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‘Schools Are Society’s Salvation’: The State and Mass Education in France, 1870–1930

  • Jean-François Chanet

Abstract

At the beginning of the 1870s, there was undoubtedly no country in which politicians and scholars had a greater tendency to overestimate the influence of education on the evolution of society than France. There were three main reasons for this. The first was that France regarded itself as the birthplace of the Enlightenment and the 1789 Revolution. As Condorcet declared to the Legislative Assembly in 1792, the liberal and legally egalitarian nature of that revolution imposed on the state a duty to constitute the education of the people as a public service. The fact that the industrial revolution began at the same time as demands for democracy were making themselves felt only made this duty all the more pressing. Victor Hugo paid particular attention to it in the chapter of Les Misérables in which the author acts as the physiologist of the ‘Paris urchin’: for him, a childhood of deprivation and destitution was ‘a disease that must be cured by light’.1 This idea was widely shared in nineteenth-century Europe. Charles Dickens expressed it with as much force as humour in 1852, when he was campaigning for the *ragged schools despite their inadequacies:

The compulsory industrial education of neglected children, and the severe punishment of neglectful and unnatural parents, are reforms to which must come, doubt it who may. We can no more hope to make any great impression upon crime, without these changes, than we could hope to extinguish Mount Vesuvius, in eruption, with a watering-pot, or stop its flow of lava with a knitting-needle.2

However, the logical connection between this question and the more general role of political institutions explains why the rapid succession of regimes and their instability ensured that only partial progress was achieved; in France more than elsewhere this was likely only to fuel debate rather than put an end to it.

Keywords

Primary School Education System School Teacher Primary Education Religious Order 
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Notes

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© Jean-François Chanet 2012

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