In the 1980 Alain Resnais film My American Uncle, the French director invites us to follow three interconnected stories. One of these concerns Jean Le Gall, a former student of the École normale supérieure (ENS—see box 2) who has passed the Concours d’agrégation (a competitive teaching exam) in history, and becomes a senior civil servant and then a writer/polemicist following a short spell in secondary education, from which he has managed to escape thanks to the contacts of one of his former classmates. For a film which aims to highlight the ”movement” of human beings within a particular space, this may seem a strange choice since Le Gall’s career path is extremely rare among ENS students. Indeed, teaching and research remain the schools’ major outlet—today (Barbé & Luc 1982; Sirinelli 1988), as was the case in the past (Bataille 2014; Baudelot, Raux, Ritz, Vinh 2005; Pavis 2013). This elitist tropism is not, of course, unique to Resnais, it graces numerous examples of cultural and media production that feature students from grandes écoles (France’s top higher education institutions)—and, more generally, characters who have been through a prestigious, selective education1. Such portrayals give an incomplete picture of these social spaces and feed certain myths, more often than not giving a negative perspective (Darmon 2013: 8-11) on the way prestigious, selective institutions work. The foregrounding of distinguished careers also plays a role—at the level of schools—in making students and future students of elite institutions accept a drastic selection process, even though many of them2 are destined to fill professional roles that are more ordinary than the brilliant successes readily showcased by schools and their representatives (Bourdieu 1998).
Bulletin of the friendly association of the students and former students of the Lyon, Fontenay‑aux‑Roses, Saint‑Cloud and Fontenay/Saint‑Cloud Écoles normales supérieures
1991 #2 cover (left) and page 17, 1992 #2 (right). At the beginning of the 1990s’, the association of the ENS Fontenay-Saint-Cloud-Lyon former students published a series of issues on the “normaliens in companies,” “in the audiovisual industry,” or “in the writing field” causing quite a few irate letters, similar to this one and written by readers attached to the “educational” commitment of the ENS to train future teachers.
© Illustration made out of the digital archives of the Bulletin of the friendly association of the ENS former students.
We should also note that sociological and historical explorations of the career paths of grande école students have long been guilty of this same elitist tropism. By focusing on the most prestigious establishments (the École polytechnique, ENS d’Ulm, the École nationale d’administration [ENA], and the École des hautes études commerciales [HEC]—and primarily on the links grandes écoles maintain with the upper fractions of the economic, political-administrative, and academic spheres—research carried out on elite French schools has long contributed more to exposing the French “exception” rather than the “rule” (Marry 2004: 66). While acknowledging these works’ fundamental heuristic contributions regarding the upper limits of the national and international social sphere, we can note that they have helped to “hyper-ritualize” (Goffman 1977) the extraordinariness of the careers of former grandes école students, reinforcing the symbolic rupture which already exists between the few chosen candidates admitted into selective education in France and the rest of the population. It is also important to highlight that this elitist tropism is not unique to French sociology: to give just two examples, in the United States (Karabel 2005; Stevens 2009) as well as the UK (Bond 2012; Soares 1999; Zimdars, Sullivan, Heath 2009) it is primarily links between the most prestigious establishments (usually Harvard and Oxbridge) and the dominant fractions of the social space which have been chosen most often as objects of study.
Certain research focusing on the destiny of more ordinary students (Castets-Fontaine 2011; Lambert 2010; Pasquali 2014; Pierrel 2015) and on schools other than the most eminent (Blanchard 2015; Marry 2004; Quéré 2015) has helped bring nuance to the impression of “elite over-coherence” (Eymeri 2001: 2) which many classic works on French elites can give. By analysing the trajectories of former students of a group of grandes écoles which, although prestigious, are of secondary importance (the ENS of Fontenay, Saint-Cloud, and Lyon) and who embrace a relatively ordinary professional career (that of a secondary school teacher), we thereby intend in this paper to shed light on a relatively unknown aspect of the dual effect of social production and reproduction as orchestrated by elite schools.
While some former ENS students who have become secondary school teachers describe themselves—not without humour—as “failed normaliens” (normalien is the label given to students of the École normale) in relation to their peers who have followed an academic career, we can consider whether such a career can necessarily be perceived as relegation. We aim to explain the factors that help to exacerbate or mitigate this feeling of “failure,” and analyse the different ways of negotiating a permanent commitment to a career in teaching—with oneself, but also with one’s relatively close entourage (family, classmates, colleagues). More generally, while the social construction of talent and success has been the subject of much recent work in French sociology (Darmon 2012; Menger 2014; Schotté 2012), we propose a complementary perspective by focusing on a case in which the recognition process is not carried through to conclusion. We set out to analyse the sociogenesis of these bifurcations, and to highlight their impact on the representations of individuals who cross them.
The analysis developed here is taken from data collected within the framework of a thesis (Bataille 2014), presented in box 1. The article focuses primarily on those who have held a position in secondary education for the majority of their career. This is an important clarification since many former students have done a stint in secondary teaching of a few years, or even months or weeks, at the beginning of their career while they “wait… for a position [in higher education],” as expressed by Gabriel (A, L, Paris, Fam–)3. Such short-term experiences will be dealt with briefly.
Box 1. Methodologies and data
The analysis is supported by two interrelated studies: the first quantitative; the second qualitative and based on the use of interviews.
We first of all carried out a survey in the form of a questionnaire between February 2008 and March 2009 on former students of the ENS of Fontenay, Saint-Cloud, and Lyon who graduated between 1981 and 1987. The original group contained 1,453 people, divided into 654 “science” and 799 “arts.” Overall, 418 people responded to our invitation, or a total response rate of 30%. In terms of sex, disciplinary specialisation, academic year, and social origin, a comparison with data published by schools and the relevant ministry shows no bias in our sample.
We then conducted a survey using semi-structured interviews with fifty former students from these years. Those participating in this survey, who were found by means of their having responded to the questionnaire survey or via other former students, were chosen to ensure as broad a sample of cases as possible on the basis of five main criteria: sex, discipline, social origin, job type at time of interview, and main geographic location in which their professional activity takes place.
We first of all propose a statistical description of the frequency and the conditions enabling such careers. Secondly, we will come to analysis of the accounts of former students who have spent the majority of their career in secondary teaching, regarding their first professional experiences at school or college/high school, with the aim of ascertaining the extent to which this event may have represented a turning point in their trajectory. Thirdly, we will attempt to identify the strategies deployed to reduce over the long term the feeling of relegation that those interviewed can feel.
The image of the normalien forced into the “apostolate” of a secondary school teaching career feeds most debates on the subject of the ENS within French higher education. Very often this image is hiding a denunciation of the “waste” of “brainpower” and “public money”—to borrow terms used in a recent controversy4—which a career as a simple high school teacher might represent for normaliens considering, on the one hand, investment by the public authorities to guarantee the education of those who pass the entrance exams and, on the other, the high degree of selectivity to which students submit themselves to get in. While this debate around the function of the ENS is almost as old as the schools’ history (Bataille 2014), it has seen an increase in intensity in recent years owing to the issue of reimbursement of the training in the event of a rupture of the so-called “ten-year commitment5” (see box 2).
Box 2. The Écoles normales supérieures (ENS)
of Saint-Cloud, Fontenay, and Lyon
Like other grandes écoles, especially the École polytechnique, the ENS emerged out of the French Revolution. Their original purpose was to provide the education sector with managers and teachers on a meritocratic basis. During the Revolution, the role of this first ENS—of which the prestigious school on Paris’s rue d’Ulm is the direct descendent— was thus to train secondary school teachers. The other ENS were then created using a similar model to provide recruitment and training of teachers and managers for primary (Saint-Cloud and Fontenay 1981-1983) and technical education (Cachan, 1912). Created in 1986, the ENS de Lyon in fact descends from the Fontenay and Saint-Cloud schools, which no longer exist in their original form. A former satellite of the Cachan school became an ENS in its own right, the ENS de Rennes, in 2013.
While there were initial differences in function and prestige, the first half of the 20th century saw a gradual alignment in status of the three ENS establishments. While there are still differences in reputation, since 1985 the central mission of the three schools has been the training of future academics. Following their studies, the students have thus had the possibility since 1985 of applying for positions created especially for them (“Ancien normalien doctorant” [Normalien Graduate Doctoral Student], AND—which became “Assistant moniteur normalien” [Normalien Assistant Supervisor], AMN, after 1989) allowing normalien PhD students to finance their first years of a thesis in exchange for teaching at an affiliated university.
The curriculum at the three schools takes four years, during which the students are paid as “trainee civil servants.” They may follow curricula in the academic fields of “science” (basic science) or the “arts” (literature, languages, social science, humanities). In exchange for these four paid years, students commit to work for at least the first ten years of their professional lives in public service, usually in teaching positions by way of the competitive recruitment exams they have prepared for during their years of training. This most often consists of the agrégation, which is the most selective and prestigious entrance exam to become a secondary school teacher—and also constitutes in some disciplines an informal recruitment criterion for a career in higher education teaching. If a student fails to honour this “ten-year commitment,” he or she must repay the salary received during their school years.
As with the majority of grandes écoles, students can attend the ENS schools from around the age of 20, via an entrance exam, after two or more years’ “preparation” in classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles [CPGE]. These are special classes within some secondary schools or colleges through which teachers prepare carefully selected students. Like the schools they are preparing students for, the CPGE are organized into streams (arts, scientific, business, etc.), and are informally setted according to ability depending on their recruitment requirements and the prestige of the exam their students sit. In its concentration of material resources, symbolic capital, and capacity to select students, the system of the classes préparatoires and the grandes écoles constitutes the core of the education recruitment process of the French elite—while the majority of students can be found in the regular university system.
It is, however, difficult to establish specific findings since, until recently, the ENS did not keep an up-to-date database regarding students’ progress. Data collected within the framework of our thesis nevertheless show that the likelihood of normaliens finding themselves employed long term in a teaching position in secondary education is relatively low (table 1).
Table 1. Occupations of former students who graduated between 1981 and 1987 around twenty years after ENS (%)
As can be seen, in 2007-2008, 14% of the former students interviewed were high school/college teachers.
It is clear here that it is the post-baccalauréat areas of teaching and academic research—in which nearly three quarters of our respondents were engaged in—which constitute the route par excellence for normaliens around twenty years after leaving ENS. We can nevertheless identify significant internal differences within specialization of disciplinary field, with arts graduates having more often become academics, and science graduates slightly more often CPGE teachers in particular, science graduates also seem to have completed their academic careers more quickly than their peers in the arts stream: the proportion of professors and research directors is in effect higher among their ranks. We can also observe that there is a higher number of arts graduates among the small contingent of former students who are in non-academic higher intellectual roles6.
However, there are very few interdisciplinary differences in terms of long-term dedication to teaching in secondary education. Among both arts and science graduates, between 12 and 14% of former students have taken up the secondary education teaching route for a long period of time. This result may at first be surprising. On the strength of the high number of science CPGE positions7 and the wider range of choice offered to them in terms of academic research8, we may have assumed that these graduates would avoid secondary education teaching to an even greater extent than their former arts peers. Analysis of the interviews will show that orientation towards secondary teaching cannot in fact be reduced to a pure consequence of a saturated job market or a default choice owing to a lack of professional opportunities in other sectors.
Figure 1 provides a chronological overview of the evolution of the frequency of each form of employment. It shows that in addition to being in the minority within our sample, a long-term career in secondary education teaching is in decline among students who have graduated most recently.
Figure 1. Occupation of former students according to year of graduation
As can be seen, 8% of students who graduated between 1986 and 1987 were secondary school teachers at the time of the survey.
The clearest trend here is the fifteen-point increase in students with a career in higher education and research from the first years of graduation studied (1981-83) to the last (1986-87). This trend is in keeping with the gradual alignment since the beginning of the 1960s of the former primary ENS of Fontenay and, in particular, Saint-Cloud with the training programmes of the ENS d’Ulm-Sèvres (Barbé & Luc 1982; Oulhiou 1981). It can also be explained on the one hand by the creation of numerous positions in higher education, linked to policies of democratisation of access to the baccalauréat since the 1980s, and on the other hand by the consequential fall in prestige of secondary school teaching (Bataille 2014).
The natural counterpart to this increased orientation towards doing a PhD and following a career in academia is a relative disaffection with careers in schools and colleges. This trend is seen especially in those graduating from the second half of the second half of the 1980s. This distinct drop in the proportion of former students teaching in high schools can perhaps also be seen as one of the effects of the clearer reorientation of ENS priorities towards research, which was behind the transfer of the scientific sections to Lyon in 1986 (Bataille 2014). We note at the same time that the proportion of CPGE teachers also diminished during the period, although to a lesser extent.
A third trend is also significant here: the slight rise (+5%) at the end of the period in the proportion of students occupied in a higher intellectual position outside education and research. While this type of career was scarcely followed by former cloutiers (nickname for ENS Saint-Cloud students—Barbé & Luc 1982) at the end of the 1970s, it is the path chosen by almost 15% of those who graduated between 1986 and 1987.
From being the standard masters of secondary school teaching during the first half of the 20th century (Verneuil 2005), normaliens agregés seem to be becoming a very rare—and potentially endangered—species in secondary schools. As a career in secondary education may be considered to be more ordinary, from the point of view of the French population as a whole, than that of an academic or manager of a large multinational, it must thereby be emphasized that this particular choice of occupation is relatively rare within our sample. It is precisely this tension which informs our respondents’ experiences, as we will see.
Having outlined the position that teaching holds within the sphere of normalien careers, we must situate those students who have followed such a professional route vis-a-vis their peers of the same academic year. In table 2, different variables are employed to try to identify the sociological profile of former students (gender, social origin, level of academic qualifications, first professional role after ENS). Students’ social origin is determined using a generational indicator of class status within the national social space which has frequently been used in research using similar populations (Ferrand, Imbert, Marry 1999; Le Bras 1983)—the construction of which deserves clarification. This indicator allows us to identify four specific types of family configuration: “well-off” families, in which at least one parent and grandparent have been employed in a higher intellectual occupation; “upwardly mobile” families, in which one parent but no grandparent has been employed in such an occupation; “underprivileged” families, in which nobody in the family has held such an occupation; and, finally, those who are “catching up”: wherein a grandparent was employed in such an occupation but neither parent has been. This last category, which is disparate and represents a very reduced proportion of the sample, has been ruled out of the analysis presented here—which explains why the sum of the percentages concerning family typology does not equal 100 %.
Table 2. Social and academic profiles of students according to career outcome (%)
As can be seen, 40% of former students questioned who had become as secondary school teachers were from underprivileged families in terms of symbolic and economic capital.
*: This category particularly concerns experiences as a Ancien Normalien Doctorant [AND] or an Assistant Moniteur Normalien [AMN].
The sub-set of secondary teachers stands out first of all for its high number of female members (65% women, compared with 21% of Ps or RDs, and 53% of Ls or Rs). As we will see next in more detail, the large percentage of women who follow such a professional career is partly linked to gendered representations of the secondary education teaching profession as being “suited to women” (Cacouault-Bitaud 2007), since it would enable them to follow the occupational moves of a potential spouse more easily than a career in higher education.
From the angle of original family configuration type, secondary teachers are equally characterized by a high proportion of former students from underprivileged families. This overrepresentation of students from more modest social backgrounds in teaching careers is a sign of the difficulties involved in converting academic capital into effective professional resources for students who are socially upwardly mobile, as has been highlighted by the case of the most prestigious business schools (Lambert 2010). But, as we will see, such career choices are also informed by strategies—specific to former students from working-class families—of social ascent via schooling.
Regarding success in a competitive teaching exam, normalien secondary school teachers do not necessarily stand out for having a higher rate of agrégés (the name given to those who have passed the agrégation) than among those who have chosen an academic career. For the generations of the 1980s, a double qualification of agrégation/PhD appears to have been the norm. This trend has largely reversed in more recent generations, for whom preparation for the agrégation contest is less common among those who intend to follow academic careers, in particular among science students (Cour des comptes 2012).
In fact, the last two cross tabulations presented in table 2 concerning the composition of different sub-categories of student according to level of qualification and type of first employment held, allow us to add the final touches to the portrait we have quickly painted here. They show that the proportion of former PhD students working in secondary education is relatively low. This observation seems to indicate that the process of long-term orientation towards secondary education occurs early on in the journey post-ENS—and that the number of cases of former students who turn to secondary education having completed a thesis and failed to find a position in higher education, which is often highlighted in the media, is in reality minimal. This impression is reinforced by analysis of graduates’ first professional role after leaving ENS. Of the respondents in school or college teaching positions at the time of the survey, 84% began their career in secondary education. Similarly, those who have been successful in gaining an AND or AMN contract have very often continued along the academic career route and rarely return to teach in secondary education long term.
The careers of former normaliens who commit to secondary education long term therefore appear to be the result of a bifurcation relatively soon after ENS, and concern a small proportion of students, in particular women and/or students from modest social backgrounds. While this quantitative overview addresses several salient points, it says nothing about the significant variations in how this specific experience is lived and adopted, which is something that emerges in the interviews, as we will now see.
We must first of all point out that despite the plurality of experiences, long-term commitment to secondary education is generally presented as an accident in the career paths of our respondents. We can identify significant variations on this point depending on academic year, with those respondents who began ENS in the first half of the 1980s being the more nuanced. But, even though “veering off” (Benoît, S, P, Paris, Fam–) towards secondary teaching was a possibility for many of our respondents, it was—most of the time—solely in the form of a sort of “purgatory” (Marie, A, CPGE, Prov, Fam–), while they waited to finish their thesis and be appointed at a university, or at least to teach CPGE.
The accounts of the first secondary school teaching experiences can thereby take on a relatively dramatic aspect, as in the case of Louis (A, CPGE, Paris, Fam+), agrégé in philosophy, who is teaching CPGE in the Paris region at the time of the interview. After failing to gain a position as an AMN, he took a position in secondary education at the same time as beginning a thesis. He says that the “shock of secondary teaching” was so great that he quickly abandoned any attempt to pursue a PhD.
“I was appointed to a technical college… My first job was a technical college. I didn’t even know that that was possible, to be a normalien and agrégé and be appointed to a technical college. I must’ve been… I was obviously misinformed. How to explain that… I thought it was self-evident, since I’d been to ENS and I was agrégé—of course I’d be given a teaching position in a high school art department. It was a done deal. But yeah, first job at a technical college… I took it really badly. Like an insult. I felt insulted by the institution.”
The causes behind this kind of tumultuous entry into the profession are multiple: for example, the difference between the level of selection in the agrégation and the content of the lessons to give at high school (and even more so at secondary school); enforced geographical distance; and the lack of real pedagogical training during the ENS years. The disparity is felt all the more strongly when a graduate’s specialized discipline has a prestigious reputation within the academic sphere, as is the case for philosophy and mathematics (Bourdieu 1988). In a sign of the sometimes traumatic, and scarcely anticipated, nature of the experience, metaphors of war abound in respondents’ accounts—“I did my Vietnam,” “I was sent to the front lines”—and even more so when the first years of teaching took place at relatively disadvantaged establishments. Next, we will see that the level of “shock” felt on arrival in secondary teaching is particularly strong in the cases of students from “well-off” families, which are rare as we have seen above.
However, entry into and continuation of a career in secondary teaching is not always experienced as an “insult.” Alexia (A, Other-, Prov, Fam↑), for example, who has been a school language teacher for twenty years, criticizes her classmates who did whatever they could to get out of teaching (“Yes, ok, everyone was scared of teaching. But that was what we were there for, wasn’t it. Well there you go”). This relatively favourable disposition towards teaching meant Alexia had a much better experience of the first years of teaching at an establishment in a rural area in the east of France—“I’d gone to a provincial school myself, so I felt at home”—even more so since she was appointed at a “nice school” near the one where her partner worked (“it was comfortable”). She admits, however, that this career direction was not always what she had had in mind, and that it took “a few years to bury [her] dreams of academia and greatness.”
Also, even when the possibility of becoming a teacher was to a large extent accepted a priori, entry into this type of occupation appears in retrospect as a turning point in the respondent’s career path. This “junction” (Abbott 1997) helps to significantly reduce the range of choice available to them after the ENS years are over.
Among the various tools available to help understand biographical dynamics, the turning point is unique in that it can only be defined as such a posteriori—and hence it is necessarily an object of reinterpretation for those concerned (Bidart, Longo, Mendez 2013). This intrinsic “narrativity” of the turning point (Abbott 1997) can make the interpretation of such events very difficult. By focusing on the way these moments of rupture are put into a narrative, and on the trajectories of which this narrative is partly the product, we can nevertheless sociologically interpret the tone given to these events in life stories we analyse (Demazière 2007).
In the case of our respondents, even if a long-term bifurcation to secondary education is often presented as a prominent event, the strength of the feeling of relegation associated with it varies greatly depending, for example, on their academic and social background prior to starting at ENS.
For former students from working-class backgrounds in particular, access to a teaching position in a high school is less often presented as a rupture than as a consolidation of a social ascent begun during their secondary education and further established via their entry into CPGE and then a grande école. In this sense, access to a teaching position constitutes an “honourable and reasonable path” to significant upward social mobility (Hugrée 2010)—such as in the case of students of France’s second wave of academic democratisation with regard to the CAPES (Certificat d’Aptitude au Professorat du Second degré—an entrance exam to get into secondary teaching).
This is, for example, is the case for Stéphane (A, CPGE, Paris, Fam–), who today teaches literature in CPGE after having spent the first half of his career at a high school in the “banlieue of the Parisian banlieue” (the banlieues, or suburbs, denoting the most marginal, disaffected, and arguably neglected parts of French cities). From a very humble, rural background (his father was an agricultural labourer and his mother unemployed), Stéphane was the first in his family to get a degree; he says he has been on a “journey,” which has taken place “bit by bit”: after an exemplary secondary school education in his home town he entered the best CPGE available nearby. For his last year of CPGE, he decided in the end to apply for a Parisian khâgne (a CPGE dedicated to literature and the humanities), and succeeded in getting into ENS the following year. The real rupture in his career path seems to have been his entry into ENS, where the confrontation with his fellow students—who were generally from families that were better off in terms of economic and academic capital than his and who saw themselves as the “elite of the nation”—was a particularly difficult experience. While for him ENS represented the “opportunity to become a teacher,” he felt out of step with his peers, who were for the most part aiming for positions in higher education. After having passed the agrégation and done a year of the Diplôme d’études approfondies [DEA—a diploma which used to prepare students for a PhD], to some extent out of spite he took a position in a school in a working-class town in the north of Paris, before being appointed several years later to teach CPGE. In rare cases of steep social ascent such as Stéphane’s, obtaining a long-term position in secondary education does not necessarily imply a major bifurcation, and therefore has less negative connotations insofar as it is a continuation of the path that led to ENS entry.
This type of discourse contrasts markedly with the words of Louis, quoted earlier, for whom an appointment to a technical college was viewed as an “insult.” To understand the intensity of feeling expressed by Louis regarding this experience (“the absolute horror… yes, that bad”), we must reframe it in the wider context of his career path. Louis grew up in a city in the west of France; his father was a doctor and his mother a housewife with a passion for literature and cinema. He began classes préparatoires on the advice of his uncle who was an ENA (National School of Administration) graduate—initially to go to Sciences-Po Paris and become a “diplomat,” even if the subject of his career was still very vague for him. Having turned to philosophy during his khâgne years, he decided to prepare for the ENS entry exam with the idea of “continuing to expand his knowledge of philosophy” even though he had inherited a “rather unfavourable” image of teaching from his peers and his father, for whom this route did not represent a “good [professional] choice.” Since his academic choices have primarily been driven by principles that were both elitist (getting into a selective curriculum in order to escape the first years of university) and disciplinary (satisfying his taste for philosophy, a particularly highly regarded discipline in the academic sphere), we thereby understand that the bifurcation towards teaching technology—one of the least valued sectors of the French education system—constituted a considerable rupture in his career path. It is also significant that in cases similar to Louis’s, whereby getting a place at an ENS is initially part of a family strategy to consolidate a position of power in society, interactions with family members can encourage the association of a long-term commitment to a teaching career with relegation. Thus, Louis notes that he was “blamed” “after the fact” by his mother for “not becoming a minister.” Although he specifies that this remark was made “in a fit of anger” and that it was not necessarily “sincere,” this type of reaction contributes towards the connotation of this turning point with failure.
Gender plays an equally strong role in retrospective interpretations of long-term engagement in secondary education teaching. For many of our female respondents, their appointment to a teaching position in a school or college often corresponded with the arrival of their first child. In such situations, the likelihood of re-joining the royal road of the thesis and higher education teaching is drastically reduced owing to the frequently uneven division of domestic care work between partners. For those who had academic ambitions, embarking on a career in secondary education teaching thus often becomes a “sticky floor” (Buscatto & Marry 2009).
Testimonies like that of Sandrine (A, Sec, Paris, Fam↑), who has been a foreign language teacher for about fifteen years at the time of the interview, are relatively frequent. She was in a relationship with a young doctor during her last year of education, and the arrival of their first child appears retrospectively to be clearly correlated with her abandoning her thesis.
“I mean I never intended to go and teach in a school or college. And that’s what I ended up doing. So I applied to do the DEA. Saying to myself… There you go… And then I got my DEA. And then I stopped there because I had kids [laughs].”
Sandrine looked after the couple’s children first and foremost while her husband worked a lot setting up his practice: the asymmetry of status in their relationship9 therefore made her commitment to pursuing a thesis impossible, even if today Sandrine plays down the impact of the arrival of her first child on her career (“it was a good excuse. I think… I think that if I’d really wanted to, I’d have continued”), and also blames an “intellectual inferiority complex.”
The ambivalence that permeates Sandrine’s answers is palpable in a number of interviews with former students—even when, in the case of some, such as Claire (S, Sec, Paris, Fam+), a science teacher in Paris, becoming a “school teacher” rather than an engineer or academic was clearly linked to a desire to “start a family.” The flexibility in terms of working hours that the profession of secondary school teaching facilitates would thus have allowed these women to keep one foot in an academic career, if they had not ultimately had to take care of domestic tasks or their children’s education, above all when in a relationship with a partner qualified to the same level10.
Also, while it may not necessarily be presented as relegation, long-term bifurcation to secondary education seems for these respondents to be located at the crossroads of the differing, sometimes contradictory, dynamics of “production” and “reproduction”11 , making their first years in a position in secondary education appear in retrospect as a critical point in the course of their career.
A final factor that may contribute to a career in secondary education being associated with relegation is reactions encountered in interactions with colleagues and school management.
In general, those we spoke to in teaching positions in schools or colleges say very little about their academic past to their professional entourage. Xavier (S, Sec, Prov, Fam+), a maths teacher at a high school in the south of the Paris region, rarely states his academic title other than on his CV, above all to avoid looking arrogant to his colleagues. “It’s like your ranking in the agrégation,” “we don’t talk about things like that much,” he concludes.
Flaunting this type of accolade with the intention of receiving favourable treatment would first of all contravene the equal treatment guaranteed a priori to all public servants of the same rank. As Xavier makes the point with humour, “You can’t say ‘Hello Mr. Inspector, I’m a normalien, you can’t treat me like a normal teacher, you know’.” For our respondents, the only legitimate administrative category through which to assert their rights is the type of teaching qualification they hold (agrégé, or capésien for the CAPES). The agrégé label very often replaces that of “ENS student” in relations with schools and their administration. Working hours and salary progression among other things effectively depend on this distinction.
Other respondents, however, state that their discretion regarding the fact that they attended ENS is linked to a fear of their colleagues (both teachers and management) or members of the administration such as school inspectors in particular not understanding their academic route. The title of normalien can become a stigma (Goffman 1963) in these circumstances, in that it is an attribute that can serve to support the reduction of an individual’s personality to caricatured traits. There are two main aspects to the normalien stigma: firstly privilege, in that he or she has had it easy; and secondly being employed in a job for which he or she is overqualified. These aspects turn the bifurcation to secondary education into a form of degradation.
For Émilie, a literature teacher in the north of the Paris region (A, Sec, Prov, Fam–), the negative reactions of some colleagues when they learn that she has been to ENS partly come from the fact that they believe “that there are many things that are made easier for them [in terms of career], and that this isn’t necessarily right.” This type of feeling seems to vary a good deal depending on the context, as is well illustrated by Louis’s case (A, CPGE, Paris, Fam+). The first head teacher he encountered had an “axe to grind,” according to him, when it came to agrégés—especially normaliens. He apparently said at their first meeting “You are agrégé, a normalien, this means nothing to me, it’s not what counts in my book.” This situation effectively made Louis poorly disposed towards this career he had not wanted in the first place, contributing towards his initial distress. In contrast, the head of the school in which he was teaching at the time of the interview, who has himself done CPGE and is known to be “favourable” towards the CPGE/Grandes écoles system, would more easily fit the opposite stereotype of somewhat exaggerating the merits of Louis’s career path—frequently citing him as an example at staff meetings, for example.
This relatively unique situation can also lead to misunderstandings with teachers’ direct superiors, as was the case for Alexia (A, Other-, Prov, Fam↑). As mentioned earlier, Alexia—whose main aim in getting into ENS was to “become a teacher”—was one of the most prepared among our respondents to embrace this type of career. However, her exchanges with the regional education inspector during her first inspection gave her the impression that the position she held was “below” her capabilities, thus acting as a kind of reminder of the symbolic order.
“I mean that the first inspector I saw, the first… the second year I was at the school, he told me straight away that he’d read my administrative file, my academic qualifications. He told me he could see I didn’t want to stay there… He deduced from the fact I’d taught two years at a university, that I was a normalienne, etc, that I didn’t belong in a provincial high school. And that I was therefore not going to stay… that I didn’t want to be there. This was definitely not what I thought… It wasn’t a case of ‘You come from there, so this is definitely below your…’ I’d never seen this job as being below me. Quite the opposite, I was really happy. I really liked being there.”
While not the experience of the majority, Alexia’s case illustrates that interpreting the “turning point” of a long-term commitment to teaching by analogy with “failure” cannot be reduced to individual assessment. Rather, it is the result of a collective construction of meaning (to which family and other relations contribute, as we have seen, but colleagues and other actors of the professional environment also play a part).
3. Progression, “refusing to succeed,” and the pursuit of a better “quality of life”: three types of career path post-bifurcation
In this final section, we will focus on different ways in which former students appropriate this rupture in the long term. The three types of career path described below are not specific to ENS students—and could, in our view, be applied to other secondary education teachers. Nevertheless, each resonates in its own way with the particular experience of the respondent.
Those who have experienced secondary education as relegation have invested a great deal of effort into trying, as far as possible, to avert this first (mis)orientation of their career. In an environment in which the agrégation process is one of the few channels of promotion (Verneuil 2005), most of our respondents, having passed the exam and benefiting from relative seniority thanks to their four years at ENS as “trainee civil servants,” have, in fact, relatively reduced perspectives regarding advancement of their career status. Geographical mobility and/or applying for CPGE teaching positions, or teaching advanced technical courses (Section de technicien supérieur, STS12), or even applying for positions in academic inspection services very often constitute the main strategies normaliens employ to try to “pursue their career” despite everything.
Louis (A, CPGE, Paris, Fam+)’s career path is revealing again here. After his first appointment, Louis tried very hard to “escape” the technical college he was working at, first of all by trying to get out of the national education system. Along with several unsuccessful “attempts to convert” to business, Louis also tried out a career as a writer. Beside poetry, which he had written regularly since his CPGE years, he wrote several books for teenagers and popular philosophy guides. But none of his works allowed him to seriously consider leaving teaching.
In the end, Louis made use of the transfer of his—non-teacher—partner to the Paris region to request a new placement on the grounds of proximity to his partner. This change of region and establishment strongly contributed to giving a fresh impetus to his career. Indeed, once he was appointed to a general school in a popular district of Paris’s inner suburbs, he became acquainted with an inspector general who strongly encouraged and supported him in obtaining the position he holds today in CPGE. In this new configuration, the title of normalien and the symbolic capital it represents have played “a huge role,” even if Louis admits to having had to get over his “aversion” to “getting pally with the inspection service” to be able to take full advantage of this. Despite his sixteen years of “purgatory,” Louis says that he is very happy with his situation today, both in terms of the quality of students in his classes (“it’s a totally different job [from the technical college], that’s definite”) and in terms of his salary: “With the [overtime in CPGE], I increase my salary by 20%—so compared with my course mates who I see, who are directors of research at CNRS and who are paid a pittance… in some ways teaching CPGE is better.”
This last remark calls for comment. As in Louis’s case, some of our respondents who have strayed from the conventional academic career (L/R then P/RD) to follow a career in secondary or post-baccalauréat (CPGE, STS) teaching, stated that in terms of direct economic and symbolic rewards, they are not necessarily worse off than their former classmates. From this perspective, an arts CPGE teaching position or one at a good Parisian school may indeed appear more desirable than a position as a lecturer at an IUT in the provinces, to take a somewhat extreme example. Nevertheless, with few exceptions, this type of argument appears to be ex post facto rationalisation when subjected to analysis. Indeed, the initial choices that were made regarding professional orientation were rarely on the grounds of an evaluation of relative pay.
A second type of career path followed by a smaller contingent of our secondary teacher respondents attests to a strong investment in the field of education or even in trade union activity. This type of career path is generally associated with a claim to being committed to secondary education teaching, and more generally to state education. It also recalls the attitude of students of Saint-Cloud, who, in the first half of the 20th century, refused to yield to the “call of the agrégation,” and to “succeed”—i.e., a refusal to turn their backs on their founding mission of bringing education to the people (Barbé & Luc 1982).
This, for example, was the case for Martine (S, Sec, Paris, Fam↑), a maths teacher at a secondary school in the Paris region. After her years at ENS, Martine decided not to pursue a thesis, and was appointed to the position she has today. This choice was strongly influenced by family and gender factors—Martine’s priority was to be “available for her children,” and teaching at a school seemed to her the best option for this. She considered on several occasions positioning herself for IUT or BTS roles. But since these positions were all located at least a half-hour train journey from where she lived, she never went through with her applications—preferring to maximize the time spent with her son. Although Martine has never seriously considered leaving secondary teaching, it is just as much because she has developed a strong attachment to her work and her usefulness (“[Originally,] I wanted to do voluntary work… I really wanted to have a useful job. And I feel useful as a teacher.”) This commitment—among others—is apparent in the time she dedicates, now that her son is a bit older, to working every day of the week (including the weekend) and evenings in order to ensure maximum care and attention is given to her students. She is also involved in extracurricular activities, such as the school drama club, and regularly accompanies classes in theatres of the region.
The commitment to teaching can sometimes take on a more political tone, such as in the case of Alexia (A, Other-, Prov, Fam↑). She said she stayed in secondary teaching to “try to put [her] cultural capital to use for the good of young people” and to bridge the gap “as far as possible” between her most disadvantaged students and “culture reserved for the elite.” She is a union representative and has campaigned hard to maintain certain rarer subjects (languages, arts, etc) in the rural school where she was appointed at the end of her ENS years, taking a stand against the ENS establishment which favours the “elite classes” in “city-centre schools.” Alexia also regrets that during her years of study, the ENS environment did not push her more to develop her thoughts on pedagogy (“I feel like I have learnt so much just by getting out of the mindset we were in [at the end of the years spent at ENS]13 ”).
This form of political commitment to teaching can from time to time spill far beyond a strictly professional context. Thus, Alexia had left secondary teaching several years before the interview, benefiting from an early retirement scheme available to mothers of large families. She has thereafter used her free time to get involved in various environmental organisations in her region. Following on from her commitments when she was a teaching, she intends to take advantage of her situation to become a “public writer and commentator.” She is also working on writing a play based on activists’ stories. In other cases, commitments outside of work can take the form of a political engagement at the level of municipal authorities, where former students can reinvest some of their experience from their training, especially their “labour power” and their capacity for synthesis, as noted by one of our respondents, a councillor in a commune in the west of Paris (Clothilde, A, CPGE, Fam+). In such situations, the bifurcation towards secondary teaching appears able to engender forms of increased investment in certain local organisations or political activities—and helps to supply these local political/public scenes with ordinary intellectuals.
Finally, we identified a third type of career path post-bifurcation that is characterized by the search for “quality of life.” This type of choice is tricky to interpret since the position of relativization which our respondents demonstrate may be a way of making a virtue out of necessity. But it cannot be only this, since this type of aspiration to a better quality of life seems to us to reveal certain changes under way in the upper intellectual echelons of the middle classes—and especially as far as men as concerned.
The case of Xavier (S, Sec, Prov, Fam+), a high school maths teacher, is particularly interesting from this point of view. Xavier is among a number of our respondents who define themselves “as a joke” as “failed normaliens.” For him—the son and grandson of agrégés from the west of France—getting into ENS represented first and foremost an opportunity to do a selective and prestigious course. “The reality of a teaching career passed me by completely, even though there were teachers in my family,” he admits. More interested in his guitar, and getting his rock group off the ground than in academic activities during his ENS years (“We thought ‘we’ve passed the entrance exam, that’s it, we’ve finished’”), he nevertheless passed the agrégation and obtained an AND contract. But when the results of his thesis were slow to materialize, he increasingly lost interest in research. He thus found himself forced to take a position in secondary education straight after the end of his contracted AND years and starting the academic year in September at a school that had a reputation for being difficult in the suburbs of Paris. The fact that this bifurcation was fairly unexpected—and represented at best a “plan B”—meant that beginning secondary education teaching was “very tough,” by his own admission (“I remember wanting to run away.”) After several years in the Parisian region, Xavier and his wife—herself a normalienne agrégée—decided to request a transfer together to leave the capital and “buy a house” in order to accommodate their plan to have a large family. They were then appointed to the high school and the secondary school in the small town south of Paris where they were living at the time of the interview.
Despite the difficult start to his career, and although he “doesn’t necessarily feel that teaching is [his] vocation”—he says he does it “because it brings in money”—Xavier feels he has been rather “lucky.” He stresses, in particular, that he and his partner “earn a good living” with their two salaries combined. Although less prestigious than those of some of their classmates, their career path has allowed them to achieve a certain standard of living (buying a house, having a garden, coming home in the evening to look after the children or play the guitar…), which would have been harder for them to achieve had they both pursued a career in academia.
“[In reference to one of his ENS classmates] [He] loves his job. It’s really his passion… And besides that, he spends one to two days a week at a hotel… so he can go and teach his classes. His living conditions are appalling… Ok, he earns a good living too. But he’s got his kids, he’s got the house on the outskirts of Paris which is three times the price of ours, and at the hotel he hasn’t even got a toilet in his room… He’s a university lecturer, you know? So, it’s a nice job, sometimes he does fascinating things, and he talks about interesting things with his students from time to time. But it’s not always very interesting. It’s not just PhD students… There are [undergrads] too. Well anyway, I know it’s not exactly fascinating all the time… So yes, when I compare, it’s true… In some respects, I’d have liked a job in which I did maths, really… I’d have liked many things… I’d have liked to have been a rock guitarist too [laughs].”
More generally, Xavier’s career path after his bifurcation towards secondary education attests to aspirations of a better “quality” of personal life, as well as to wanting to be more “involved in the education of [his] children” similar to that noted by Julie Jarty in “homogamous” high school teachers (Jarty 2009). Analysis of the pattern of his career post-ENS thus appears to us to be indicative of changes and representations at work over the past twenty years within the upper intellectual fractions of the middle classes (Le Feuvre & Lapeyre, 2011). His path is part of a larger “renewal of both the professional and family role of men” in these social categories—without, however, engendering a strict equivalence or total interchangeability of traditional gender roles within the management of current affairs in their family life.
At the end of this article, let us recall the results that we have established. First, thanks to quantitative analysis, we have shown that the distribution of long-term bifurcations towards secondary teaching in the careers of former ENS students within our surveyed population is not random: such bifurcations are primarily seen in the case of women, and students from families who are relatively unprivileged in terms of academic and symbolic capital. Second, analysis of the interviews shows that while taking up a career in secondary teaching is often presented as a rupture, the rather negative and traumatic connotation of this event is generally rooted in the former social and academic experiences of the respondents. Third, the long-term effects of this bifurcation on the evolution of the respondent’s career are also generally shown here to be plural—the bifurcation may engender: strategies to win back a prestigious social status; political commitments within the context of teaching or which go beyond the professional sphere or even a distancing relative to standards of success.
Finally, our results show that analysis of the social construction of class and reputation does not fully equate to an understanding of the effects of these sociosymbolic judgements in those who propound them. These classifications are the object of various appropriations—which are themselves informed by rules governing individual academic and professional career paths. Our results thus call for these experiences to be systematically viewed within a longer-term, individual biographical context, to understand not only what the achievement of such status symbols does to individuals, but also what they do with them.
This point is particularly valuable for works that deal with French academic elites, where the functioning of the education system which selects an “adolescent elite” (Eymeri 2005), relatively early on, that is destined to fill dominant positions at a young age invites us to focus on the conditions of entry and the “moulding” effect that this training has rather than studying the later stages of careers. But this observation also applies to cases in other countries. Here again, the sociology of elite American institutions is a particularly illustrative example. In the works of Shamus Khan (2011) and Mitchell Stevens (2009), to take two striking examples that have appeared in recent years on socialisation within different prestigious American colleges, it is first and foremost the “production” by the academic institution of future national elites which prevails, as the titles of these two works make very clear (Creating a Class by Stevens and Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite by Khan). Like research conducted on the case of France, these works mostly ignore the long-term effects of this type of system of selection and training—overestimating, perhaps, these institutions’ capacity to homogenize.
For these works and future research into academic and cultural elites, the results presented here thus intend to encourage a substitution of analysis of the construction/production of a particular status—such as normalien or polytechnicien (a student of the École Polytechnique engineering and military higher education institution), but also académicien, or the winner of a prestigious literary prize, etc.—which is necessarily “extraordinary,” with an approach which pays greater attention to “ordinary” biographical processes within which these tests of social recognition fall.