You have asked me to send you some information upon the subject of our national system of education. I will do so in all simplicity. I shall not perhaps give you any original views upon the question, but I shall try to give you a clear idea of the system. This is all you ask of me, and I hope to succeed. But to the comprehension of our system of education, it will be necessary first to understand the mechanism of what is called the University of France.
You must not for a moment lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with France, and that in France everything is perfectly organized, classified, and subordinated, like books in a library, soldiers in camp, or criminals in cells.
Education itself has not escaped this inevitable law of centralization. For centuries schools and colleges have existed in France. Indeed, previous to the year 1789 there were already some twenty-one or twenty-two universities. The Revolution came, and with it a great upheaval in the social world. People felt that they were about to leave behind the old established state of things to enter upon a life under entirely new conditions, and that for this new state of society new methods were essential.
Every old system was accordingly overthrown, and that of education among the rest. In the midst of the thunders of war the Convention did not forget that the first requisite for the foundation of a good republic was to raise up good citizens. It is not my purpose to criticise here the different schemes of education which were elaborated at this memorable epoch.
It is possible, in view of the ideas which then obtained, that we might have affected the antique, and formed our citizens in the mould of Sparta or of Rome, instead of making French citizens, imbued with the principles of modern civilization.
However this may be, certain it is that a grand movement was inaugurated in favor of education, - a movement, however, which had not the time to produce results before Bonaparte was on the spot. He wished to crush the Revolution, which had scarcely yet laid out its work, and he arrived just in time to claim his heritage. Seizing upon the ideas then working in the revolutionary furnace, he formed them to his own liking, assimilated them to his own, and finally ran them into his own mould, - a mould of iron, which it has hitherto been found impossible to break. This was the birth of our Civil Code, and national system of education.
The twenty-one universities were united in one central institution, where, as upon a common trunk, the different branches of the system took their rise. This is called the University of France.
Napoleon was a soldier, and he regarded France in the light of a vast army. Thus it happens that we have those barracks that are called colleges, and those half-military uniforms with which the students are afflicted. It is even a subject of gratitude that they were not also obliged to march to recitation to the music of the drum, sword at side and musket on shoulder.
In lieu of this there were grades, ranks, and professors really officers, responsible themselves to the commander-in-chief, called the Grand-Master of the University.
This latter was assisted by a council of thirty members, chosen from the high functionaries of the University, professors and others. All France was divided into Academies, under the immediate supervision of a Rector, and a council over which he presided.
This council was charged with the "surveillance" of the schools, and other institutions of instruction in its own district. Each department had also its inspector and council.
Thus, it will be seen, everything centred in the University, and it was thence that all this machinery took its motive power. To-day the system is the same, with the exception of some modifications of detail. The Grand-Master no longer exists, being superseded by the Minister of Public Instruction and Religion.
The council is differently constituted, the church element being now represented as well as the laity. Nevertheless, the system itself has undergone no essential change since the year 1808, when Napoleon I. instituted it. Now that we have become acquainted with the organization of the University, and the relation to it of the different branches of public instruction, let us examine the instruction itself, which, as you know, divides itself into three departments, - primary, secondary, and superior instruction. In my next letter I shall speak of the first degree of instruction, - the Primary schools.
V. J. R.