The prehistory of Bourbaki's unique mathematical adventure
began in the 1920s at I'Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Almost all
the future Bourbaki members would study in this institution, a fact
that remains true today. The ENS, as it is usually abbreviated, is a
member of the Grandes Ecoles, the elitist system of institutions of
higher education so particular to France. Created in 1794, the ENS
originally focused on producing professors of secondary education
(including high school and the preparatory classes for entry into the
Grandes Ecoles). By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the
Normaliens (as students of the ENS are called) increasingly turned to
jobs in higher education and research. The ENS is composed of two
faculties: humanities (with about thirty students per year in the
1920s) and sciences (with about twenty students per year).
Admission is based on a highly selective exam following two or three
years of preparatory classes. In the 1920s, the admitted students
stayed at the ENS for three years. The first two were devoted to uni-
versity classes and the third was devoted to preparing for the final
examinations for teacher certification.
The entrance of I'Ecole Norm
Superieure in 19
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