April is a big month for French academe. In April the nation’s aspiring intellectual elite sits the vertiginously difficult exam known as the agrégation. If they pass they become an agrégé, one of an illustrious cast of teachers at Lycee or University level that are guaranteed glory, prestige and a job for life within that 2 million-strong bastion of Republican orthodoxy known as l’Education Nationale.
My own son, in his fifth year reading philosophy at the Sorbonne, once described the agrégation to me in these terms: “If you pass, you’re basically set for life. You never have to prove yourself again.” I then set about trying to encourage him to reconsider the merits of such an honour and the effects it might have on his own imagination. I am pleased to announce, years later, that he no longer wishes to fight, along with several thousand other philosophy graduates, for the 30 or so teaching posts available to the agrégés but intends to leave with a simple Masters degree and become a cook.
Had he not changed his mind, he might have been one of the fifty or so unfortunate souls who set out last week – after a year of light, sleep and life deprivation – to sit the exam in a close suburb of Paris and were held up by a prolonged power cut at the Gare du Nord. These candidates, having arrived shortly after the doors had been closed, were declared ineligible by the education minister, Xavier Darcos and will simply have to try again next year.
Sarkozy’s plans to scrap the exam and replace it with rather less elitist qualifications that include a Professional Masters, have of course met with widespread outrage. The French blogosphere is awash with lamentation. Detractors of the reform predict “the collapse of general knowledge and culture,” and blame “a spirit of ubiquitous capitalism” which turns human beings into “automatons” driven, not by “personal enrichment” but (Heaven forbid) by “work.”