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From Grinnell to Sciences Po Paris, Part Deux

From Grinnell to Sciences Po Paris, Part I

In my last column, I wrote about the peculiar French methodology. In this article, I will focus more specifically on the Sciences Po Paris education. Sciences Po is one of the most prestigious universities in France mainly because its heavy influence on French politics. Almost every French politician or diplomat, such as the recent presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, has attended Sciences Po since its inception in 1872. Thus, Sciences Po has developed a different educational system from that of other French universities with the goal to educate future political elites in France.

First of all, the Sciences Po educational system distinguishes itself with its heavy emphasis on students’ speaking skills. In every class we need to do at least one exposé, which means an oral presentation either by group or by individual. At Sciences Po, most professors require students to follow the time strictly (usually 10 minutes for one person). One of my professors once explained the reasons for such strict requirement of time and form of exposé: “Sciences Po strives to train the ability of its students to talk about any subject in front of the public within a limited time, which is a necessary skill in a career in politics and diplomacy.” However, in spite of its goal to foster students’ presentation skills, many students simply read whatever they write down on paper. Consequently, other students in the class do not pay too much attention to the presentation and learn nothing from it. Occasionally some students present their exposé in a more engaging way (i.e. not just looking at their papers and interacting with their audience), but this does not occur very frequently. Thus the debates on the effectiveness of the exposés, which take up to almost half of the time in every class in Sciences Po, have drawn significant attention to the rigidness of its education system. Just like many other aspects in the French society: everyone knows the problem the system, but nothing is done to change it.

Although the Sciences Po system is characterized by typical French bureaucracy, it has undergone a few important reforms in recent years. Firstly, an important reform called conventions ZEP was introduced in 2002 to increase the admission opportunity of students from certain economically less developed suburbs in Paris. Before the reform, passing the entrance exam (concours) was the only way to get admitted by Sciences Po, which means that those students from better socio-economic backgrounds usually have more advantages in this universal exam. Nowadays a small number of economically disadvantaged students from these designated suburbs could be admitted on the basis of their school record and interview performance. As one of the few affirmative action educational policies in France, the ZEP reform at Sciences Po has introduced a certain level of democratization of the French political elite education. Additionally, recent efforts to bring in international students have significantly increased the diversity of Sciences Po’s student body in recent years.

Moreover, Sciences Po has adapted a more liberal arts system in spite of its heavy emphasis on politics and public affairs. In the past few years, they have introduced classes in different disciplines including many courses in the humanities division and other interdisciplinary areas such as Women and Gender Studies. According to my professor, who initiated the reform, excellent politicians and diplomats need to develop curiosity and learn about the society beyond politics so the Sciences Po education has to be more interdisciplinary (triumph of liberal arts education!). Last but not least, currently all students at Sciences Po are required to study abroad in their entire third year of college, which provides them an opportunity to experience and understand other parts of the world. Thus albeit reforms are usually difficult in French society, such various modifications have improved the Sciences Po system om different levels.

In spite of all the difficult adjustments at the beginning, I truly appreciate my year at Sciences Po Paris because it gives me an opportunity to experience a completely different education. On the other hand, my educational experience at Sciences Po has reinforced my strong conviction of the Grinnell education and its philosophy. Even compared with Sciences Po, one of the best universities in France and in Europe, Grinnell College is unique in its encouragement for independent and critical thinking, its strong support for students’ intellectual exploration, and its devotion to create an equal and diverse educational environment. After all the explorations of the French educational system, I am proud to be a Grinnellian.

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