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France: Education

One of the more important consequences of the revolution of 1848 was to bring intense attention to the field of education. Reformers and conservatives ali ke saw the educational system both a cause of the revolution and a hope for a renewed society. They differed in their vision of what the new society should be. Historians have differed too concerning the ultimate effects of the Revolution depending on whether they have emphasized short-term results or the fulfillment decades later of principles enunciated in the heady few months following the February Revolution. Most historians have concentrated on the debates concerning the role of schooling in societ y, but the most immediate effects on the Revolution were on those then intimately involved on the system-- students and teachers.

Uniquely in the history of French education from the Restoration to the end of the nineteenth century, student enrollment declined in primary schools between 1847 and 1850 -- by 208,000 students (6 percent) from 3,530,000 to 3,322,000. This decline occurred during a steady annual growth rate of 2 to 3 percent between 1840 (2,897,000) and 1860 (4,287,000). About 1,500 school teachers lost their jobs (precisely how many were fired for political reasons or for other reasons is impossible to determine). And funding for the écoles d'arts et metiers whose students and graduates had participated in the uprisings of 1848 was cut in the budgets of 1850 and 1851. The immediate social effects of the revolution were disruptive on the school system.

Nevertheless, the revolution of 1848 had little long-term effects on the systematic development of schooling. Enrolm ent in primary schools grew at about the same pace in the decade before the revolution and in the two decades after it by which time nearly every child in France was completing primary school. The number and qualifications of teachers steadily increased, and, despite an increase in the number of nuns teaching during the Second Empire, the number of lay teachers increased steadily until full laicization of the system was achieved at the beginning of the twentieth century. The écoles d'arts et metie rs flourished and evolved into true professional schools with their graduates holding major positions in both private enterprise and state. Within the general history of the systemic development of the French educational system, established by the 1830s, 1848 represented but an aberration, important for the teachers and students of the time but not for long-range trends.

The proposals made about schooling and the visions expressed at the time illuminate social tensions about the social role of sch ools, the competing interest of church and state, and the twists and turns that French education would take over the next half century. Despite a number of proposed bills, no significant legislation was passed during the second republic until the controversial Falloux law of March 15, 1850, but the proposals of Hippolyte Carnot, minister of public instruction and religion during the four months immediately following the February revolution, presaged the Ferry Laws passed thirty years later under the Third Republic.

On March 6 Carnot sent a circular to all the rectors of the academies (administrative units of public instruction) exhorting them to enlist school teachers in the republican cause. Teachers should prepare manuals, modelled after the Catholic catechism, to teach children the rights and duties of citizens under the republic and "guarding against ignorance". This Rousseauian idea of forming man was to have a distinctly secular and republic base, which would supersede religious and local cu lture. It would be only in the Third Republic that such citizenship manuals would be produced however.

Carnot's most famous and far-reaching "project of law" was that submitted to the assembly on June 30 and under study by a committee for six months until the newly-elected president, Louis Napoleon, withdrew it. Articles 2 and 6 respectively would have made primary schooling for both sexes both obligatory so that citizens could properly exercise universal suffrage and without charge, in order to abolish distinctions between rich and poor within public institutions. The curriculum would be expanded. Teachers would receive three years of training in a normal school without fee, though they would be obligated to teach for ten years, and guaranteed a minimum wage of 600 to 1200 francs for men, 500 to 1000 for women. All of these proposals would eventually become law -- minimum wages for teachers in 1850 and free and obligatory education in the Ferry laws of 1880.

In one significant manner, the Carnot project differed from the Ferry Laws. Despite his exhortations to teachers to prepare republican catechism, Carnot did not intend for schooling to be exclusively lay or the monopoly of the state. Indeed, Carnot's project included a provision for the liberty of education. He insisted that parents had the right to choose the teacher who would instruct their children. Moreover, "moral education" would include liberty, equality, and fraternity but also religion. It was this provision for liberty of education that would first become law less than two years later under Carnot's successor, Frédéric, Comte de Falloux.

The Falloux law, presented to the chamber of June 1849 and passed on March 15, 1850, has been recognized as a major event in the political and educational history of France but denounced by republican historians as a conservative reaction to the revolution of 1848. Its most important and controversial provision was the legal incorporation of the principle of "libe rty of education," which had the effect of expanding the role of the Church in schooling and making it partner with the state at the secondary level as it had been at the primary level. It was passed at a time of political conservatism following the June Days and demonstrated in the elections of May 1849, and made no provision for free and obligatory primary education as Carnot had proposed. The committee rejected those principles as inconsistent with the historical tradition of France, too expensive, an d an interference with parental rights.

But recognition of the principle of liberty of education was not a sudden turning point. The Guizot law permitted the church to operate primary schools. Charles Forbes Montalembert had led a Catholic campaign for it throughout the 1840s. Carnot had proposed it, and it was enshrined in article IX of the constitution of 1848. The commission itself was a moderate one (nine members from the University, six representatives of the church -- but only one priest -- and nine other deputies); Falloux had deliberately excluded both vocal anticlericals and Catholic extremists like Louis Veuillot. Hardly anyone wanted a monopoly for either church or state. So concerned about "socialist" tendencies among lay teachers, Thiers, chairman of the committee, offered a monopoly of primary schooling to the Church only to find that Catholic members would have no part of it. He was adamant, however, about state supervision of Catholic secondary schools and was dismayed that the final law did not exclude Jesuits from teaching. Because the Falloux law made no mention of the "unauthorized" religious congregations, the Jesuits and other large religious orders were able to establish secondary schools for boys and nuns -- with a "letter of obedience" from their superior -- to open a plethora of primary schools for girls. The law's silence about the congregations, growing social demand for schooling, and the conservative climate of the Second Empire led to an explosive growth in Cath olic schools that was unforeseen even by Catholic proponents of liberty of education.

At the level of secondary schooling, the law allowed anyone who was twenty-five years of age or older and had a baccalaureate or five years teaching in a secondary school to found a secondary school. The state had the right to inspect all schools and it alone the right to administer the baccalaureate. The law created a partnership between church and state in public instruction. It further permitted any town to transfer its public college to the clergy; the result was that the number of colleges communaux declined by 25 percent in a decade. Enrolment in Catholic secondary schools meanwhile exploded. By 1854 21,195 students attended an ecclesiastical school (about 20,000 in Catholic ones); by 1867, 36,924 attended one; another 20,000 to 25,000 enrolled in a minor seminary, most of whom never intended a priestly vocation. Private lay schools, taking advantage of the law, prospered too; their enrolment in 1854 was in fact twice that of Catholic schools, but such schools proved unable to compete against the twin powers of church and state and atrophied. Catholic schools sustained growth , however -- a growth rate of 75 percent versus 34 percent for the whole secondary system 1854-1867.

At the elementary level, the law continued the tradition of non-obligatory, paid schooling, with tuition waivers for the poor. Both teachers and their training school (école normale) suffered more regulation; enseigne ment primaire supérieure disappeared -- a backward step that explains in part the popularity of special secondary programs during the Second Empire. But the curriculum was expanded, a girls' school was required of communes of 800 or more inhabitants, and teachers were guaranteed a minimum wage of 800 francs -- all proposals consistent with Carnot's project. The law encouraged girls' schooling such that 6,000 (21,000 to 27,000) new girls' schools were established between 1850 and 1863 (only 2,000 mo re would be established in the thirteen years following 1863) but 5,000 of those schools were directed by nuns. Enrollment in all primary schools during that period would grow by 1,000,000 students, 650,000 of those in Catholic schools. Liberty of education at both the primary and secondary level came to mean instruction by priests and nuns. As long as the system was expanding, Church and State could co-operate in the education of France's next generation. By the Third Republic, however, the system had r eached fulfillment with nearly all school-age children in school; then Church and State began to compete with each other for the same students. Then, not in the 1850s, demands for a lay, state monopoly of schooling or, at least, severe restrictions on "liberty of education" became a major political issue.

The revolution of 1848 disrupted schooling in France for about three years. Liberal principles and an increased influence of the church produced a greater role for the church in education. A s ocial and political reaction to the revolution created a climate in which Catholic schools were preferred by many, particularly in the countryside where the educational system was less established. Republicans of the Third Republic harkened back to republican ideals of the second republic as ideals that had been subverted by an aggressive church. The Revolution of 1848 affected perceptions of future generations much more than it did schooling which experienced systematic growth from the July Monarchy thro ugh the Third Republic.

Patrick J. Harrigan


Baker, Donald and Patrick J. Harrigan (eds.), The Making of Frenchmen: Current Directions in the History of Education in France, 1679-1975. (Waterloo, Ontario: Historical Reflections Press, 1980).

Chessenau, Georges. La Commission extraparlémentaire de 1849: Texte intégral inédit des proces - verbaux (Paris: 1937).

Grew, Raymond and Patrick J. Harrigan. The Development of a National System of Education in France . (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1990).

Gontard, Maurice. Les écoles primaire de la France bourgeoise(1833-1975) (Toulouse: C.R.D.P., 1957).

Michael, Henry. La Loi Falloux. (Paris: 1926).

Moody, Joseph N. French Education Since Napoleon. (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1978).

Parias, Louis-Henry (ed.), Histoire générale de l'enseignement et de l'éducation en France. 4 Vols.

Francoise Mayeur, Tome III de la Révolution à l'école républicaine. Paris: Nouvelle Librairie de France, 1981).

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