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The literary and humanities classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles (CPGE) or "classe prépa" is a two-year long program after high school graduation, baccalauréat. Its mission is to prepare undergraduate students for the competitive entrance examination to the three Écoles normales supérieures (ENS), but also to the École nationale des chartes, to business schools or to "Instituts d'études politiques". Khâgne (French pronunciation: [ˈkaɲ]) informally refers to the literary and humanity CPGE. But more precisely, the term refers to the second year of the program, also known as "Première Supérieure", while the first year is known as "Lettres Supérieures" or "hypokhâgne" (from Greek hypo, "under").
Until 1890, high school graduates prepared for the entrance examination to the ENS by repeating their classe de rhétorique which corresponds to the current high school junior year. Teachers would give them more difficult assignments than to high school juniors. Louis-le-Grand high school created a special class in order to gather those "veteran" high school juniors: the Première supérieure class, also called rhétorique supérieure, or rhétosup. Henri-IV high school then introduced the Lettres supérieures (or Lettres sup) year between high school and the Première supérieure year. Regarded as a two-year extension of high school studies, Lettres supérieures and Première supérieure was meant to prepare students to the ENS. This system became standard by the 1930s.
As the coursework is intensive, with around 35 hours of tuition per week and a good deal of work on top of that, it can be very stressful for students. The examinations are difficult and competitive and it is common for students either to repeat the second year of classes or to fail altogether, in which case they usually obtain a license or other qualification. The grading system (0 to 20) reflects the general philosophy of the khâgnes: underscoring the failings of the students rather than their strengths. Consequently, most grades hover between 4 and 11, the latter grade being an excellent grade. This grading system is quite demotivating for students but is part and parcel of the intellectual "boot camp" mentality of the classes prépas educational system.
The classes involve elements of literature (modern and classical), history, philosophy, geography, languages and linguistics-–-a comprehensive humanities-based education-–-but students will normally specialise in one or two subjects. Critics claim that a disproportionate amount of resources is devoted to khâgne students as against the c. 40% of Baccalauréat students who attend a standard university (faculté). They therefore see it as a feature of the elitism of the French higher education system, especially since the majority of successful candidates originate from successful middle-class families. Defenders see it as demonstrating an emphasis on quality.
Etymology of Khâgne
The word khâgne (f.) is a pseudo-Graecism and is derived from the French adjective cagneux, knock-kneed. During the 19th and early 20th century, this adjective was often used mockingly to describe people in the academic strata, especially those pursuing classical studies. More specifically, the label "cagneux" was used as a taunt by students of the military academy (whose curriculum included physical education such as equestrianism and fencing) against students in the humanities which were perceived as crouching over their books, thus developing physical deformities. Nevertheless, in the early 20th century the term was adapted by humanities students themselves as a mocking self-description, albeit with a changed spelling to make it look like a Greek loan word.
There are two kinds of hypokhâgnes: 1) The hypokhâgne A/L which can either lead to a Khâgne Ulm or a Khâgne Lyon. 2) The hypokhâgne B/L which leads to the Khâgne B/L only. There are therefore three kinds of khâgnes: khâgne B/L, khâgne Ulm, and khâgne Lyon, respectively preparing to the following entrance exams:
The common entrance examinations (social sciences section) to the three ENS:
- The entrance examination (A/L section) to the ENS Ulm
- The entrance examination (A/L section) to the ENS of Lyon.
- The entrance examination (B/L section) to the ENS Ulm, the ENS of Lyon and the ENS of Cachan
Khâgnes de Lettres (Ulm and Lyon)
The two remaining kinds of khâgnes are literary khâgnes: khâgne Lyon and khâgne Ulm.
- Khâgne Ulm prepares to the A/L section of the entrance examination to the ENS of Paris. As the khâgne B/L, the particularity of the khâgne A/L lies in the fact that curricula of some subjects is unlimited. Each subject of the entrance examination must be taken in a written and in an oral form. The six written subjects taken are given the same coefficient: a codified essay in French literature, in history and in philosophy, a translation from an ancient language, a translation from a modern language and a commentary of it, and a subject taken as a speciality. During the oral entrance examination, the literary analysis of a French literary text, an examination in philosophy, in modern and in ancient languages are based on an unlimited programme, and so is the extension of the curriculum in history. However the examination in the subject taken as a speciality is based on an explicit curriculum. About 2,000 students attend the khâgne ulm.
- Khâgne Lyon. It prepares to the ENS of Lyon, which is more recent than the ENS Ulm, though it is better ranked in some research departments such as in exact and experimental sciences.
Each subject taught is based on an explicit curriculum which is different each year. Although all subjects have the same importance for the written part of the exam,for the oral examination one or two subjects are strongly emphasized, which makes the entrance examination to the ENS of Lyon more specialized than the one of to the ENS Ulm. 3,000 students are attending the khâgne Lyon each year.
For the students of Khâgne Lyon who choose to specialise in English, there is also the possibility of getting into the ENS Cachan, traditionally a more science-orientated ENS but with an additional 10 places offered to English specialists. The selection process involves a different emphasis put on the grades obtained in the exam for the ENS Lyon and an even more specialised oral exam, which only involves English-related subjects.
Unlike what is commonly assumed, the distinction between "classical" and "modern" opposing the khâgne Ulm to the khâgne Lyon isn't explained by the distinction between classical literature and modern literature, since classical literature is also taught in khâgne Lyon and modern literature in khâgne Ulm. The distinction is actually made between "classical curriculum" and "modern classical" drawn in 1902 by the Ministry of Public Instruction of the time, Alexandre Ribot. Before 1902, all high school classes were considered "classical", which means that ancient languages were compulsory even among students majoring in sciences. The reform created "modern" sections in which ancient languages weren't compulsory.
The hypokhâgne A/L curriculum
All hypokhâgneux must attend 5 hours of French literature, 5 hours of history, 4 hours of philosophy, 4 hours of the first modern language, 3 hours of ancient language and cultures (2 hours of Latin or Ancient Greek and 2 hours of antique culture), 2 hours of geography and 2 hours of a second modern language a week. Then comes a chosen subject which can be art, ancient languages, geography or another modern language. In khâgne, the compulsory subjects and their respective tuition hours depend on the kind of speciality chosen:
- in litearture, in philosophy, in history/geography or in geography (explicit curriculum)
- in classical literature (Latin and ancient Greek, ancient history)
- in modern languages (two modern languages are to be studied)
- in arts : musicology, art history, cinematography or theater studies
Compared to the khâgne A/L, students of the khâgne de Lettres et Sciences sociales (B/L) (Literature and social sciences) are required to take mathematics and social sciences on top of literary subjects (philosophy, French literature, history and languages). The khâgne B/L was created in 1983 in Henri-IV and Lakanal high schools at the same time as a corresponding entrance examination was created at the ENS rue d'Ulm. The aim was to attract good high school students who majored in sciences to literary and social studies.
Both the curriculum of a hypokhâgne and a khâgne B/L is composed of the following subjects, which are considered of equal importance:
- Mathematics (6 hours a week) whose curriculum is similar to the ones of business CPGEs.
- Social sciences (6 hours a week) which encompasses economy, sociology, and objects commonly studied by those two subjects.
- French literature (4 hours a week), unlimited curriculum.
- History (4 hours a week). The curriculum encompasses "World history from 1918 to nowadays" and "France history from 1870 to nowadays" and is taught during the two years of the classe prépa.
- Philosophy (4 hours a week), unlimited curriculum.
- A compulsory modern language (2 hours a week)
- A speciality (4 hours a week): extra classes in the compulsory modern language, or another modern language, or an Ancient language or geography.
- Sport (2 optional hours a week)
The khâgne B/L trains its students to take the entrance examinations of various schools:
- the ENS Ulm (25 seats)
- the ENS of Cachan (17 seats)
- the ENS of Lyon (5 seats)
- the ENSAE (National School of Statistics and Economic Administration) attached to France's National Institute of Economic and Statistical Information (INSEE)
- the National School for Statistics and Analysis Areas Information (ENSAI)
- Business schools (ESSEC, HEC, ESCP Europe, EDHEC, École de management de Lyon, Audencia, etc.)
- the French military academy Saint-Cyr
- the national school for archivists and librarians, École nationale des chartes
- Communication schools (IFJ, etc.) and journalism schools (CELSA, etc.)
- Instituts d'études politiques (IEP, Sciences Po)
- the Engineering school (Management/Advanced mechanics) (ISMANS)
The majority of khâgneux B/L and A/L go on studying at the university once they completed the khâgne, though more and more khâgneux get nowadays enrolled in grandes écoles such as business schools or engineer schools (ENSAE, ENSAI, etc.). During their studies at the classe préparatoire, students are also immatriculated at a university so that the years spent at the classe prépa are acknowledged by universities: a student having completed the hypokhâgne is acknowledged as being able to get enrolled immediately as a sophomore student at university in a chosen subject; a student having completed the khâgne can immediately enter the third and last year of the French bachelor's programme in a chosen subject. After having repeated the khâgne, the student may be granted a partial or a total bachelor's diploma equivalence. In the case of a student who has passed the written exam but failed the oral part, there is the possibility of studying any subject they have done in the written exam at post-graduate level. Besides grandes écoles and IEPs, khâgne students can also get enrolled into selective university programmes, such as magistères.
Repeating the year of khâgne
A khâgneux who fails an entrance examination may repeat the khâgne; he is called cube or khûbe. He therefore attends classes with carrés or khârrés, that is former hypokhâgneux who are attending the khâgne for the first time. A khâgneux who repeats the khâgne twice is called bicarré or bikhârré.
- Classe Préparatoire aux Grandes Écoles
- The khâgne is informally discussed in the memoirs of Raymond Aron (1905-1983), who transferred at 17 from a suburban to a Paris lycee for the two-year khâgne course, and was a classmate at the Ecole Nationale Superieure of Jean-Paul Sartre and Georges Canguilhem. These memoirs (published in English translation in 1990) illustrate the social differences between the education of the intellectual elite in France and in other countries, largely deriving from the unique curriculum and method of the khâgne. 
- In The Human Stain, Philip Roth details the life story of Delphine Roux, a character who was educated in Henri IV's khâgne and became a normalienne. He also describes the intellectual life of khâgneux in the Latin Quarter, from the point of view of the main character, Coleman Silk.