PUBLIC instruction in France, of which I tried in my former letter to make you understand the organization, and which we saw centralized in the University, is divided into three branches or degrees. The first degree is called Primary instruction, and includes the communale schools; the second, Secondary instruction, embraces the Colleges and Lyceums; and the third, the Superior instruction, is given in the Faculties. Remark that I do not speak of education in general. In point of fact, you must not suppose that at the side of this instruction, given and entirely controlled by the state, there exist no other schools and institutions, under the name of free, founded, directed, and maintained by corporations or private individuals. Any individual, provided he has the requisite qualifications and degrees, can open a school. But it is here that we see the monopoly that the state has acquired; for, in the first instance, it alone can authorize the opening of a school, and secondly, it is the University alone that has the right to confer degrees and certificates; it is before it that all examinations must take place.
Now, it is easy to see how difficult it is for individuals to struggle against the state, in view of the number of its pupils, its influence, and the resources it commands. Up to the present time none but religious organizations have sustained with any success an opposition to this University instruction, and you can easily understand that this is not a state of things to be proud of; for, notwithstanding the abuses of our national system, I much prefer secular and university education to jesuitical and clerical.
This judgment will perhaps surprise you. It would need, I confess, some further developments before being accepted as true in a free and Protestant country. But these considerations lead me too far from my subject. I come, then, to what is the subject of this letter, - the Primary Schools.
These schools correspond nearly to what are called in America common schools. Children there learn the elements of education necessary to every man, in whatever condition of life. Reading, writing, a little notion of French grammar, of arithmetic, French history, and geography, of church history and religion, - such are the elements of the instruction. Every commune must have its schools, - one for boys and one for girls, but generally entirely distinct. Mixed schools are very rare in France, while with you young men and girls to the age of fourteen or fifteen, and sometimes older, go to the same school. That is a custom that the French, whether rightly or wrongly, do not understand, and would not permit. A schoolmaster has charge of a boys' school, a schoolmistress of the girls', - another difference between our schools and those of America, where I have often seen primary schools composed of boys or girls, or both together, successfully conducted by women.
Before becoming instructor in a school, one is usually obliged to procure what is called a certificate of capacity. Two or three times a year a commission appointed by the academical council is convened in the principal town of a department, for the purpose of examining candidates and conferring this certificate. When an individual has obtained it, he can be appointed to any vacant post; but it is the government that appoints him. The communes have no voice in the selection of the men to whom their children are intrusted. They have only to provide his salary, furnish a suitable room for a schoolroom, and a lodging for the master. It seems hardly possible, that when it is the commune that pays, the commune that sends its children to be instructed, when, in a word, it is the commune that has the greatest interest in the choice of an instructor, it is not even consulted in the matter. Well, that which is an absurdity in America is the rule in France.
Fathers have nothing to do with the teachers that the government allots them. The communes have no supervision over him. All that is asked of them is to pay him. If the commune does not appoint its schoolmaster, has it, at least, the right to supervise the instruction that he gives? O, that would be an enormity! Does a peasant know anything about education? It is indeed his child who is to be educated, but the state knows better than the father what is for the child's interest. The state is more than a father to us. And thus it is with everything. The duty of inspecting the schools is confided to an inspector appointed for the purpose, and a departmental committee which always includes either the pastor or the cure. This committee, as well as the inspector, are always named by the administration through the person of the prefect or rector.
You now understand the principle which governs Primary instruction in France. It cannot but astonish you who manage your own affairs, leaving the Federal government to look after its own. With you each township has an interest in its schools, a desire to be first in matters of education. To this end it selects the best possible masters, and makes the greatest sacrifices to the cause of education. Its schools are its glory. It is as proud of them as of its monuments, its bridges, or its roads. The schools are its own, and it cares for them. With us, as you have seen, it is an entirely different matter. The government gives us our teachers; it appoints the officials to oversee them, and the instruction that they give. There is nothing left us but to maintain them.
V. F. R.