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History & Background

The great cathedral schools of the eleventh century in Paris, Chartres, Laon, Orléans, and Tours first saw the light of day in France; over the twelfth century these schools would transform themselves into the prototype of the modern university. Universitas was the term used then to designate guilds (like that of butchers, vintners, and other trades) and came also to mean groupings of masters. From the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries, the Paris schools attracted teachers and students from all over Roman Catholic Europe.

Around 1050 the cathedral schools came into their own with a curriculum that focused on the language-based trivium (the liberal arts), identified as grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (logic). Young pupils were taught to read, write, and speak in Latin, as well as selections from a corpus of pagan and Christian writers. They were shown how to imitate these models in order that they too might become models for posterity.

From today's standpoint, twelfth-century education in the cathedral schools and monasteries was as anarchic as it was exuberant and, all in all, foundational. The proliferation of schools and masters soon rendered it practically impossible for many local bishops to fully control and organize in a systematic way the schools and teachers present within their jurisdictions. The awarding of degrees, the career choices, and the life of most students were all rather chaotic. For the most part, students were destitute and obliged to find ways to keep alive. Their ways of doing so were often illegal.

As the century wore on a new system was introduced: a pupil who had completed his secondary education in the trivium was awarded the diploma of bachelor by the director of studies of his school; his qualification was based on his successfully passing an examination, usually oral in nature. The tripartite trivium led to advanced work in the four part quadrivium, the then called mathematical sciences composed of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony (music).

The student who mastered this curriculum and who successfully participated in exercises known as disputations, was judged worthy of being awarded a license to teach (licencia docendi). He became a "master of arts" and could be admitted to the ranks of those who lectured, wrote, and formed younger students within what would become in the thirteenth century the Faculty of Arts.

By no means did all successful students go on to ecclesiastical careers. A significant number of school trained clerics served noble lay patrons, often as part of the royal or other noble bureaucracy that was burgeoning in French-speaking territories throughout the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Diplomacy, civil and legal administration, finances, and record-keeping, as well as written entertainment, all required well-schooled personnel.

If the eleventh and twelfth centuries sowed the seeds, they came to fruition principally in the thirteenth century with the founding of the university. In Medieval Latin universitas meant merely a corporation, usually of tradesmen, who exercised the same profession (shoemakers, barbers, etc.) or more or less what is understood today as a "guild." By definition and custom, the new university was international (its masters and students hailed from all over Christian Europe) and its purposes were to place human reason and intelligence at the service of the faith.

Since the ultimate ambition of Paris was to prepare for, undertake, and develop studies in theology, other more specialized university institutions were founded elsewhere in France. This was not done though in response to a centralized plan. A former center of literary study, Orléans, was chosen for the study of law; Montpellier dedicated itself to the study of medicine; and, as a result of the combat against the Cathar heresy, the University of Toulouse was founded as a kind of copy of Paris. Each of these institutions was granted a charter directly by the Pope.

For all intents and purposes, university governance was vested in its faculty (or faculties). In Paris, by mid-century, the chancellor had been forced to give up his former power. Power was transferred to a rector who, at the start, was merely the head of the Faculty of Arts and was elected as such by the professors of that faculty. He was aided by elected representatives (procurators) of each of the Four Nations into which students and masters were classified. Deans, or heads of the other faculties, were also directly elected by the masters. Considerable power was also enjoyed by a General Assembly of the faculties in which votes were taken not on an individual basis, but according to the seven "orders" constituting it. The interests of minorities were thus defended against the superior numbers of the more populous orders. Thus, the freedoms of individual teachers and groups of teachers were protected from outside interference as well as interference from the inside. Neither the bishop nor the king could force policies on the university as a whole or on parts of it; groups within the university could not force their views on other groups.

In this pragmatic manner a set of governing principles emerged that, by and large, still constitute the foundations of the institution known throughout the world as the university. International in scope from its very beginnings, the university was very much France's gift to education.

The day to day life of masters and students was hardly idyllic, at least not materially. Generally speaking, masters received no salary; they subsisted on what they could charge for administering examinations, although at times students gave them what they could. Only late in the century were there buildings designed for lecturing and giving examinations to students; before then masters rented out cheap halls that were usually miserably equipped. Costs for students varied greatly. The baccalaureate cost but a few pounds (under 100 gold francs or 20 gold dollars in pre-1913 money), while a doctorate in theology cost around 4,000 gold francs. Payment for taking examinations was calculated as follows: the basic living costs of a student (minus his rent and domestic servant) for one week were determined, and according to varying circumstances, the examination cost charged to him was several times the sum reached. Students varied in age from post-puberty to much older. The minimum age for taking the baccalaureate examinations in arts was 14, whereas 35 appears to have been the minimum age for a master of theology (who was required to spend some dozen years in specialized readings and courses). After receiving the licentiate in theology, the candidate was further required to sustain two lengthy argumentations before the entire faculty to which, along with all the bachelors of theology, all were invited to participate. It was only then that he could be officially received as a master.

The thirteenth century also saw the founding of many colleges within the university. A large number of these came into being through the initiative of individuals, often members of the royal family, churchmen, and provincial nobles desirous of establishing locales for study on behalf of students from their part of the kingdom. At the beginning, these colleges were essentially student residences; however, over time, masters were appointed to them.

The overwhelming majority of primary schools were run by the local parish priest who, in addition to the catechism, taught the bare rudiments of reading and writing. By no means were such schools freely open to all boys, let alone girls. Usually enrollments were open only to the sons of wealthy burghers and tradesmen and, from time to time, to especially gifted and motivated candidates for priesthood.

The peasant class in France remained largely illiterate until well into the nineteenth century. At times, a local convent or monastery sponsored a school; these were usually better equipped for serious primary/secondary learning than that of the poor parish priest. Girls were sometimes taught, though rarely, at nunneries, especially if they were of the aristocracy and/or seen as possibly having a religious vocation. Until the Revolution of 1789 the kings of France regularly sent their daughters to be educated at the feminine Abbey of Fontevrault in the Loire valley. It is consequently impossible to generalize about the state of primary education in medieval France; much depended on the circumstances of location and the conditions at given times. Thus, in 1324, the cathedral chapter at Chartres required every parish priest to maintain a school, but elsewhere, in poorer areas, such was not the case. During the bad times of the Black Death and Hundred Years War, primary education surely suffered as much as the universities did.

The disasters befalling France during the years 1340-1450 were reflected by a general decline of excellence in university education. The English and Burgundian wars of the period embroiled everyone, including the universities, in conflicts of interest and political turmoil. The university lost its marked international character as its leaders sought protection and support from new secular masters.

Indeed, the very organization of schools that came to be during the sixteenth century remains substantially the same as the kind of organization that still prevails in 2001: one building, housing pupils of different ages and consequently at different stages of preparation; the required breakdown of pupils into class years; six years of primary classes followed by another four to six years of more advanced preparation; and the whole leading to the pupil's earning a bachelor's diploma (more or less the equivalent of the modern French baccalauréat). Much pedagogical experimentation took place in these Renaissance schools, such as the elaboration of a direct method designed to teach the young pupils to speak Latin fluently. These innovations did not invariably meet with the unqualified approval of the traditional institutions of learning, particularly the Sorbonne and its Faculty of Theology, which remained faithful to "tried and true" disputation and dialectic. Consequently, the new breed of Humanists sought to create a brand new institution of higher learning, a kind of anti-Sorbonne that would be partial to their interests.

The Collège Royal was the first effort in France at putting into effect a truly "public," State-recognized educational institution. Administratively, the Collège Royal was highly innovative. No degree was required in order to lecture there. A generally recognized distinction was the sole criterion of a professor's suitability for election to one of its chairs. Nor were students selected on the basis of any prior preparation. Anyone could attend lectures there. No examinations were given, nor were diplomas awarded. Attendance required no payment of tuition since the college's professors received (theoretically at least) a salary paid from the State treasury. Academic freedom characterized the teaching that went on there. A professor could, and did, lecture on the Psalms without possessing a degree from the Sorbonne and with no Faculty of Theology oversight or control. This state of affairs infuriated the men of the Sorbonne who sought to close the college, but the king himself intervened and their suit was dismissed.

Little by little new disciplines and professors were added to the curriculum and the staff, such as mathematics, botany, astronomy, and Latin poetry. One professor, the influential Ramus, wrote a treatise demanding the systematic revision of the entire French system of education. Among the recommendations he made in his Avertissement was for a clearer distinction to be made between secondary and higher education (not achieved until the nineteenth century): secondary collèges would focus on grammar, rhetoric, and logic, while higher education would offer a more encyclopedic range of studies (including French grammar and literature). All education would be free and be paid for by the State. Indeed, the sixteenth century witnessed the rise of lay education. Schools founded and run by non-Churchmen proliferated as of this time. Many were paid for by local municipalities, as in the modern United States.

Generally speaking, however, despite individual successes here and there, the old universities underwent during the seventeenth century a process of decline whereas, especially during the second half of the century, the educational institutions founded and maintained by the Jesuit Order grew by leaps and bounds in size and influence. Their Paris college, the Collège de Clermont, became the Collège Royal in 1682 when it received the honor of being called Louis le Grand. The practicality of the Jesuits appealed to the bourgeoisie of the time who, as a class, were steadily gaining in wealth and power, just as the power of the potentially rebellious nobility was, as a matter of royal policy, declining. In many respects the Jesuits offered a kind of finishing school for the sons of the wealthy and socially conservative bourgeoisie. Teachings consisted of proper manners, geography and history, morality and religious formation, and proper and correct speech—in short, whatever it took to open up the world of affairs and officialdom to their clients. The education they offered, with its emphasis on good speaking and rhetoric, constituted an especially effective preparation for the Bar. What now is called the haute bourgeoisie in France is largely a seventeenth-century Jesuit creation.

Primary education was in far worse a situation. It remained totally under the control of the Church, local diocesan bishops, and parish priests. For the most part, teachers were miserably paid, especially in rural areas. They often doubled as assistants to the priest. Conditions varied a great deal from place to place. Reading and writing were taught, as was religion, but arithmetic was not always pursued. In some places an enterprising teacher would initiate his pupils in beginning Latin, but this was rare.

As the time of the great Revolution drew nearer, one notes a steady growth in the number of primary schools throughout the country: by 1776 the Haute-Marne region counted 473 schools in its 550 towns and villages; in 1750 the city of La Rochelle had about the same number of primary school pupils as it would in 1873. Yet, the diocese of Rieux counted a mere 41 schools for boys and 10 for girls out of 139 parishes. Illiteracy remained high. Though not entirely amenable to reliable interpretation, statistical studies have noted that on marriage acts about 47 percent of the men could sign their name while only 27 percent of the women could do so.

The consequences for public schooling in France were dreadful during the time separating 1914-1918 from 1939-1945, as can be imagined. Since the typical French infantry platoon was composed of about 40 men, mostly peasants, and a couple of non-commissioned officers, all led by a reservist second lieutenant who very frequently was a village or town school teacher (instituteur), the country's younger male teachers were almost wiped out as a class. Casualties among infantry lieutenants are generally the highest suffered by any Army rank.

The Revolution and the Napoleonic period that followed brought about massive change in the theory and practice of education. Despite some discontent with the inadequacies of public primary and secondary education, systematic reform of the ancien régime procedures was not at first a high Revolutionary priority. Increased funding was needed so that education might be offered to both rich and poor; the creation of a new centralized governmental agency was seen by some as needed to remedy inequities in educational opportunity throughout the nation. The old system remained in place until 1793. But with the passage of a bill in 1789 confiscating the property of ecclesiastic establishments and providing for their sale, decline set in due to lack of financial resources. Secondary education institutions had about 72,000 pupils in the country as a whole (with a population of approximately 20 million). The parish priest's approbation also remained necessary to the founding of a primary school.

At the end of the Second Empire, the university was in a lamentable state: the law and medicine faculties were bogged down in a repetitive kind of professional training, and arts and sciences had degenerated into a purely rhetorical lecture system. The Third Republic undertook important reforms. The university budget went from FF5,800,000 ($1.1 million gold dollars) to FF16,350,000, making a vast building program possible. The administrative structure was redesigned in such a way as to accord each faculty, led by a dean selected by the Education Minister upon proposal of its faculty, a substantial degree of faculty-controlled autonomy. The government, meanwhile, was represented by a rector nominated by the Ministry. Scholarship funding was provided, as were laboratory facilities for scientists and medical faculties. Student enrollments went from 9,000 in 1870, to 24,000 in 1892, to 41,000 in 1913. The basic post-baccalauréat degree remained in letters and sciences, the licentiate (licence), followed by the diplôme d'études supérieures (a kind of M.A. research degree requiring the writing of a thesis-like mémoir) and the thesis-based doctorate (the doctorat d'université and/or, in conjunction with the State competitive examination named the aggregation, the very prestigious doctorat d'Éta necessary for a university full professorship). This basic structure prevailed until well after 1945 and, indeed, remains the reference point for the many adjustments and reforms initiated subsequently to that date up to the present time.

It must be said, however, that quite unlike the situation prevailing in Great Britain, Germany, and the United States, the French university system, like its primary and secondary schooling (and grandes écoles), inherited the virtues and defects of Paris-focused centralization. Unlike the U.S. Department of Education, the Ministry of National Education exercised, and still exercises, virtual day to day control over teacher and faculty appointments, budgetary allocations, and other areas of policy. The minister himself is a political appointee, but aiding him is a tenured bureaucracy of civil servants (fonctionnaires) whose role in implementing policy is very powerful. Tout passe par Paris (Everything has to go through Paris) is no idle saying. Until the 1960s the monolithic and huge University of Paris enjoyed a prestige matched in no respect by any other institution. Many faculty members in provincial universities continued, and continue, to reside in Paris. Most of the grandest grandes écoles are located in the Paris area. The immensely rich Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the nation's incomparable research library has traditionally drawn to its collections the major part of the country's bibliographic resources.

In imitation of what its leaders believed the Revolution of 1789 had stood for, the Third Republic, almost immediately after its establishment, attempted to design and implement a unified and nation-wide educational system including all levels and types of school—the primary, the secondary, and the higher (both university and grande école). The system would be essentially free of tuition costs, open to all pupils, and students would be judged exclusively on merit.

In reality, the Republic built on what the July Monarchy law of 1833 had come to pass, especially on the primary level. In 1872 there existed some 50,000 community primary schools in France of which somewhat less than a third were Church-run (12,000 for girls and 3,000 for boys). Over 4 million pupils were enrolled in these schools (out of a primary school population of some 5 million). However, the country's illiteracy rate stood at about 20 percent. There existed some 70 écoles normales ("normal schools") for the training of male teachers, but only 12 for females. Work conditions for female primary teachers were miserable. Their annual salary averaged as little as 340 to 400 gold francs ($70 to $80 per year). It was up to the State to correct these imbalances. As of 1879 a law required each département to fund and equip decently an école normale. Only two years later, all tuition fees were abolished by law, and, in 1882, primary school attendance become obligatory. Moreover, each school teacher, whether public or religious, was required to hold the Brevet de capacité (a government-approved teaching certificate). Finally, in 1886, yet another law was passed providing for the obligatory replacement of religious teaching personnel in the school by state-certified laymen and women.

By law in 1886 the principal task of the nonecclesiastical primary school teacher (instituteur/institutrice) was to inculcate Republican morale in his or her pupils by stressing the latters' duty toward the family, the school itself, the patrie, the personal dignity of persons, charitable one's fellow man and community, and animals. In addition, the six-year core curriculum also focused on reading and writing, elements of mathematics (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, fractions and abstract reasoning), French history and geography, and drawing and music. The pedagogical methods used involved much pupil-teacher interaction and classroom discussion. Each class in all the schools was visited periodically by an official known as the Inspecteur de l'académie who made sure that the instructional programs centrally drawn up by the national ministry were properly carried out. Schools were democratic in the sense that pupils came from all social classes and represented all economic levels.

The general excellence of these public schools produced striking results. From 1885 to 1912 public primary instruction gained some 400,000 boys and 800,000 girls, while their confessional competitors lost about 1 million pupils. To these figures should be added the population of "maternal schools" (écoles maternelles), which were a kind of national preschooling scheme, and those who attended adult schools. By 1910 the French illiteracy rate had dropped to 4.2 percent.

Secondary education programs led to the national and standardized baccalaureate examinations, which, if successfully passed by the collégien or lycéen, gave him access to further study either at one of the universities or one of the many other higher educational facilities available. (A highly competitive entrance examination was generally required in addition to the baccalauréat for acceptance into one of the prestigious grandes écoles.) In short, the colleges and lycées of France were designed to identify what was socially regarded as the nation's pool of intellectually elite young men. This was seen by many critics as socially unjust, all the more so in that practically speaking the young men concerned were almost invariably drawn from the well-to-do bourgeoisie and traditionally intellectual classes represented by the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, and teachers).

Girls and women offer an illustrative case in point. At about the same time as colleges like Bryn Mawr in the United States, and Girton in England, were being founded, several Third Republic politicians displayed enough far-sightedness to fight for women's educational opportunities in France. Already in 1880, Camille Sée sponsored a law widening these opportunities. However, as seen from today's perspective, the law was discriminatory in that it focused on teaching subjects "appropriate to women," which meant not exposing them to Latin or Greek, advanced mathematics, and so forth. But over the years various decrees of application concerning the law simply ignored these strictures, and, little by little, young women achieved parity with young men in their own lycées (only much later would these schools become coeducational in France.) A feminine École Normale Supérieure was founded in counterpart to each of the two major male schools and its pupils received the same education and training as their masculine coevals. However, the social and economic class to which these young women belonged was much the same as that of their male peers.

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