Monday, January 15, 2018
Text commentary concours blanc
Agrégation anglais, civilisation britannique, commentaire de texte, concours blanc. Le Royaume-Uni à l’épreuve de la crise 1970-1979, Université de Rouen, décembre 2017.
Quite naturally, students’ text commentaries, even at agrégation level, tend to display similar weaknesses. This is why I am putting most of my comments into this collective place. It would be good if you read them more than once!
First, here is the passage you were working on, in case you don’t have it to hand
Write a text commentary in English on the following extract. Be sure to analyze how the document works, and its context and effectiveness in the history of 1970s Britain, making links with previous and subsequent developments.
Britain faces its most dangerous crisis since the war. The Labour Party makes no attempt to disguise this. On the contrary, at the time of the February election, we took the British people into our confidence and shared the realities of our daunting problems. We inherited a three-day week, unlit streets, unheated homes and work-places. And worst of all, a wounded national economy, made all the more serious by the socially divisive policies of the previous Conservative Government, with its deliberate confrontation with the organised working people of our country. The Conservatives created a society in which people who made money were more honoured than men and women who earned their wages.
This crisis for our country was all the more desperate because it was set in the context of a continuing world upheaval. Most of the world is still staggering from the enormous increases in the price of oil - the most important basic commodity in modern industrial and agricultural society.
We come with confidence before the public to ask for a strong mandate for the policies drawn from 'Labour's Programme for Britain' set out in our February manifesto, some of which have been spelled out in greater detail in White Papers published by the Government. No Government can get Britain moving by itself. A democratic Government must reflect the views of the people. And the people who vote for the Government must give their share of endeavour and concern - as well as their votes. But a Government can only ask these efforts from the men and women of this country if they can confidently see a vision of a fair and just society. Why should a coal miner dig extra coal for a few pounds more while he has seen property speculators grow wealthy looking at empty office blocks? A strong new Labour Government, with the agreement and co-operation of the British people, can make constructive, but not painless progress towards building a fair society.
This election is inevitable since no clear majority emerged in February. Despite its minority position the Labour Government have made a good start. Now we ask for the return of a Labour Government, with a working majority, so that we can continue to tackle the great problems facing Britain. We have to come to the men and women of our country and ask for their mandate for industrial and social reconstruction. We need national support for a steady will for a new society. In fact we are asking your help to carry through policies which will work for international peace and co-operation and at the same time create at home effective measures of economic and social reconstruction.
It is only with a sense of unity that we shall win through. But we cannot expect this from a Conservative Government - nor from any Conservative-Liberal coalition. The Tory Party is, by its own statements, deeply divided about what policies to put before the electorate. Neither the Tories nor a Conservative-Liberal coalition can bring a united and decisive programme of solution to contemporary problems.
Why can't we accept the idea of a coalition to meet the nation's crisis? Because what our country needs in this crisis is a government with a clear-cut understanding of the nation's problems and the ability to decide quickly and effectively how to deal with them. A coalition government, by its very nature, tends to trim its policies and fudge its decisions, and in present circumstances that just won't do. If we believe, as we must, in our own independent political philosophies, there is no meeting point between us and those with quite different philosophies, and it would be a cruel farce to suggest that the future of the country would be helped by shuffling, compromising administration.
We want to be frank with you. The regeneration of our economy isn't going to be easy, even with a Labour Government. The next two or three years are going to be difficult for us all. There will be no easy times and no easy pickings for anyone.
We put forward in this manifesto a list of improvements we want to make in society. We put them forward in good faith; but many of them cost money, and we understand perfectly well - and we believe you will, too - that the timing of them will depend on how quickly and how completely we get on top of the economic problems.
But Labour doesn't go along with the prophets of doom and gloom. We have great confidence in the British people. If you give us your full backing over the difficult two or three years ahead we shall weather the storm and get back on the right course.
Promises and Priorities
The Labour Government has kept the promises made at the election in February. From the day we took office we acted. We increased pensions to £10 and £16. We froze rents. We gave security to people who live in furnished tenancies. We repealed the divisive Industrial Relations Act and we replaced confrontation by conciliation. We restrained the rise in the cost of living by our subsidies on essential foods and price controls. We gave loans to the building societies to help house-buyers - who would otherwise have faced mortgage rates of 13%. We allocated more money to local councils to build or buy homes.
The Government have published plans for the public ownership of development land which will get rid of the major inflationary element in the cost of building; for public control and participation in North Sea oil; for greater accountability and the extension of public ownership in industry; for beginning the redistribution of wealth by new taxation on the better-off - while at the other end of the scale a million and a half people have been taken out of liability to any income tax. We have published radical and detailed proposals for pensions and for bringing help as of right to the disabled. New rights for women and our determination to implement equal pay have been announced. And we have begun in earnest the promised renegotiation of the Conservatives' disadvantageous terms of entry to the Common Market.
As at the last election, we are not making any promises which we cannot keep. We do not believe in electoral bribes - these are an insult to the intelligence and realism of the public. The priorities we set out here are part of a programme for a five-year term of office. Much of what we want to do will take longer because of all the heavy spade-work which has to be done to create the economic strength on which all else depends.
Extract from the Labour Party manifesto for the general elections of October 1974
You will notice that in the instructions I gave you some help: in the real exam, they will not do this.
Very careful re-reading is necessary. « Careless » mistakes are taken very seriously. That is to say, the only grammar mistakes you should be making are on grammar points which you have genuinely not understood.
1) Style of language which you should use: absolutely no contractions, except when quoting.
2) Some got confused between “divisive” and “divided”, which are completely different.
3) Note in the following pairs, the first item is (practically always) correct. The second item either does not exist or is so extremely rare that you can safely forget it.
4) The difference between “rhetoric” and “rhetorical” is that one is a noun and the other is an adjective. The shorter one is a noun.
5) A very frequent error indeed is to use “efficient” instead of “effective”. Here are the dictionary definitions.
Although the two of them are often translated by the same French word (efficace), they are quite different. For a number of philosophical reasons, if you are writing about politics and government and public debate, the word you want is almost always “effective” (it successfully does what it was intended to do).
The example I always give is that if you have a mouse in your kitchen, there are (at least) two ways of getting rid of it. You could set a mouse trap.
Or you could explode a nuclear bomb in your kitchen.
Both of these may well be effective in getting rid of the mouse. The mouse trap option is, however, considerably more efficient.
6) Many need to revise the Saxon genitive: “l’enjeu de l’élection” can absolutely not be said as “the election’s stake”.
To do a « perfect » text commentary on this kind of document, there are dozens of elements which could be included, so don’t worry if you missed a lot of these elements: the point is to include as many as possible.
The main dangers are the same as ever for commentaries in British civilization
a) paraphrase: simply repeating some of the things the document says, using your own words.
b) repeating what you learned in class about the events of 1974, without making the link with specific sections of the document, or its intentions (« récitation de cours »).
In 1974 there are two general elections: an almost unheard-of situation, which obviously indicates a profound political crisis. Having managed to form a minority government in February, Wilson decides to call for another election in October. This must be because he thinks he has a good chance of winning (and indeed, he will win). Good commentaries would be able to give examples of what the government had done between February and October to help gather public support for a better vote in the October.
In the election campaign, the Labour party is faced with its main opponent, the Conservatives. The Conservatives are also distributing a manifesto. Good commentaries would be able to say one or two things about the tone and content of the Conservative manifesto of October 1974.
General summary of the immediate context:
The Labour manifesto for the October election was published under the title Britain Will Win with Labour.
The Conservative Party under the title Putting Britain first published the opposing manifesto First.
Audience of the document etc.
Good commentaries would be able to say something about the nature of a party manifesto, and who it is aimed at. It aims at motivating party activists, and persuading the people who are not sure who to vote for. It is not addressed to the section of the population who always vote Conservative and are not open to discussion. Remember what happens to the manifesto: copies of it are the basis for doorstep discussions, as Labour party canvassers knock on every door in the country asking « Can we count on your vote? » (Other party activists canvass too, though no doubt a little less).
Remember what a manifesto is: a document of twenty or thirty pages, of which you have been given an extract. You need to remember it is an extract. So, do not write « the manifesto does not make any mention of subject X » unless you are sure that this is the case in the rest of the manifesto!
Authorship of the document
The manifesto is put forward by the leadership, but, since it aims at mobilizing the activists, must take into account the different debates within the party. Good commentaries will show understanding that the Labour Party, particularly in the 1970s, is not a monolithic bloc, and is the site of a permanent debate about how much nationalization is realistic or appropriate, to what extent class struggle is central to society, how much of a redistributive tax policy is possible or appropriate, and so on. The Conservative party is similarly locked in debate between the wing which will soon be called the Thatcherite wing and the « one nation Tories » (to simplify the conflict somewhat). But our subject today is the Labour party manifesto, so only a passing reference to ideological debate within the Conservative party is appropriate.
A few students denounced the Labour Party for being divided. A democratic political party is a mass organization developing detailed policy around agreed general principles. Politics being an extremely complex business, permanent debate and disagreement are absolutely inevitable. The only parties which are not divided are undemocratic ones!
Various comments on contents
Quite a number of students showed good knowledge of the period, and long sections of paraphrase or repeating the lesson without reference to the document were not generally present.
a) Wider contexts: Almost everybody said nothing at all about anything which happened before 1974 or after 1979. This is a real pity, since the document brought up questions (coalitions, nationalization, strike waves) which would have been more easily explained with reference to their place in wider UK history.
For example: the question of the coalition. It would have been good to explain that because of the first pas the post voting system which made life very hard for small parties, coalitions are extremely rare in UK history since 1945. Indeed, there was the wartime coalition, and then there was the coalition between David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats in 2010. You should have noted that the Lib-Lab pact was not a coalition, since the Liberals were not given ministerial posts.
Nationalization. The document speaks positively of nationalization. Nationalization is a key political controversy and economic policy in the UK. A variety of industries – coal, telecommunications, electricity and so on – were nationalized by the Labour government immediately after the war. The 1970s Labour governments nationalized little, although the Left of the party around Tony Benn would have liked to see much more nationalization. Almost all the nationalized industries were privatized either by Margaret Thatcher’s governments or by Tony Blair’s. Nationalization is on the agenda again in Britain in 2018, since Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to renationalize the railways is very popular, and today’s news about the bankruptcy of Carillion, a private company entrusted with public services infrastructure has stirred up the debate again.
b) Examples: frequently a document to be analyzed will give a few examples of a particular argument or phenomenon. You should always add an additional example or additional information about one or more of the examples given. If you do not, the reader will understand that you don’t know anything about it.
So, for example, in an attempt to show that they are the best party for government, the Labour Party mention in this extract a few things they have done since February. A good commentary will be able to add one or two more.
What did the Labour government do between February and October?
It solved the miners’ strike. It abolished the Industrial Relations Court which trade unions had so much objected to. It passed a major piece of legislation: the Health and Safety at Work Act.
It increased security of tenure for tenants. It cut indirect taxation (the taxes which hit less well-off people most).
c) objectivity. It’s not a good idea to criticize a manifesto for “not being objective”. It sounds excessively naïve. If you imagine your job was to analyze advertising and you complained that “this advertisement seems to be trying to get viewers to buy their product”.
Questions of style and rhetoric
It was a good idea to spend a couple of paragraphs on rhetoric and style. The use of a “neighbourly tone” which sounds as if it comes from someone who shares people’s preoccupations is an important rhetorical tactic. They do not use an intellectual tone with lots of statistics and graphs or appeals to experts. However, you need to speak about this rhetorical choice without sounding naïve (“The Labour Party are showing their honesty”) and without being cynical (“they would like people to believe they are honest”)
If you think some of the arguments presented by the Labour Party here are rather weak, you can say this provided you put it into historical context. “Labour’s opponents would be more likely to blame trade unions’ wage claims for inflation” is a perfectly acceptable sentence. “The Labour Party forgets to mention that trade unions are to blame for inflation” is not good. Indeed, there is no expert consensus on the causes of inflation…( see
General questions of methodology
Here are some general points on writing a text commentary in civilization, which is completely different from in literature. Many thanks to the teachers from the University of Paris 7 : this section is made up of extracts from their document, which I have slightly adapted.
(Their document is online here https://fr.scribd.com/document/362914625/Brochure-Externe-2016-17-Site-Ufr-2 )
Objective of the commentary
In a text commentary, your role is to determine the historical significance of the text. In order to do so, you must discuss the perspective given by the author on the historical issues presented in the text. You must determine what his objectives are and how / to what extent he or she achieves them. This implies that there needs to be 2 levels to your analysis:
Level 1: define, explain, highlight the events, developments etc mentioned in the text, using your knowledge of the period; demonstrate that you know your history, understand what the author refers to, and are able to make the text comprehensible to people who do not know the period or have not read the text.
Level 2: comment on the intentions of the author, on how they present the issues at stake, and why.
Preliminary work on the text
1. Look at the “margins” of the text: title, source, date (situate it within your period), author (see whether it’s anonymous / anybody famous; if the author is known to you, gather in your mind the elements you know about him/her)
Read the text carefully, at least 3 times. When you read the text for the first time, do not make any notes or write on the text; do not make assumptions and keep a clear and open mind until you have read the last word of the text: texts can be deceptive and the key to the interpretation may be at the end of the passage – it’s always difficult to get rid of wrong assumptions.
Once you have perceived the general idea of the text, look closely at the following elements:
nature of the text (official report / letter / petition / speech). The specificity of the text will have to be taken into account in your analysis.
period analysed in the text + date when the text was written. They may be the same or they may be different, in the case of memoirs for instance - the retrospective aspect of a document should never be ignored. Place the date(s) within your period + is it immediately before/after a major historical event, reform etc. Before you start your analysis, you must be clear on the
context in which the text was written or the speech delivered
author (or multiple authors); if you know who they are, determine whether they are likely to have a particular perspective / events they describe and why.
readership / audience: this is essential to help you analyse the objectives of the author, who they intend to convince and what means they will use to do so.
tone/ literary qualities… because they are markers of subjectivity and will help you determine the intentions, means and perspective of the author.
structure of the text: uncover the internal logic of the text, the argumentative dynamic of the author’s demonstration, looking closely at repetitions/progression…
Detailed analysis of the text
One of the main challenges here is to distinguish the main arguments from the more minor points. This does not mean of course that details are to be overlooked: but they shouldn’t obscure the central dynamic of the text, which should be at the heart of your commentary. A linear analysis of the text will first enable you to choose the terms, dates, concepts, events, etc that need to be defined, explained and commented on. Select the quotes that you will include in your commentary. But the objective of your analysis should be to go towards the most problematic elements, towards what is implicit, what is left unsaid, what is hidden (consciously or unconsciously) by the author.
You should uncover whether the author is being influenced (and by whom or what), to what extent he is biased, and to what extent he himself tries to influence his readership/audience. It is on these points that your commentary should provide a critical (which of course means constructive assessment) perspective on the text. Compare the way the author presents events to what you know of these same historical events, to ultimately determine why the author writes as he does, what his motives are and what, therefore, is the historical interest of the text. Once you have completed this detailed analysis, you will be able to organise the main themes of the text into a logical, detailed outline and determine a problématique. Remember that this is not an essay and that the problématique should be based on the historical interest of the text and the intentions of the author, not on the topic in general.
Begin with the context: select relevant historical developments that will lead to the issues at stake in the text.
Select the context critically: the historical long-term perspective is only interesting if relevant: avoid equally superficial and naïve comments, such as “England has always been/ For centuries…”
The introduction should remain dense, concise, to the point: it is not the place to cram in knowledge, so do not give a vast panorama of events on the subject at stake in the text.
Present the main idea/theme of the text (brief but to the point), the objective of the author, the date, the readership; show that you have understood the context in which the text was written or the speech delivered and that you will reflect on its significance.
Introduce a clear problématique, focused on the text (not simply on the general topic of the text) and on its interpretation. Once again, the essential elements in a commentary are the interpretation that the author gives of the period concerned, and your own informed interpretation of the author’s perspective. You need to reflect on how the text should be read in order to be properly understood, in its explicit and implicit elements.
Do not hesitate to draw comparisons between the document you are asked to study and other documents you have read that would highlight the interest of the text and help you build a critical analysis. Interpretations are central in history and the quality of your analysis will be improved if you can use briefly and selectively other documents that may be relevant to fully understand the significance of the text you are to study. Similarly, do not hesitate to use the historiography on the period to support your analysis. Referring to books and/or articles by historians of the period will give weight to your own analysis and demonstrate that you have a broad and informed perspective on events.
It should not be a summary (neither of your development nor of the text itself). You must reflect on what you have demonstrated and pull together the threads from your main arguments, conclude on the historical interest/significance of the text, the objectives of the author and his/her degree of subjectivity. Needless to say, you must provide an answer to the
problématique given in the introduction. Include your reflection in a broader historical context (without giving the impression that it’s a mere “what happened next”.
To be avoided at all costs
1. Paraphrase and reformulation: this will be avoided if you remember the 2 levels that your commentary must include (cf above). 2.
Essay rather than commentary: (cf above: never provide an analysis that is not closely linked to the text and its specificity; this should also enable you to avoid any
placage de cours).
Literary commentary: style, rhetorical devices etc are only useful if they support your analysis of history; if not, they are irrelevant.
[If you want to talk about lexical fields, anaphores and cataphores, you should probably wait until you are working on a literary document].
Judgment on the author, pseudo-psychology on his/her feelings and intentions. Bold statements (particularly if unfounded): valuable comments generally come from the confrontation between several interpretations of the same event/process.
[e.g. Do not write “The author’s presentation does not fit with the facts.” Write instead: “Other commentators such as X have seen these events in quite a different way, claiming that ….”.]
The full manifesto can be found here: http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/man/con74oct.htm