The Mixed Messages of French Schooling
By Bryan Caplan
I finally got around to reading Eugen Weber‘s classic Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. It wasn’t what I’d been led to believe. I heard that the book blamed World War I on public schooling: Europe’s late 19th-century public schools forged passionate new national identities, which in turn inspired bellicose foreign policies. But as far as I can tell, Weber doesn’t connect these dots. Instead, he creates the impression that nationalism went hand in hand with progress.
Consider this passage from his chapter on “Schools and Schooling”:
The great problem of modern societies, or so Francois Guizot considered in his Memoirs, is the governance of minds. Guizot had done his best to make elementary education “a guarantee of order and social stability.” In its first article, his law of 1833 defined the instruction it was intended to provide: the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic would furnish essential skills; the teaching of French and the metric system would implant or increase the sense of unity under French nationhood; moral and religious instruction would serve social and spiritual needs.
What these social needs were is laid out clearly in various writings, both official and unofficial. “Instructing the people,” explained an anonymous writer of 1861, “is to condition them to understand and appreciate the beneficence of the government.” Eight years later, the inspecteur d’Academie of Montauban concurred: “The people must learn from education all the reasons they have for appreciating their condition.” A first-year civics textbook set out to perform this task:
Society (summary): (1) French society is ruled by just laws, because it is a democratic society. (2) All the French are equal in their rights; but there are inequalities between us that stem from nature or from wealth. (3) These inequalities cannot disappear. (4) Man works to become rich; if he lacked this hope, work would cease and France would decline. It is therefore necessary that each of us should be able to keep the money he has earned.