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September 23, 2010

School for Mandarins

The mandarins of ancient China, the elite corps of civil servants who held the Empire together and imposed their values and language on it, were given their responsibilities only after a long and difficult selection process. The mandarinate of nineteenth-century England, the class destined to hold down the outposts of the British Empire, was formed in the harsh conditions of the Victorian public schools. Today’s American mandarins of the technological society should ideally be equipped by the intellectual and personal demands of elite schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Business School to deal with the problems of a changing technological society.

In France, for over 200 years, a single educational institution has provided French society with an elite to measure up to any other in its ability to make a success of high administrative positions. This institution is the Ecole Polytechnique.

Founded in 1794 in the first flush of French national feeling during the Revolution, the government’s objective was to create a scientific elite for the various departments of state. The courses were to last two years, during which time every aspect of science would be touched on. There was a social theory behind the choice of science as the basis of the curriculum for the new school; the arts had been the traditional field of study for the aristocracy and it was thought that science-based courses would open up the school to a broader social spectrum. Science and democracy were to go together.

Under Napoleon, the school was charged with the specific task of providing scientifically and technically trained officers for a largely mercenary army. The artillery and the engineers were to be assured of a constant supply of competent officers who would compensate for the professional soldier’s traditional lack of knowledge of the mechanics of warfare.

During the 19th century, the school continued to fill a large number of the higher ranks in the armed forces; but graduates began to take up many of the most important posts in state organizations and even spread into private industry. In time, Polytechniciens were managing, administrating, guiding, and governing from key positions throughout French society.

The prestige of the Polytechnique has always remained high and it has kept its position as the first of the great French schools, though today many of France’s leading intellectuals come from other schools, notably the Ecole Normale Superieure. One reason why the Polytechnique has lost some of its edge is that the sciences have become so specialized. It is no longer possible to have a complete grasp of all fields, as the founders of the school intended. Yet virtually all the higher posts in the French scientific civil service are still filled by Polytechniciens, recruited either directly from the school or after further training. The school has remained faithful to its original aim of providing a general education based on the sciences, and it continues to give a sound training for minds that will later have to grapple with the problems of running the French nation.

Today few ex-students become army officers, most turn to careers in finance and politics. This may seem far removed from the broad scientific and technical education they have received, but the important aspect of this education is that it is primarily conceived as a training for the mind, a training which will enable the Polytechnicien to feel at home in any position requiring high-level decision making. Where industry and administration can easily be divided by their distinct viewpoints, formed from different sets of knowledge and experience, the Polytechnicien finds himself in a particularly advantageous position, in that he is trained expressly to understand the problems of both sides. The Polytechnique thus remains an essential feature of the upper strata of French management.

The qualities demanded of the pupils are an aptitude for abstract study and a willingness to work extremely hard. In return for dedicated effort, the school will not only dispense knowledge, it will also turn its pupils into leaders of men. There is no more effective channel for rapid social advancement in France. The Polytechnique is still the goal for all pupils who show exceptional promise in the sciences.

Clearly, an institution so bent on creating an elite has come in for criticism in the current educational and political climate. The ideas, which have spread through universities of the Western world, have not left the school untouched. The mandarins themselves have questioned the validity of their privileges and ask whether their education makes a fruitful contribution to society.

Still, anyone with a baccalaureate can go to a French university, but an entirely different situation prevails with the grandes ecoles, such as the Polytechnique, the shrines of French higher education. However, the residence regulations and the military character of the school distinguish the Politechnique from other grandes ecoles. Students are still grouped in companies, and officers exercise a moderate, but nevertheless effective, control.

What is really important about the present generation at the school is that, however moderate they seem to be, their preoccupations are more altruistic, more critical and more open than they seem to be at first sight.

One factor, which contributes a great deal towards the caution of the Polytechnicien, is undoubtedly the period of intense preparation, which he undergoes before entering the school. This tends to stunt his natural development by enclosing him entirely in a world of abstract study. “Mathematics hardly makes for maturity,” jokes one young man. “We do develop but it’s slow. Everything is toned down, cushioned from the outside world. Someone who is thought of as extremist at the school would only be a moderate at the University. This is quite serious, because it is normal for a student who is not completely thick-skinned to go through a left-wing phase. We must feel free to express this, to live it. It is most likely that we will forget it soon. The main objective here, is, that at the time we should feel free to be concerned by injustice and stop having an easy conscience about the affairs of the world.  We should not be frightened and must be permitted to try to live up to our ideals”.

When this is possible, the grand ecoles will produce really human mandarins.