Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book Attacks French Elite

Peter Gumbel, a British writer who teaches in Paris, has launched an all-out assault on France's elite:
In the name of “meritocracy” and “equality”, he says, France has built a system for selecting and formatting its political, administrative and business leaders which makes “Eton and Oxbridge” or the “Ivy League” look like a utopian experiment in social levelling. The “Grandes Écoles” – elite colleges, devised by Napoleon two centuries ago and re-invented after the Second World War – have become a machine for perpetuating a brilliant but blinkered, often arrogant and frequently incompetent ruling freemasonry.
“It’s a system that is able to produce a tiny number of brilliant and charming men and women who constitute the ruling class. Whether they are competent as leaders is another matter,” Gumbel writes . “The entire selection process leaves the vast majority of the population frustrated, de-motivated or feeling discarded.” In a sense, Mr Gumbel is saying nothing new. For decades, the French themselves have grumbled (as only the French can) about the pernicious stranglehold on government and big business of the products of the Grandes Écoles and especially the so-called “énarques”.


bernard said...

I am not sure where and why freemasonry comes into his story - check out the proportion of employees of the Direction du Trésor whose family name is clearly of aristocratic extraction, and then think Mozart. Just joking of course...

Anyway what he says about the stranglehold of the Grandes Ecoles is indeed nothing new. What is more interesting, I think, is the fact, demonstrated by several studies over the years, that the social composition of Grandes Ecoles students is steadily becoming more lopsided over the past thirty or forty years. IE. the upper classes stranglehold over the Grandes Ecoles increases steadily. That is interesting indeed, and I would be interested to learn if that is also the case in other major developed countries, and if not, why.

Art Goldhammer said...

For the US, it's hard to say. Twenty percent of this year's entering class at Harvard, for example, will consist of students whose families earn less than $65,000 a year, who therefore qualify for a full scholarship. That is certainly not "upper class" by US standards. But the other 80% probably has a higher percentage of wealthy parents than in the 1960s, because competition has stiffened and private schools can help give students an advantage in the applications race. So there are changes at both ends of the spectrum at the school usually rated no. 1 in the US. The same is true at most other top universities.

bernard said...

thanks for the information, Art. Berkeley, Stanford, Princeton and Yale hate you, though.

Anonymous said...

Art, based on the Harvard website, 20% come from lower-middle class families including a certain number from poverty, but another 30% come from middle class to upper middle class families.
In France, the goal remains to have 30% middle class, working class, or poor students, but that goal has not been reached by any school. Even the school with the most "boursiers" doesn't, and their number is reached thanks to the "bourse échelon 0", meaning they're solidly middle class (are exempted from fees but do not perceive a scholarship). In some schools, the percentage of legacies is 70%.
Outside the social reproduction, you have the mode of selection. Compare the first 4 years of education for MIT and for Polytechnique, and you'll see what's wrong in the French picture, not just for selecting their elite in a very narrow group but also for selecting them on such a system.