ONE of the many basic conflicts fought in eighteenth-century France was the effort of the Church to retain—and the effort of the philosophes and others to end—ecclesiastical control over education. The contest culminated in the expulsion of the Jesuits from France in 1762, the nationalization of French schools, and the triumph of secularized education in the Revolution. In the first half of the century the controversy was only beginning to take form.
The great majority of the peasants could not read. In many rural communities, even up to 1789, the municipal authorities “could hardly write.”1 Most parishes, however, had a petite école where the priest or his appointee taught reading, writing, and catechism, chiefly to boys, for a small fee paid by the parents per pupil.2 Children whose parents could not afford to pay were admitted gratis if they applied. Attendance was legally required by the edicts of 1694 and 1724, but these were not enforced.3 Many peasant fathers kept their children from school, partly through need of them on the farm, partly because they feared that education would be a troublesome superfluity in those destined to till the land. Education could not guarantee a rise in status, for class barriers were almost insurmountable in the first half of the century. In the villages and small towns those who had learned to read seldom read anything other than what concerned their daily work. Everyone knew the catechism, but only in the cities was there any knowledge of literature, science, or history.
In the middle and upper classes most education was carried on at home by governesses, then by tutors, finally by dancing masters; these last were expected to teach to both sexes the difficult arts of sitting, standing, walking, talking, and gesturing, with courtesy and grace. Some girls received private lessons in Latin; nearly all above the poor learned to sing and to play the harpsichord. The higher education of girls was carried on in convents, where they progressed in religion, embroidery, music, dancing, and the proper conduct of a young woman and a wife.
Secondary education for boys was almost wholly in the hands of Jesuits, though the Oratorians and the Benedictines shared in the work. Skeptics like Voltaire and Helvétius were among the many distinguished graduates of the Jesuit College of Louis-le-Grand, where Père Charles Porée, professor of “rhetoric” (i.e., language, literature, and speech) left loving memories among his students. The curriculum in the Jesuit schools had hardly changed in two centuries. Though it continued to emphasize religion and the formation of character, the material was largely classical. The authors of ancient Rome were studied in the original, and for five or six years the young scholars lived in intimacy with pagan thought; no wonder their Christian faith suffered some questioning. Furthermore, the Jesuits “spared no efforts to develop the intelligence and zeal of their students.”4 These were encouraged to debate, to speak in public, and to act in plays; they were taught rules for the arrangement and expression of ideas; part of the clarity of French literature was a product of Jesuit colleges. Finally, the student received rigorous courses in logic, metaphysics, and ethics, partly through Aristotle, partly through the Scholastic philosophers; and here again, though the conclusions were orthodox, the habit of reasoning remained—became, indeed, the outstanding mark of this specifically “Age of Reason.” Flogging was also a part of the curriculum, even for students of philosophy, and with no distinction of rank; the future Marquis d’Argenson and the Duc de Boufflers were flogged before their classes for having shot peas at their reverend professors.5
Already there were complaints that the curriculum paid little attention to the advances of knowledge, that the instruction was too theoretical, giving no preparation for practical life, and that the insistent religious indoctrination warped or closed the mind. In a once famous Traité des études (1726–28) Charles Rollin, rector of the University of Paris, defended the classical curriculum and the stress on religion. The chief goal of education, he held, is to make men better. Good teachers “have little regard for the sciences where these do not conduce to virtue; they set no store by the deepest erudition when it is not accompanied by probity. They prefer an honest man to a man of learning.”6 But, said Rollin, it is difficult to form moral character without basing it on religious belief. Hence “the aim of our labors, the end of all our teaching, should be religion.”7 The philosophes would soon call this in question; the debate on the necessity of religion for morality would continue throughout the eighteenth century, and through the next. It is alive today.