In pursuit of politics

Education and revolution in eighteenth-century France

Adrian O’Connor
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This book offers a new interpretation of the debates over education and politics in the early years of the French Revolution. This period witnessed a series of amazingly ambitious efforts to reform and reinvent the nation's political institutions, cultural politics, and social order. Deputies, political commentators, and private citizens alike recognized that reinventing French politics and transforming French society would require rethinking the principles and practices of education. The book aims to recapture the dynamism of this polyvalent debate and to flesh out the ambitions and dilemmas that gave it meaning during this most turbulent of historical moments. It traces an ambivalent strain in Enlightenment thought on education, a deep tension at the point of contact between seemingly limitless philosophical possibilities and the apparent limitations imposed by political and social realities. The book analyses the debate over education amid broader concerns about the nature and efficacy of representative government and the nascent idea of "public instruction" from its emergence as a revolutionary ambition through efforts to fulfill the constitutional promise of national education. It argues for a new understanding of "public instruction" as a pedagogical and political ideal and, with that, a revised sense of education's role in regenerating France and in working towards a representative and participatory system of government. The book also focuses on letters and proposals submitted by people affiliated or associated with the schools and related institutions. Finally, it surveys the changes the "education question" took on an explicitly republican form after September 1792.

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‘We get insightful reconsiderations of Enlightenment luminaries like Rousseau and Condorcet, their work freshly illuminated by the context of eighteenth-century public instruction; even more impressively, we learn they were in a national conversation with ordinary citizens from across France... If it may be that eighteenth-century public instruction is “the history of a failure”, O’Connor nevertheless shows that an account of that history can be a wonderful success.'
Journal of Modern History
March 2020

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