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.
This chapter examines the letters and proposals regarding French education that offers insight into how citizens sought to understand, articulate, and navigate the changing currents of revolutionary politics. Efforts to design new political institutions in the early years of the French Revolution were accompanied by attempts to reform or reimagine existing ones so that they might contribute to the emerging social, political, and economic orders. The continued prospect, and then promise, of a national system of public instruction meant that local efforts remained self-consciously provisional. The results varied widely from town to town and region to region, ranging from administrative and institutional paralysis to relatively autonomous and ambitious attempts to reimagine how schools were run. As theoretically 'national institutions,' the schools seemed to offer a glimpse into possible futures for the Revolution and the nation.
The republican debates over French education proceeded on a few (familiar) fronts, focusing on civic, primary, and systemic elements of reform. This chapter discusses these fronts in detail. Each of these foci has antecedents in Ancien Régime debates and in proposals from the first years of the French Revolution. The reform of education raised directly the problem of revolutionary process. It also raised the problem of how already existing social, political, economic, and cultural institutions could manage the crises of the present while also giving rise to a fundamentally different order of things. While this had been true since 1789, the problem seemed more and more vexing in the early months and years of the Republic. Many of the participants in the republican debates over education saw matters of political principle in decidedly practical terms, imagining political transformations and institutional adjustments as part and parcel of the revolutionary process.
The reform of education seemed like a necessary component of, and complement to, social and political change, a point emphasized by legislators in the Legislative Assembly and correspondents across France. These participants in the revolutionary debates over education had inherited the Enlightenment view that systems of education and of governance should mirror one another. They wed that view to the new sense of 'possibilism' unleashed by the French Revolution. Public instruction took shape as a polyvalent approach to education, a political pedagogy that sought to integrate the acquisition of skills, the cultivation of virtue, and the socialization of citizens. The interplay of anticipation, instability, and improvisation that shaped the debates over education was evident in the relative quiet of summer 1789. During the interplay of summer, deputies, administrators, professors, students, and concerned citizens took stock of the revolutionary events that would remake society and inevitably shape the reform of education.
Politics: a revolutionary idea and a practical problem
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book examines the first years of the French Revolution, when public instruction was first articulated and then embraced. It focuses primarily on the years of the constitutional monarchy (1789-1792), tracing and retracing the debates over education across a number of concerns and from a range of perspectives. The book also focuses on pushing revolutionary proposals and plans back into the material and political circumstances of their creation. It prompts us to recognize citizens' efforts to understand and contribute to the pursuit of participatory, representative, and revolutionary politics, in situ and without a script. The book highlights how local populations contributed to the debates over education, experimented with possible solutions to political and practical problems, and worked towards a system of public instruction that they saw as central to the revolutionary project.
The educational “system” of eighteenth-century France
There was no "system" of education in Ancien Régime France. This chapter surveys the educational and institutional terrain of mid-eighteenth century France from which the Jesuits were suddenly absent. 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. There were curricular variations across schools and over time. Each of the collège would offer one of two courses of study, either a six- or an eight-year program, and they were known as either collèges d'humanités (six-year) or collèges de plein exercice (eight). Universities and collèges occupied a prominent but liminal position in Ancien Régime society. As maps of early modern cities and images of early modern schools make clear that Ancien Régime's universities and collèges were once part of and apart from the city around them.
The authors discuss the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Claude-Adrien Helvétius and debate over female education and the gendered foundations of the social order. Rousseau and Helvétius, among those most closely associated with Enlightenment ideas about the importance and influence of education, saw the prospect of meaningful educational reform as little more than a fantasy in Ancien Régime France. Émile gives us good reason to think that Rousseau saw his project as divorced from the sorts of social, institutional, and practical concerns that emerged with the Jesuits' expulsion. Combining radically sensationist views of the mind with a utilitarian approach to politics, Helvétius's works presented a world in which education was saturated with social and political significance, and social and political circumstances were inescapably educative. His points were central to his 1758 work, De l'Esprit and De l'Homme.
The expulsion of the Jesuits, first from Paris, then from France, created an institutional void that would demand government attention and offer an opportunity, for those so inclined, to imagine a dramatic overhaul of education in France. The royal instruction drew both directly and explicitly upon the parlementary report, and it represents the high point of royal-parlementary cooperation in the post-expulsion reform of education in France. To better understand the nature of that cooperation, the chapter starts with the parlementary commission and its plan for reform. The letters patent issued by Louis XV were presented as part of an initiative to reform and improve secondary education across France. The reform of Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand was presented as a means to simultaneously complete and compensate for the expulsion of the Jesuits. It also, at least implicitly, seemed to indicate the monarchy's desire to break French education's dependence upon religious orders.
New ways of thinking about education and its contribution to politics gave rise to the idea of 'public instruction,' a pedagogical ideal. Festivals, prizes, competitions, and songs allowed students to demonstrate command of specific skills, familiarity with the documents, principles, and principal events of revolutionary history and politics, and membership in a larger community of France. Integrating these into a coherent pedagogy that included new curricular emphases and new institutional routines was critically important to how revolutionaries thought education might help to realize a new political order. Honoré de Mirabeau offered some general principles for educational reform, focusing primarily on questions of political oversight, the need for curricular and institutional changes, and the beneficial effects of competition. While he did not provide the details of a future system of education, these principles offer us a sense of how Mirabeau thought about the new pedagogy and the new politics.
Reconsidering Talleyrand and Condorcet on public instruction
This chapter examines the two most important attempts to bridge the divide between constitutional promises and institutional realities in France. These attempts were the proposals for national systems of education presented by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand and Marquis de Condorcet in September 1791 and April 1792, respectively. Talleyrand's proposal reflected the more ambitious and creative attempt to translate the principles of a new political regime into the pedagogical and practical norms of national institutions. Talleyrand's proposal gave a clearer sense of how public instruction sought to transform education in France. Condorcet's approach to education has generally been understood through his work in social mathematics, his jury theorem, and his analysis of the conditions under which collective decision making is likely to lead to advantageous outcomes. At the heart of Condorcet's thinking about both politics and public instruction were the demands of individual independence and social equality.