In our days, if a young man has been brilliant in his studies, or even if he has obtained some prize for a Latin poem or Greek theme, it is enough to make him persuade himself that he is born for something other than business or industry of any kind. In this the University is at one with the spirit of the clergy. Both have very little that is practical. Professors and priests have leisure to plunge into the delightful study of Greek and Roman antiquity. Accordingly, their tastes and their profession lead them to recommend classical studies. The moment that they perceive in a young man some literary ability, they try to make him believe (and the task is an easy one) that it would be a pity not to cultivate such brilliant faculties. From this results an overloading of the liberal pursuits, and the perversion of natures well gifted in other respects, but who would think it abasing and suicidal for them to enter a business house, or cross the threshold of a manufactory. Therefore what happens? They become lawyers, journalists, romance writers, and during the greater part of their lives men of no position, - very bohemians.
This is the result of our system of education, - a result, I am persuaded, not wholly unconnected with our frequent revolutions. On the one hand, our primary instruction is too much neglected. Thousands of voters know not how to read or write. On the other, our secondary instruction is too aristocratic. It should only be the privilege of a small number, and not the common rule for all. Moreover, this instruction draws too exclusively on antique sources. It presents us with the society of antiquity in its most flourishing condition. Sparta, Athens, Rome, are shown us as ideal republics. Now it is well known how false the ideas of antiquity were upon what is to-day the very foundation of modern society. It is known what account it made of personal liberty, property, work, etc. Yet once again, it is not the instruction in itself that I decry, it is the generalization of this instruction, its application to all. Had we, in connection with the classical studies, some system of professional instruction corresponding to the Real Schulen of the Germans, we should not see so many useless individuals, so many fruits secs as they are called. We should find advantage in having the mass of our young men, instead of pursuing exclusively the dead languages, learning the living ones; instead of comparing Latin orations, perfecting themselves in the study of French; instead of giving themselves up to the indolent and fruitless exercise of making Latin verses, devoting themselves to the study of the sciences. Our national education is too aristocratic, not practical enough for a democracy. This is the whole trouble.
There is in France, it is true, a school of commerce, several schools of agriculture, one or two schools of the arts and trades; but these are special professional schools, just as there are military or naval academies. They form no part of the national system of education. This is so true, that they do not hold from the minister of public instruction, but respectively from the ministers of commerce, agriculture, and public works.
How arrive at effecting reforms in our instruction? Those who see in the state the only savior address themselves to it. For my own part, I do not think that the state can accomplish these reforms. In the first place, it must be disposed to do so. In France, you know, we are accustomed to charge the government with our private affairs. It is just the way to have them badly managed. We are still in the times of Louis XIV. He says: "L'Etat, c'est moi." We have not as yet dared to reply: "L'Etat, c'est nous, c'est la representation de chacun de nous." I don't count upon the state for reform. I think that although national education is what should interest it the most, nevertheless it is not the state that ought to give it, any more than it should furnish us our food and clothes. A reform in instruction can never come except through liberty of instruction, - every one free at his own risk to open a school; each commune looking after the education of its own children. There would thus be a healthy emulation between the communes, between individuals a fruitful rivalry. Educational institutions would be created according to the needs of the community, and would prosper in proportion to their excellence. With liberty would come that feeling of responsibility which is inseparable from it; and with the responsibility alone, welfare and progress.
V. J. R.