The setting up of the Grandes EcolesMacTutor Index

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The Revolution and the Ecole Polytechnique

The French Revolution started in 1789 and the original enthusiasm would be put the test of internal and international turmoil. The fall of the monarchy and the reign of the Terror provoked a number of radical changes in the fabric of the French society. These were difficult times for the education system and sciences in general: in 1793, in quick succession, the universities and the Academies of Science were abolished, only the Commission on Weights and Measures remained active. Various educational reforms were proposed but the executive decisions made one day were often rejected the next, and few changes were actually implemented. However, with the foundation of the Convention the political situation evolved and decisions were made. With the constant threat of war the republic was in dire need of scientists and technicians and in 1794 the Comité du Salut Public installed a commission led by Carnot and Monge to set up an appropriate centre of learning for the new engineers of the Republic: L'Ecole Centrale des Travaux Publics, which was to become the Ecole Polytechnique a year after and the pillar of the Grandes Ecoles system.

The school opened in 1794 with an impressive teaching staff recruited from the most famous names in French science at the time: Lagrange, Monge, De Prony to cite but a few. The student population was to be the elite of the new republic and the prospective students sat the entry exams all over the country. The school embodied the republican values of the Revolution: admission exams were opened to everyone no matter what their social background might be. Knowledge and capability were the only entry selection criteria. In particular the states allocated the students a soldier's salary to allow undergraduates with money problems to pursue their education. Nonetheless the school was only open to males and this state of affairs continued until 1971 when the first women were accepted in the Ecole Polytechnique.

The course was composed of two parts to accommodate with the disparate level of the student admitted: the first part of the course, the cours révolutionnaires, was designed to act as a further selection on the students depending on their mathematical abilities, the second part of the course could last from one up to two years, again depending on the student ability, until the student was declared fit to enter the service of the State. The aim of the school was very clearly defined as early as 1795 as the focal point in the education of the Republic's civil engineers, ingénieurs d'Etat. The Ecole Polytechnique was to offer a solid scientific education based on mathematics, physics and chemistry, preparing its students to enter the more specific state engineering schools such as l'Ecole du Génie, l'Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées or l'Ecole des Mines.

The reputation of the Ecole Polytechnique rose very quickly in France: the high-profile expedition to Egypt led by Bonaparte comprised a scientific mission of which most were either lecturers or students of the school. Mathematicians like Monge, Malus and Fourier all took part in this expedition, which heralded the beginnings of the new discipline of Egyptology. Fourier in particular organized the research of the scientific team and later compiled the Description of Egypt which remains a primary source of information for Egyptologists. The occupation of the country led the French to set up a proper government in Egypt. The unintentional lengthy stay of the expedition also allowed this core of Polytechniciens to establish modern educational institutions that reproduced the educational models of the republic.

The prestige of the new institution was further apparent in the names of the graduates of the time: distinguished mathematicians or scientists like Fourier and also Poisson, Poinsot, Biot and Gay-Lussac. They all worked at the Ecole Polytechnique between 1794 and 1804. More significantly a high proportion of the school's graduates continued to be associated with the development of the Ecole Polytechnique after the completion of their study, this time in lecturing roles. This trends mirrored to some extent the custom of the Ecole Royale des Ponts et Chaussées of a strong involvement of the undergraduates or graduates in the life of the school at the teaching level.

With the coming to power of Napoleon, a last important characteristic of the school was put in place. The uncertain times of the Directoire and the Consulat saw the student population playing an active political role: the students did not hesitate to go on to the street to demonstrate for the principles of 1789. The Ecole Polytechnique was founded on the republican ideals of 1789 to which Monge was an ardent convert. The rise of the Empire led to student discontent. In 1804 Napoleon imposed military rules on the school including the boarding of all students. He moved the school from its buildings in the Palais-Bourbon in Paris, to the outskirts of the capital. The strict military discipline for the school students was a significant feature of the education of l'Ecole Polytechnique and has been maintained ever since despite the various political changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


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M Ayel May 2002