Church, State, and Education in France from the Falloux to the Ferry Laws: A Reassessment(*)

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CHURCH, STATE, AND EDUCATION IN FRANCE FROM THE FALLOUX TO THE FERRY LAWS: A REASSESSMENT(*)

In an oft-quoted passage Ernest Lavisse described the pernicious results of the Falloux Law:

   Ecclesiastical schools in competition with schools of the State cover
   France ... Possessing new private schools, the Church became the rival of
   the University. They are going to contend for the French youth, divide it
   and cut it into two groups oriented in two opposite directions. Then one
   will understand that the Falloux Law has been one of decisive events of the
   nineteenth century.

Lavisse was, of course, a teacher at the Lycee Henri-IV, on Victor Duruy's staff, and author of "History of France," the basic textbook for French schools, introduced in 1884 and used as late as the 1960s. It has been said that "his whole life was guided by a single concern, to revitalize historical studies and thus transform them into a powerful instrument of national education."(1)

In the debates on what became the Ferry laws, Jules Ferry once warned: "It is vital to the security of the future that the stewardship of schools does not belong to bishops who have declared that the French Revolution was a deicide [and] ... that the principles of 1789 deny original sin."(2) A long tradition of republican historiography, focussed on legislation and political battles, has accepted these interpretations, asserting that the Ferry Laws established "L'ecole du peuple," freed France from an obscurantist church, and, for the first time, made schooling available to all.(3)

There is another way of interpreting the period between the Falloux and Ferry Laws, however. That is to study the diffusion of schooling as a social and cultural process rather than as a political or policy development, to look at the practice rather than the rhetoric surrounding education. Both church and state wanted to establish schools to disseminate their ideals. Despite differences they had a common interest in developing a network of schooling throughout France. The period then can be recognized as one during which universal primary schooling was basically achieved by the joint efforts of church and state. Secondary enrolments in boys schools also increased by half, reaching a level not significantly surpassed until after World War I. The Ferry Laws, the legislation of 1886 affecting teachers, the Law of Associations in 1901, and ultimately the Law of 1904, excluding religious from teaching, laicized a preexisting educational system. This legislation, rather than the Falloux Law, divided France as Catholic schools became alternative ones within a secular system rather than supplementary ones. The Falloux Law, in fact, inaugurated a unique period of cooperation between the church and state in achieving the common goal of schooling French children and finding an accommodation between religion and secularism.(4)

French scholars have recently criticized the polemical and ideological traditions of the older historiography.(5) An American scholar, Rebecca Rogers, has challenged the Republican `bete-noire' of nuns' schools as mere propaganda centres: "Until recently in France, historians of education tended to accept the sweeping generalizations Republican pedagogues made concerning women's education - that, until the Republican reform laws of the 1880s, women were prisoners of the Church and were raised as superstitious ignoramuses in schools run by religious teaching orders." Treating the idea of obscurantism "with scepticism," Rogers advises that "it is imperative to move beyond the level of public debate."(6)

The current literature about the history of French schooling, nevertheless, continues to evoke familiar debates about social equality and the cultural divide between religion and republicanism. Critics emphasize that it was not the Republican laws that made schooling universal and that the gap between secondary and primary education meant that primary schooling was never really democratic. …