (a defaut de mieux)

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      1. Ecole Polytechnique has about 2600 students.

        CalTech has about 970 undergraduate students and 850 graduate students, for a total of about 1800 students.

        Berkeley has 26000 undergraduate students and 10000 graduate students, for a total of 36000.

        Yes, CalTech is smaller, but in the "fewer than 5000 students" category it's the only school that came to my mind that was focused on the sciences, traditionally technical, and with a great reputation.

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      2. Actually according to US News CalTech has 2175 students.

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      3. Oui mais pour un pays beaucoup plus grand. La "concentration de talents" de Caltech doit être bien supérieure à celle de l'X, non ? (non que je ne les tienne pas en estime ... mais bon). Cela dit, il n'y a certainement pas une bonne réponse à la question. Je suppose qu'il faudrait aussi prendre en compte que CalTech est en concurrence avec d'autres universités tandis qu'en France personne ne conteste le rang de bon 2e de l'X... d'ailleurs à les entendre il seraient même premiers (pfff).

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      4. You might be right. Then the right comparison might be to MIT. It also serves to explain the traditional rivalry between ENS and X by using the analogous traditional rivalry between Harvard and MIT!

        I wonder if I should switch to writing in French now that I am in France?

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    11. Claire, regarding undergrads, Polytechnique has 500 students × 2 years.

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    12. Hi I want to pursue Master's in Computer Science(I want to switch my field.) from a French university.I got 60% marks in my Bachelors(from India) in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. Do I have any chance in ENS or Ecole Polytechnique .What are the minimum marks required to qualify/considered for these two school.
      Can you tell me any colleges which might suit my profile?
      Thank you.

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      1. Hello! I don't know about Polytechnique, but at ENS I don't think you have a chance unless you want to pursue a PhD and ambition to become an academic later. Plus, you probably should be in the top 1-in-5000 students or so in your age group.

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