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Prussian Village Primary School - Expo Paris 1867

Prussian Village Primary School at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

It will be an eternal glory for France to have been the first to proclaim that a people was master of its own destiny. This great principle of independence which England had glimpsed in the terrible revolution which brought down the head of Charles I and led to the restoration of James II, this great principle has made its way into Europe, and, since 1789, every nation aspires to this possession of itself, to this high personal direction which makes the people the sovereign, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau calls it, and the sovereign the first employee of these twenty, thirty or forty millions of citizens whom we used to call his subjects.

All power, all authority is null and void if it does not have a means of exercising it. This means is universal suffrage.

It cannot enter into our thinking to tackle these lofty questions that our framework forbids us. But do you not see the importance of primary education? Do you not see that it is becoming a necessity, an obligation, in the play of our modern institutions?

I have said the word obligation. Presumably it follows that I am advocating compulsory education? I have no more intention than I have the right to do so. More authoritative pens than mine will discuss this great problem, no doubt with more authority too.

But I find it a transition to the schoolhouse that our engraving represents. We are not talking here about the great and famous German universities of the past, Jena, Goëttingue, and so on. - It is a simple village primary school. It does not produce doctors, but citizens, capable of understanding their rights and duties, of obeying the law, which they have read, and of supporting the government, which they have freely chosen.

It is Prussia that exhibits in the Parc du Champ de Mars a model of a village school.

It is perhaps painful for France to see primary education developing so actively in all our neighbours, while in many communes our peasants still leave their children in complete ignorance, either because the commune is too poor to maintain a school, or because the need for instruction has not yet been understood.

It must be admitted that, in this respect, Germany has been ahead of us. - One can today travel through Prussia, Bavaria, Wurtemberg, Saxony, Hanover, the duchies, the free cities, all that constitutes the Germanic Confederation, and one will not find a peasant who can neither read nor write. - Look at our countryside!

Why so much education on one side, so little on the other?

Frederick the Great was the first to think of making education compulsory. A very vigorously motivated edict was issued, and everything was already being prepared for obedience when the wars that occupied most of his reign broke out. War is not very protective of education. Under such a bellicose reign, the edict was badly executed. The successors of Frederick, very preoccupied with maintaining the completeness of their territory, left aside a question which is only a source of danger for an absolute power, and only becomes fruitful in results in a free people.

After the peace of Tilsitt, Prussia was reconstituted on a new basis. Men of high intelligence laid the new foundations of its political organisation, its administration, its finances, - of its education too. The edict of Frederick was remembered. It was brought back into force. Primary education was declared compulsory. This violent, coercive measure, employed at a time of half-licence brought about by the war, met at first with serious obstacles in the rural population, in that which was to bear the inconveniences first. But little by little, as new generations were formed, the disadvantages disappeared, thanks to intelligent measures, - the serious, real, palpable advantages remained, and it is only among children today that a repugnance - we have all known it - for school is manifested. The parents, far from opposing it, would see a vexation in a change of system.

These ideas, so deeply rooted today in Prussia, have difficulty in becoming acclimatised in France.

I do not wish to recall the famous manifesto of a French minister, then well-intentioned, whose energetic initiative was suddenly shattered by a no less energetic protest which the official journal opposed him, twenty-four hours away.

Alas, we have reached this point in France, understanding the advantages of a system, sensing its dangers, and not knowing how to strike the right balance which, by respecting certain repugnancies and satisfying praiseworthy aspirations, will reserve and even repair the future.

Should we then, in order to reconcile our hatred of all that is imposed with our love of universal suffrage, expect every Frenchman to be - by right and obligation - a soldier? I know, in fact, that every individual who has been in the regiment, has taken primary school lessons, and only goes home knowing how to read and write. But is it necessary to wait until the whole of France has been under the flag to be, from the point of view of education, on a par with Prussia?

Prussia has decreed compulsory education.
But it understood that the interests most strongly affected by this obligation, i.e. the rural population, were to be served first and foremost.

The inhabitants of the cities easily accept a measure which keeps their children in school, as they would be an embarrassment to them. In the countryside, on the other hand, children aged 8, 10 or 12 can be usefully employed in agricultural work. Also, in the villages, education conforms to the requirements of the work, if, in winter, at the time of rest for the rural population, the lessons keep the children from nine o'clock to noon and from two o'clock to four o'clock - in summer, the lessons begin at five or six o'clock, to end two or three hours later. From eight or nine o'clock onwards, the child is returned to the family. Moreover, harvest time, potato harvest, and grape harvest give rise to holidays which are always calculated in such a way as not to deprive parents of the help of their children.

It is necessary, moreover, to know how these primary schools are organised in order to understand their advantages and to see how they can satisfy legitimate interests, without harming either paternal authority or the interests of families.

I will take as a model the school in Münsterberg, in Silesia. Münsterberg is a small town of 5500 souls, divided as follows: 4000 Catholics, 1500 evangelicals (read Protestants). - This little town has no less than four schools: 1° a normal school intended to train teachers for the primary schools; 2° a primary school, composed of eleven classes for the Catholics; 3° a school composed of three classes for the Evangelicals: these two schools are maintained by the commune; 4° finally, an Evangelical primary school, maintained by the State, like the normal school, to which it is annexed, and which is divided into three classes.

This school can serve as a model, and it is, moreover, for this purpose that it was created. Pupils of both sexes are brought together. The lessons are given by the most distinguished students of the normal school, under the direction of one of the teachers of the normal school.

The house exhibited by the Prussian Ministry is a complete school. It has only one floor with a few steps up. The plan I received, which mentions a staircase, indicates that this installation, complete in itself, can nevertheless take some development. The dwelling, which is very simple but well distributed, opens into a vestibule which gives access on one side to the school and on the other to the master's flat. This dwelling, reduced to the most moderate proportions, consists of a dining room, a kitchen, a k bedroom and a study. It is difficult to do less.

The classroom is a parallelogram, ten metres long, six metres wide, high-ceilinged, well-ventilated, well-lit, furnished with tables and benches for the pupils, a table mounted on a platform for the teacher, a slate board on an easel for demonstrations, and adorned with two busts, that of the King of Prussia and of Queen Augusta. The walls are covered with geographical cards, the tables with books, used in primary schools, and with writing and drawing albums, sent by various Prussian schools. These albums, which contain only compositions by children of twelve and fourteen years of age, indicate a real superiority over the pupils of our schools.

This school is intended for a single class. But, when we know that instruction is compulsory from the age of six until fourteen, we understand that the teacher must establish divisions and subdivisions between his pupils, which are naturally based as much on age as on the aptitude and progress of the pupils. Like all those in Germany, this school is intended for both sexes. In this way, instruction, equally distributed among men and women, enables the more gifted intelligences to take the superiority which belongs to them later in life.

I have said that a single class brought together the pupils of eight different grades. The teaching varies, although they are all together; it is the duty of the teacher to know how to give each subdivision he has established in his class the teaching that suits it. All instruction takes place in the school. The children, once out of school, belong to their parents, and have no lessons to learn or homework to do.

In some industrial provinces the period of study is reduced from eight to six years, but on condition that certain courses are taken which give the pupils a general knowledge of mechanics.

The model school which Prussia exhibits under the modest title of "Village Primary School" has been awarded a gold medal. I sincerely associate myself with this decision of the jury; it is a tribute to the serious, constant, energetic efforts of a people, whose moral and intellectual progress our patriotism should fear much more than an impossible territorial invasion!

To the cannons of Prussia, so remarkable by their volume and their effects, we have opposed cannons of a greater volume, of a more destructive effect! So much the better! As long as the cannon has a higher voice than law and reason, let us have the best cannons in the world!

But what shall we oppose to its "Village Primary School"?

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée