From where I sit - Culture shock

March 1, 2012

Sciences Po, the Paris-based social sciences institute, is an anomaly in French higher education because it selects its undergraduates on entry - unlike public universities, which take all comers. To win a place, French candidates must sit demanding entrance exams, and their chances of success are slimmer than ever because of a sharp rise in the number of applicants over the past few years.

So when Sciences Po announced last December a change in admissions to help it select the most suitable students on broader criteria than just the exam results, you might think the move would have been welcomed. The written exams are being streamlined, a compulsory interview is being introduced and, for the first time, extracurricular activities will be taken into account.

To judge by the opprobrium that has rained down on the institute ever since, however, Sciences Po's board might just as well have announced that it had voted to blow up the Eiffel Tower.

Politicians of all stripes have joined publishers, philosophy professors and an array of public figures in lambasting the institute, citing Thucydides, Malraux, Camus, Dostoevsky and even Hermann Goring in the process. The focus of their attack is the decision to drop one of the written papers, an essay on a philosophical topic (last year's question: "Can reason serve as a guide for everything?"). By giving up this paper, popularly known as "culture générale", so the argument goes, Sciences Po has given up on culture more generally. The barbarians, in other words, are at the gates.

As Sciences Po's director of communications, I have found this an uncomfortable debate, to put it mildly. But as a British-born observer of French society, it has been a revelation. For at its core, the issue that so exercises the critics is an idiosyncratic notion of culture and its role in society that speaks volumes about the current insecure state of French intellectual life. For years, many of the same critics have wrung their hands about a supposed decline in school standards, and about the creeping Anglicisation of the French language. For them, Sciences Po's decision is a harbinger of the nation's inevitable intellectual decline.

In fact, there has been no dumbing down: candidates must still sit a four-hour history exam, pass a written and oral test in a foreign language and write a third paper that is a choice between a social sciences essay, a maths problem or a philosophy paper, now optional. In the subsequent interview, they have ample opportunity to show off their true knowledge and culture.

What then to make of culture générale? It's a term all but impossible to translate into English - "general knowledge" doesn't cover it, and "humanities" is too broad. People said to have a great culture générale are widely read, and often highly opinionated. It's something accumulated over a lifetime of study, not usually picked up by the tender age of 18. It's not even the formal name of the exam being eliminated, which Sciences Po called "ordre général". Yet a very painful nerve has been struck, and the yelps of anguish say more about France today and the fears of intellectual decline than any number of philosophical treatises.

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