It was initially conceived during the French Revolution and was intended to provide the Republic with a new body of professors, trained in the critical spirit and secular values of the Enlightenment. It has since developed into an institution which has become a platform for a select few of France's students to pursue careers in government and academia. Founded in 1794 and reorganised by Napoleon, ENS has two main sections (literary and scientific) and a competitive selection process consisting of written and oral examinations. During their studies, some ENS students hold the status of paid civil servants.
The principal goal of ENS is the training of professors, researchers and public administrators. Among its alumni there are 13 Nobel Prize laureates including 8 in Physics (ENS has the highest ratio of Nobel laureates per alumnus of any institution worldwide), 11 Fields Medalists (the most of any university in the world), more than half the recipients of the CNRS's Gold Medal (France's highest scientific prize), several hundred members of the Institut de France, one President of the French Republic, several Prime Ministers, and many ministers. The school has achieved particular recognition in the fields of mathematics and physics as one of France's foremost scientific training grounds, along with notability in the human sciences as the spiritual birthplace of authors such as Julien Gracq, Jean Giraudoux, Assia Djebar, and Charles Péguy, philosophers such as Henri Bergson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, Simone Weil, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Nizan, and Alain Badiou, social scientists such as Émile Durkheim, Raymond Aron, and Pierre Bourdieu, and "French theorists" such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
The ENS is a grande école and, as such, is not part of the mainstream university system, although it maintains extensive connections with it. The vast majority of the academic staff hosted at ENS belong to external academic institutions such as the CNRS, the EHESS and the University of Paris. This mechanism for constant scientific turnover allows ENS to benefit from a continuous stream of researchers in all fields. ENS full professorships are rare and competitive. Generalistic in its recruitment and organisation, the ENS is the only grande école in France to have departments of research in all the natural, social, and human sciences. Its status as one of the foremost centres of French research has led to its model being replicated elsewhere, in France (at the ENSes of Lyon, Paris-Saclay, and Rennes), in Italy (at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa), in Romania, in China and in former French colonies such as Morocco, Mali, Mauritania, and Cameroon.