Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"France Is My Mother": The Subject of Universal Education in the French Third Republic

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"France Is My Mother": The Subject of Universal Education in the French Third Republic

Article excerpt

In 1880, Jules Ferry presented a series of bills to the French Parliament designed to establish a system of nationwide primary education for the children of the popular classes that would be "obligatory, free and laic." These reform laws were meant to ensure the long-term survival of the still very-much-embattled Third Republic by creating a nation of loyal republican citizens no longer subject to the dictates of the Catholic Church and the monarchy it supported. The regeneration of the nation was to be effected by teaching the masses to exercise their reason through the study of the sciences and Kantian rationalist morality. Through learning this universally shared 'independent morality,' they would become free citizens capable of exercising sovereignty over themselves and the democratic nation, rising above the constraints of natural determinism. The rhetoric of saving the homeland (pattie) from 'anarchy' through regeneration thus dovetailed perfectly with the logic of rational universalism. But in order to have a real effect on the children of scarcely literate peasants and workers, the new curriculum was designed to subjectify the relation of the pupils to the republican State. To moral education, the Opportunists added a civic instruction whose goal was to inspire the children's respect, gratitude, and obedience toward the Republic by depicting it as their mother. The rhetoric of regeneration here was a metaphorical process of transference in which the natural mother was replaced by the national mother of the patrie. The unity of the nation was thus purchased at the expense of splitting the subject of universal education: rhetoric was now pitted against logic, and while the demand was for universalism, freedom, and autonomy, the desire was for nationalism, obedience, and dependence.

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In the years 1880-1882, Jules Ferry, then Minister of Education and President of the Council (akin to Prime Minister), presented a series of laws to the French Parliament designed to establish a system of nationwide primary education for boys and girls that would, according to the political slogans of the ruling 'Opportunist' party, be "obligatory, free and laic." At the same time, he vigorously defended the bill introduced by his close collaborator, Camille See, instituting a nationwide network of public secondary schools for girls. With these actions he raised a firestorm of controversy pitting Catholics against proponents of lay education that would embroil the nation for the ensuing thirty-five years, and whose effects are still felt even today. In fact, the school system is the only institution of the Third Republic that has remained basically intact until the present time. Moreover, in the eyes of many scholars it is the schools that allowed France to be the only Catholic democracy in the world until the 1950s, and they remain an essential guarantee of civil liberties in France today (Milner, De l'ecole).

These reform laws were meant to serve a political purpose first and foremost, that of ensuring the long-term survival of the still very much embattled Third Republic, whose main political enemy was the alliance of the Church, the old aristocracy, and an important segment of the traditional bourgeoisie, a coalition that lasted well beyond Pope Leo XIII's encyclical in 1892 enjoining the French church to "rally" to the Republic. The Ferry legislation was designed to give the republicans a foothold in every village and rural area in the land, essential to combating the influence of the local priest and thus to attaining political power in a regime of universal male suffrage.

In order to safeguard the life of the Republic in the era of mass enfranchisement, the Ferry laws strove to create something new in the world, a large body of loyal republican citizens who would no longer be susceptible to the dictates of the Church or to the seductions of authoritarian dictatorship. (1) For that reason, disputes over education produced a kind of ideological bigamy in which, as Ozouf so happily put it: "la pedagogie se marie au droit, a la politique, a l'economie, a la metaphysique, a la morale" [pedagogy was married to law, politics, economics, metaphysics, morals] (18). …

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