Thursday, May 30, 2013

What's Wrong With the Agrégation?

A stinging critique by Fabrice Bouthillon of the agrégation system and the way it inhibits intellectual freedom in French universities
Je pose la question : existe-t-il au monde un
seul autre système universitaire qui confère à
quelques enseignants un pouvoir aussi démesuré
sur l’emploi du temps de leurs collègues,
une influence aussi indue sur la direction de
leur esprit, que ceux qu’exercent en France les
jurys d’agrégation ? Car les heures de travail
exigées par l’investissement dans la préparation
aboutissent à la négation de toute autonomie
des universités, et dans ce qu’elle a de
plus vital : à quoi bon en effet qu’elle soit
statutaire ou financière, si le coeur même de
la vie de l’Université, le travail intellectuel,
reste gouverné dans les faits par une instance
parisienne nommée par un ministre ? De
toutes les formes de centralisation intellectuelle,
la pire est celle qui ne tient que par
pression administrative.


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James Brown said...

Another great article - descriptive mostly - on the process of recruitment to teaching positions in university, and thus the role & importance of agrégation. Its by Jean-François Kervégan, from 2007 but I'm sure still pertinent today:

JF said...

Two things, perhaps, worth pointing out:

1) Two distinct things go by the name of "agrégation" in France.

- One is the competitive exam ("concours") for hiring high school teachers ("professeurs du secondaire"); one "agrégation du secondaire" exists for each course taught in high schools. However, most of the "agrégés" end up teaching in "lycées" and "collèges" (snr high, jnr high) and have nothing to do with University anymore -- there are some excpetions, and these are the so-called "PRAG" (Professeur Agrégés), typically mass-teaching first years in some big University departments. An english teacher in a science faculty, for instance, is likely to be a PRAG. However, PRAGs typically do not hold a doctorate, and are not involved in research; they are not lecturers ("Maitre de conférence"), nor will they become professors, and as such are not what is discussed in this paper.

- The second one, discussed here, is the "agrégation du supérieur", that is the basis for promotion of Maitre de Conférences to Professeurs (Lecturers to Profs), in some academic fields.

2) The "agrégation du supérieur" exists only in a handful of academic fields: law, political sciences, economy. The rest of the French academic world (humanities, sciences, medicine, etc.) does not have it. In these fields, professors are hired using the same process than lecturers: selection by a department-based comitee, interviews, etc., as everywhere in the world. The French version has its flaws, but this is not the point of this comment... In fact, the "agrégation du supérieur" is an oddity in the French system, a local particularism applying only to rare departments, and certainly not a widespread way of promotion -- such that the notion that it is responsible for all the evils of the French University is excessive to say the least. Most portions of the university, ùaybe 90% of the system, do not have agrégation du supérieur (but are still, alas, sadly disfunctional...).

Anonymous said...

I'd say the agrégation is more a problem for secondry education: highly specialized knowledge and teaching adolescents have nothing in common.

Anonymous said...

@JF : actually, almost every Maître de Conférence and Professeur des Universités in Humanities (wether it's History, Philosophy, Literature, etc.) holds an agrégation du secondaire. Many people only pass their agrégation because it's necessary to get a position in University, not because they want to teach in High School

JF said...

It is true indeed that in humanities it is hard to get a lecturer's job without the agrégation (du secondaire, as there is no agrégation du supérieur in these fields). This is, of course, a de facto situation but not an official requirement. This is clearly not what Bouthilon's article is referring too, though : in humanities for instance, hiring of lecturers and professors is done by local comittees, not with a nation-wide "agrégation du supérieur" as is the case in law. Even though the comittee is likely to insist (to put it mildly) on the candidate having agrégation du secondaire.

The point raised here, however, is somewhat different: in law, hiring is not done by local comittees (regardless of what they require, formally or not, from the succesful applicant); it is done by a nation-wide system, whereby the national "agrégation du supérieur" jury hires all the (future) professors in France. It's a system totally different from the rest of French academia... and is, or so argues M. Bouthilon, a way to inhibit intellectual freedom from lecturers and future professors (in these fields).

The de facto need for an agrégation du secondaire in humanities (in sciences, it is not such a strong requirement, but it can vertainly help) is a distinct issue. For one thing, the agrégation du secondaire is typically something you do before starting a PhD; technically it is, give or take, a masters-level degree. Another thing is, while it is hard or impossible to get a lecturer's job without an agrégation, the agrégation itself is not the hiring process: most of the "agrégés" will never end up in University, be it because they don't want to, or because they cannot. The same is not true for the agrégation du sup. in law. The agrégation du secondaire is just one more pre-requisite, one more degree you need to hold (together with a master, a PhD....).

I'm not saying this unofficial requirement in humanities has no effect on French academia (and secondary education), but these effects are clearly not as important as the result of law's centralized hiring system...