French “grandes écoles” & Progress Studies

European Straits #135

Nicolas Colin

Dear all,

It’s still the summer period here in Europe. When not many people are working, very few emails get sent, and some deep work can finally be done. That is, if you’re not on social media too much 😜.

About that, here’s a quick update on how I use social media these days:

  • 📉 I’ve been receding from using Facebook. I find it too polarized, with too many among my “friends” getting lost in endless disputes about politics. Above all, I’m trapped within my legacy network, which is VERY French and thus it’s difficult to grow more international in terms of focus, topics, and connections. You can read more on these ideas in this .

  • 📈 I’m back on LinkedIn. I deleted my account two years ago, again because I had f*** up building up my network (too many people to whom I wasn’t really connected), and LinkedIn was a terrible product at the time. I’ve recently decided to go back, rebuilding my professional network from the ground up. If we actually know each other professionally, please connect!

  • 📉 I’m slowing down on Twitter—but for exactly the opposite reasons as to why I slowed down on Facebook. Because I’m following so many interesting people, the Twitter experience for me means being overwhelmed by too many inspiring articles I want to read and too many stimulating conversations I want to jump into. It’s bad in terms of focus and productivity!

  • 📈 I’m betting on newsletters. I now think they’re the most efficient way to discover relevant and interesting content. Here’s a list of the ones that I was already subscribed to a few weeks ago. Since then, I have subscribed to a few more, including Femstreet, StrictlyVC, Fortune Term Sheet, The Profile, and more recently the gem that is The Internet Is a City by Nadia Eghbal.

  • 📷 I’m on Instagram, but my account is private as it’s just to share personal pictures of travelling and my family. I should mention that Instagram is the only social media app left on my phone.

All that being said, I’ve nevertheless been caught up in a few discussions and controversies on Twitter these past days. One was really worth expanding on, about the concept of “progress studies” 👇.

1/ Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe, and Tyler Cowen, the famous economist and blogger, recently wrote an article in The Atlantic. In it, they call for designing a new discipline focused on human progress and how to solve the world’s most pressing problems. They call it “progress studies”. If, like me, you’re interested in technology and institutions, the discussion that followed was hard to miss. While many in the tech world have been voicing enthusiastic support, others, notably in academia, have pointed out that the world hadn’t been waiting around for Collison and Cowen to work on advancing progress.

2/ I’d like to think I can bring a different perspective to the discussion. I’ve been working in technology for almost 10 years, briefly as an entrepreneur and then as a cofounder & director of The Family. But before that, I worked for several years as a senior civil servant in the French government. To get there, I had to go through a long and highly selective process: first an engineering school, then the Institut d’études politiques in Paris (otherwise known as Sciences Po), and then the École nationale d’administration (ENA), where French state officials are trained at the beginning of their career.

3/ You should note that none of those institutions I attended is a proper university. Rather, they’re known in France as grandes écoles (literally “great schools”). Instead of employing permanent faculty focused on research, the grandes écoles have historically focused on sharing practical knowledge with the happy few that then go on to the most rewarding careers in either the public or private sectors. This makes for a well-known French exception, where the best and most ambitious French students are educated in institutions that are essentially deprived of a long-standing academic tradition.

4/ The French elite being trained away from academia triggered a negative feedback loop. It explains why academics are largely absent from the French public debate. French officials simply don’t realize that there are academics out there working on the problems they would like to solve. More often than not, they rely on what they have in-house—that is, fairly competent civil servants that are anything but academics. Like me, these individuals were trained as generalists, which means they know a bit of everything and they’re focused on practical problem-solving more than on research and science.

5/ Each time, the goal of the French innovators that founded a new grande école for their world was to recover from a setback and then to rebuild. It was effectively “progress studies” as the mission was to make France great again rather than simply doing more research and accumulating more knowledge. But all of these institutions have at some point entered a phase of stasis and started to lose their edge. Indeed, I see various reasons for why most French grandes écoles are now out of touch. And the most important is that we’re going through a paradigm shift, which makes most of their training obsolete.

6/ And it’s getting worse because...all grandes écoles have been trying to turn themselves into something more like universities: hiring permanent faculty, doing research, counting their number of scientific publications so as to move up in the Academic Ranking of World Universities. After all, this is what you need to do to attract high-paying foreign students and to make the degrees you deliver more valuable on the global labor market. But I can’t say it works. For all their efforts to become more like universities, the French grandes écoles are still very much second-class institutions at the global scale.

7/ Also, by trying to comply with the traditional academic model, the grandes écoles have added a new layer of structural problems that are inherent to academia. Now that they’re mimicking the academic world, they’re adding weight but losing momentum. The slow pace of academic research, the terrible jargon that academics prefer, the bureaucracy that this whole world seems to entail: it all contributes to making the more academic version of grandes écoles even less relevant. Our grandes écoles used to be about the problems of the present. Now they’re catching up on a model from the past.

8/ Now would Collison and Cowen’s “progress studies” be advanced by founding a new grande école for our time? Indeed, all those grandes écoles from the past were founded to tackle a specific challenge. The École polytechnique, an engineering-focused military academy, was dedicated to strengthening Napoleon’s Empire. ENA (where I was trained) was about rebuilding France after World War II, a time when the state couldn’t rely on its old administrative guard (most of its members had collaborated with the Nazis). Note that in both cases, the direction for progress was provided by the state. Alas, today, the state is largely missing in action—both in the US and in Europe.

9/ I only know of one French grande école that was founded without any direction provided by the state. In reaction to France’s humiliating military defeat against Prussia in 1870, Émile Boutmy, a fringe entrepreneur, decided to found what later became Sciences Po (of which I’m an alumnus). His view was that the old elite had failed because the academics that had educated them were backward-looking and narrow-minded. Boutmy thought that a new elite should rise, one that would look forward and embrace a multi-disciplinary approach to the world and solving problems. Sound familiar 😼?

10/ This, indeed, resonates quite a lot with the dispute around “progress studies”. On one side are those (academics) who are waiting for someone, likely the state, to provide the direction of progress—and then, maybe, we can use all that knowledge that they’ve been producing all along. On the other side are the Boutmys of the world, including Collison and Cowen, that want to make up for the absence of a direction for innovation. What they say is that we shouldn’t wait to invent a new institution (a grande école for our time) that will teach young people what actually matters, and then at some point the rise of this new elite will contribute to inspiring a new direction and delivering progress.

In conclusion, let me mention two things:

✍️ My wife Laetitia Vitaud’s book, Du Labeur à l’ouvrage, on craftsmanship as the future of work, will be out on September 18 (in 🇫🇷). To give you even more material, she’s publishing a summer series (also in 🇫🇷) to introduce the thinkers that influenced her while writing the book: check out these about Barbara Ehrenreich, David Graeber, Silvia Federici, Henry George, Jane Jacobs, John Ruskin, and Mariana Mazzucato. And do follow Laetitia on Twitter if you don’t want to miss the next two issues!

🛡️ I’ve been involved for quite some time in the Royal Society of Arts’ efforts on the future of work and economic security. My friends Rowan Conway and Fabian Wallace-Stephens have just published an article to discuss the future of our social safety net: “For generations, a ‘job for life’ has been the norm. Today, digital trends have sparked a revolution in how we work and for some this means that work – and life – is more precarious”. Read it here: Rethinking the Safety Net for 21st Century Workers.

📕 By the way, you still have time this summer to read my book Hedge if you haven’t yet. Buy a copy from the relevant Amazon store depending on where you are: US 🇺🇸, UK 🇬🇧, France 🇫🇷, Germany 🇩🇪. And if you still need to be convinced, have a look at , where I compiled all the Hedge-related content coming from the past year.

Here’s a reading list on progress studies:

Warm regards (from Normandy, France),

Nicolas