This week I had a pretty awful adventure, but most of my friends tell me it's the most French of all experiences one can have in one's lifetime so I kind of see it like a baptism of fire.
The agregation was set up after the French revolution and is one of the pillars of French society. It's an extensive examination that lasts one week long. It's 7 hours a day of constant writing. It's extremely difficult and tests your ability to think rationally, and above all write French style essays called explications de texte. That means, you typically get a quote and must use your knowledge of an extensive reading list mixed with your so-called general knowledge on a variety of related subjects to put together a fifteen page analysis with introduction, body and conclusion with three citations, dates and comparisons. This is the explication de texte bien écrite. Everyone in France who takes the agregation must begin at the exact time wherever they are located in the country. The rules are read out loud as if they were miranda rights and the subjects are taken out of sealed envelopes with pomp and ceremony. "The envelop is open. You are no longer free to leave!" Then the doors are locked and you're at your desk for seven hours. Time is given hourly. "You have five more hours. The agregation will end at 1600 hours". You may not use dictionaries or any other document.
It's difficult to explain the relevance of this exam to non-French people. It reminds me somewhat of some Ph.d exams (though it's not connected at all with the university or degrees) and also of a bar exam for a lawyer. It is a bit of a license per se. Those who are successful at the agregation get the title of agregé and are guaranteed lifelong employment at a high school or university, although many end up working in other state organizations or anywhere really. For example they can become official translator, administrator, researcher, librarian, ambassador. Actually they can do about anything they want to. Agregés are given privileges far above any "common" folk, can take the position they want and whenever they want it. They work few hours per week and get enormous benefits. They have considerable clout in society. For example if they ask for loans or mortgages in banks they are never denied. When you hear someone is an agregé, you get those oohs and ahs, and yes, many of them quickly get a big head. They can become so snobby they have been known to refuse to talk to coworkers who don't have this status. I have certainly seen this. Once I held a university post that was taken over by an agregé. For them my degrees and exams meant nothing.
There are agregations in every discipline possible ranging in everything from physics to cooking, art to math. Almost all the people I know who have tried to pass these exams have failed. Some get obsessed with them and take them year after year. I knew an American girl who tried to take the English agregation four years straight in a row and failed every time. Once she narrowly lost out. She became totally crazy. Conversely the only two people I know who have succeeded at these exams did not really seem so bright to me, giving credence to the widespread belief that passing the agreg depends not on your real knowledge but on your ability to fit into the mould and write these essays some really specific French Cartesian way. Others, those who have failed and given up obviously, insist that the whole system is a sham, really corrupt with some people getting through because of their connections in high places. I do remember going to one of these agregé's week long celebrations in the south of France after she passed. It's almost like winning the lottery. Anne literally fainted when she received the registered letter confirming she had earned the agregation.
So, I had to try! I took the Agregation exam in Romance Languages last week. For too many years I was so angry I couldn't take this exam because you have to be a French citizen to be eligible to do so. I say that... just in case some American is reading this with the illusion he/she can do it. Some of my most bitter moments in France have occurred when I have been branded as a second or third class citizen because I had not achieved this status or any other more inferior one -- like the CAPES or the PLP --for that matter, and then... to be told just a few minutes later that I was for ever excluded from even trying to get that "status"! All in all, I still don't think this system is fair, for French citizens even. Agregés work less (12 hours a week), do not have to prove their competence, worth or merit ever again in their entire life, and are paid much higher salaries then everyone else for doing the exact same jobs. Don't forget they receive the status of semi gods too. All for an exam.
I'm pretty sure I failed the first round. It took such a toll on me physically. I had to take a taxi home the last day I felt so weak. I had a diet of candy bars, the only thing I could take into the examination room. All in all I wrote about 50 pages (by hand!). Total punishment! Some of the subjects were so absurd I just looked at my paper for two hours with no idea of what I could possibly write about. I ended up making up about half of my essays. Literally it was my fiction. Absolutely pathetic! The translations were also hefty. A good deal of the works to be translated were literary and had old words from the nineteenth century. I also discovered my ability to write for long periods of time in French is limited. Without a dictionary I'm not sure of my spelling at all. Also I don't have my thesaurus to help me find synonyms.
The results should be in on May 31. Usually the correctors eliminate about 60% of the agregatifs (those who took the test). Afterwards the remaining 40% are summoned in June to take a week long oral exam. This year it's in Toulouse. I'm sure it's an utterly terrifying experience! I still can't imagine being grilled for 45 minutes. I'll have to get some kind of drugs for that. Then, yet finally another 60% are eliminated making the trip to Toulouse a waste of time. It's not centrally located for those who don't live in Southwestern France. In July the chosen few receive their letter of congratulations.