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Cheers for the École Normale

In response to:

Paris Was Yesterday from the March 11, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

The facts bearing on the current situation of the École Normale Supérieure that appear in Tony Judt’s article [“Paris Was Yesterday,” NYR, March 11] are all wrong, with the exception of the remarkable percentage of the École’s alumni who have received the highest international awards in sciences, mathematics, and humanities.

For the sake of accuracy, allow me to explain to the readers of your journal that the École Normale Supérieure numbers 2,300 students (and not three hundred), that they are for the most part graduate students (at the master’s or doctoral level), who receive research-based training with a strong and early incentive to innovation and the fostering of new ideas (the opposite of “rote learning” and even “pâté de foie gras,” I guess). The École Normale Supérieure is a graduate school, a research university with many research laboratories. Alumni of the École Normale Supérieure play an important role, as they have done for more than two centuries, in French intellectual, scientific, political, and economic life (three ministers of the current Sarkozy government are normaliens) and they hold numerous positions of influence. Candidates to admission at the École Normale Supérieure are more numerous than ever, testifying to its attractiveness among the many talented students who still have an appetite for knowledge and understand the seriousness of learning and research.

Tony Judt’s encounter, forty years ago, with a student at breakfast and with another in the library hall, who both said preposterous and silly things, as any student at one of the world’s elite universities might have done, provides a very weak argument, laden with prejudices and clichés, with which to critique an institution. The fact is that Tony Judt does not know the present reality of the École Normale Supérieure, but nevertheless he debases it as “brittle and…provincial,” with no sound information.

Five years ago, Tony Judt urged the École Normale Supérieure to host a branch of his research center, claiming that there was no other place in France but the École with such distinguished intellectual quality. We agreed to his wish, and since then his research center has been attached to our institution. Two years ago, contemplating the prospect of spending more time in Europe, Tony Judt asked if he could teach at the École. Last month, Tony Judt was offered a Doctorat honoris causa de l’École normale supérieure. He accepted it with great pleasure.

What Tony Judt wrote in your pages was unfair to us, disloyal, and mean.

Monique Canto-Sperber
Director École Normale Supérieure Paris, France

Tony Judt replies:

I am astonished to read Madame Canto-Sperber’s letter. How on earth did I cause such offense? It’s true that I did not list all 2,300 students (comprising for the most part graduates long since departed from the École). But was I really so “prejudiced” in my “critique” of an institution I described as an “elite humanist academy…distilling the status and distinction of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, and Berkeley”?

Before coming to New York I taught at Berkeley and Oxford. For twelve years before that I was associated with King’s College, Cambridge: the King’s of E.M. Forster, Nicholas Kaldor, Frank Kermode, Sydney Brenner, Frederick Sanger, Eric Hobsbawm, and Bernard Williams. Yet after quoting Raymond Aron, who wrote of the École in his memoirs that “I have never met so many intelligent men gathered in such a small space,” I added, “I would second that sentiment”—before concluding, “Young normaliens are as brilliant as ever.” What more does Mme Canto-Sperber expect?

Perhaps I was too Anglo-ironic? But Mme Canto-Sperber, of all people, should have allowed for this—she made her name, after all, as a French commentator upon Anglo-American liberal thought. In any case, my recollections of the École certainly conform to those of many normalien friends and contemporaries from those years—none of whom took offense at my affectionate characterization of the institution. Back then the École was still an all-male institution and Monique Canto a high school sophomore: doubly ill-placed to comment upon the mood of the time.

As Madame la Directrice observes, my own institute is attached to the rue d’Ulm—a home away from home chosen over prestigious alternatives, not least on account of what I described as its “magnificent open-shelf library unmatched in its convenience and holdings.” What she neglects to mention is the reciprocal hospitality the Remarque Institute at New York University has for some time been offering to faculty and graduates from the École Normale, covering all their travel expenses and providing them with free accommodation and office space in Greenwich Village: hardly the actions of a “disloyal and mean” commentator.

Three years ago I gave a generously attended public lecture at the École, my last in Paris before the onset of my present illness. I am proud to be an ex-normalien, even if only in the subcategory of pensionnaire étranger. I consider myself a true friend of the institution, for all the charming shortcomings unwittingly illustrated in this correspondence. Qui aime bien, châtie bien.

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