CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
In memory of Françoise Tétard.

1The need to cultivate the ideal of “mass education,” which today has regained a certain currency in word if not in deed, had its heyday in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This “national campaign” should not be reduced to its folkloric dimensions, but must be analyzed at the local level, in the context of its many related activities, such as the “little A” associations for former students of these primary schools. By following these lines of thought, the author gives new clarity and depth to an educational initiative that has long been at the heart of French republicanism.

2Towards the end of the nineteenth century, primary education became a founding element of the shaping of a new democratic France. And yet, the immense effort of educating the masses, which sprang to life nightly all around the country, was not expected. Classrooms and school yards, which the French republicans designated as the secular heart of local existence, were venues for most of the activities held under the banner of mass education. Using techniques that are now lost to collective memory, the teachers – “proletarians in blazers” often hailing from a higher social class and inclined toward socialist principles – proved highly motivated to make their ideal a reality. From evening classes to public lectures and magic lantern projections, by way of “alumni” associations and mutual aid societies, the teachers showed themselves to be tireless proponents of “mass education,” an idea that was first timidly articulated in 1848 but later assumed the scale of a national campaign. [1]

3Pushed by the influential Ligue de l’enseignement, the Ministry for Public Education was quick to make these “post-school” programs an important component of the teachers’ activities at the local level. Stunning evidence for this was given by the broad, decade-long national study undertaken in 1894 by Édouard Petit, inspector general for the Ministry of Public Education, who inventoried teachers’ involvement in their communities. This study was an expression of the state’s desire to support mass education, to give it the substance and official weight of public affairs. [2] This was hardly surprising: to educate the “complete man,” who had left school too soon or who had simply never gone, to democratize education as a foundation for social advancement, and ultimately to encourage everyone’s access to public debate and opinion, was to work all at once toward a society of equals and toward the creation of “enlightened citizens” who were experienced in the exercise of reason, capable of making their own decisions, and freed from the blinders of unquestioning belief. [3] Here was laid out, in its republican origins, the call for the creation of the mass education campaign. Under these conditions, the teachers’ zeal was hardly surprising. These teachers identified closely with the ideals held by the regime, which was the source of their raison d’être. They were often “more republican than the republicans themselves,” and were among the regime’s most ardent supporters. [4] We must not be naive, however, about the teachers’ other motivations. The administrative incentives that accompanied some of these activities included salary and increased vacation time, and their devotion was taken into account in decision-making by superiors. These factors contributed to the teachers’ involvement at least as much as their “educational” calling. [5] Not to mention that these men and women were destined to put down roots in the communities where they worked, and so their involvement outside of school served as a token of prestige and local authority. [6]

4How did knowledge circulate at the local level of villages and small towns? How did the teachers attract the locals, and where did they learn the local manners appropriate to their aims? Within the walls of these classrooms filled with adults, how did the teachers manage to convey the Republic’s ideals, all the while attempting to form ideal citizens and organize meaningful connections among them? A wide view of this situation is hardly cohesive. The variety of activities, their close configuration at the local level, and their roots in the development of municipal policy all made it necessary for the teachers to remain attuned to local affairs. Towards this end, the working-class suburbs forming in the outskirts of Paris, a newly industrialized territory linking Saint-Denis to the wooded reaches of Seine-et-Oise, became a precious observation ground. The proliferation of large factories, the influx of working-class populations, and the presence of trained craftsmen anxious to distinguish themselves, not to mention the influence of the socialists who worked their way up to leadership positions within many of these municipalities – all of these factors made this population a particular concern of the schoolteachers of the French republic. [7]

A “Further Education”

5The evening classes precipitated the strongest commitment. The formula was longstanding. Condorcet’s ideas were wholeheartedly reestablished and perpetuated, for better or worse, under the Second Empire. [8] On Jules Ferry’s initiative in 1882, then more solidly in 1895 (in a decree adopted on January 11), the French republicans – who were concerned with not “unleashing legions of rough-hewn beings to begin their lives, who would remain forever as ignorant as they were at age fifteen” – decided to reorganize their influence in order to “continue the work of schooling beyond the school years,” in the words of Ferdinand Buisson. [9] For a “democracy that wishes to survive,” wrote Édouard Petit in 1892, “draws all of its strength from the knowledge of its supporters; it does not survive on a widespread lack of curiosity, as a monarchy does.” [10] Thus, this “further education” worked its way into the teachers’ schedules, and into mayors’ agendas. [11] The Ministry for Public Education commissioned monographs by local teachers for the Exposition Universelle of 1900, which proved to be a precious source for social historians and an essential element of the local communities’ self-image. [12] These adult classes were held in the elementary schools after the school day had ended from November to March. They were entirely free of charge and “open to both sexes.” Some mayors used them as an opportunity to foster competition among philotechnical associations and factory schools administered by former local public figures. [13] Heeding myriad nuances, the city councils who often held authority over these classes ensured their proper functioning. They made classrooms available, paid for heating and lighting, instated prizes to encourage attendance, and endeavored, within their modest but symbolically important means, to financially compensate the teachers. In Aubervilliers, this amounted to 150 francs per month during the season when classes where held; 175 francs in Pré-Saint-Gervais and Les Lilas; and 200 francs in Saint-Ouen and Île-Saint-Denis. [14] At the behest of the Ministry for Public Education, some city councils awarded fifteen additional vacation days per year to the diligent teachers. [15]

6The classes provided for in this way followed a fairly standard routine: three times per week (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday), at eight pm by the city clock, as in Pré-Saint-Gervais, one of the schoolteachers would lead the evening pupils into the classroom, where, alternating between French, Arithmetic, History, and Science, they conferred upon them the “sum of the knowledge about which ignorance is no longer permissible.” [16] In an adjoining room, another participant – sometimes the schoolteacher’s wife – took charge of “classes for the illiterate,” who little by little had tired of that label as reading and writing entered more solidly into the definition of respectability. [17]

7It would be incorrect to view this as a simple prolongation of the school day. The teachers were not ignorant of their pupils’ expectations, nor of the fact that their interests lay outside the classroom. For this reason, most endeavored to modify their customary classroom manner to meet the needs of the evening classes. The modification consisted, for some, in presenting the “public school curriculum subjects in their most utilitarian form.” In the small rural town of Vaujours, whose proximity to the Sevran gunpowder factory and a gypsum factory built at the end of the nineteenth century, brought an influx of skilled working-class families, the schoolteacher adapted the class exercises to the needs of daily life – without compromising the lessons’ rigor.


For example, as composition topics we assign business letters, taxation complaints, etc.; in Geometry, we carry out practical operations in surveying; the sciences are addressed in view of health and agriculture: treatments for bites and stings, and the proper precautions to take against condensation and frost are among the topics of discussion which often prove to be of immediate practical utility. [18]

9Teachers in other towns did not shy away from deviating from the curriculum. Drawing on their own expertise, they tailored their classes to their pupils’ professional prospects. In Raincy in 1899, in response to the needs of the skilled workers populating the town, the schoolteacher began devoting his evening classes to the knowledge that was “indispensable to young artisans.” [19] Chemistry, Physics, and rudimentary Tachometry formed the basic framework of a broader practical education taking shape around the perimeter of professional education. “The demonstrations accompanying this instruction,” the teacher explained, “leave a strong impression on the young audience. They vibrantly inspire their intelligence, develop their spirit of observation, instantaneously destroying misconceptions and prejudices, which are still more common than some might realize.” Needless to say, the quest for instruction hardly risked exhausting the schoolteachers’ ambitions.

10The teachers in these working-class suburbs considered it to be their responsibility to create something like an initiation into democratic life – revealing, in the process, their perception of what their activities represented. “General Law,” Ethics, and Civics all figured in the curricula. In Noisy-le-Grand, starting in 1892, one of the teachers held a weekly discussion which “gave a practical aspect to the class,” [20] while in La Courneuve, a teacher at the school for girls offered lessons on social ethics, contemporary history, and “legislation for women.” [21] She indicated that the goal was not so much to instruct, as to break “the home-bound isolation to which these women are condemned.” It was not so much to advocate suffragism as to instill the values of the French Republic in the realm of social mores: “She who will be the child’s first teacher,” she went on to say, “must be introduced to the complex and troubling problems posed by life in the city. She cannot remain disinterested without causing some disunion between her own way of thinking and that of her partner in union for life.” Classes in “workers’ legislation” sometimes rounded out the curriculum. In Pavillons-sous-Bois, a city founded in 1905 whose industrial activity amounted to a single bicycle factory, [22] the teacher successively addressed labor exchanges, workplace safety, salary, workplace regulations, and conflicts between workers and employers. At the turn of the century, course handbooks were published, which, after the fashion of L’École du citoyen (“School for Citizenship”) by Raphaël Périé, or the much-touted Jean Lavenir (“John Future”), provided support for this local education on democracy. [23]

11The republican-spirited ardor that animated this “further education” also governed the rhetoric the teachers used in their classes. For the historian, this ardor calls for special vigilance. Underneath the evident goodwill, there hid a significantly more nuanced influence. The classes were too strictly educational in nature, and often had firm attendance requirements; for these reasons they fell short, in these working-class neighborhoods, of widespread popular support. On average, they attracted about a dozen adults each week – primarily “skilled” workers. In the large industrial centers immediately surrounding Paris, this number could reach 50, as it did in Pantin, Saint-Ouen, and Les Lilas; Île-Saint-Denis even surpassed 100 adult pupils. [24] The exact attendance numbers, a source of professional pride for the teachers, remain difficult to verify. Some decried the sparse attendance, citing the fears of men aged 18 or 19 who “don’t dare come sit in class next to better-informed classmates.” [25] Several teachers, in Clichy-sous-Bois and Neuilly-sur-Marne, never succeeded in attracting more than seven or eight pupils, and in 1899 finally threw in the towel. [26] This was true to such an extent during these years that, in reality, the teachers found a different format for the work of mass education.

The Temptation of Conferences

12This other format, that of the public conference, was, at least in appearance, a sister activity to the evening classes – but much more popular. This venerable format was also revived in 1890, when the poet Émile Guérin-Catelain founded the National Society for Public Conferences, at 124 rue des Couronnes in Paris. The purpose was simple: every week, organize conferences in Paris and its suburbs, make stenographic records, then distribute them to every town in France, where they would be read and discussed. [27] But the teachers’ zeal for the project quickly surpassed the society’s mission. “In the last ten years, no fewer than 100,000 public conferences have been held each year,” Édouard Petit stated in 1903. [28] The teachers had bright red posters printed to advertise the events. They were held in the classrooms on alternating evenings with the adult classes, though these were sometimes simply replaced by the conferences. The public conferences held considerable attraction in the working-class suburbs discussed in this article. “The Poverty Problem,” “Picturesque Europe,” “Combatting Alcoholism,” “The Motto of the Republic,” “The Family Commune of Guise,” “Popular Festivities of Yesteryear”: [29] five or six times each winter in Noisy-le-Grand, once per month in Rosny, every week in Saint-Denis and Montreuil, they were intended to “afford the public generous, general ideas,” and to “allow even the most illiterate to take an interest in intellectual questions and shine a light into even the most uncultivated of minds.” In short, said one teacher, “the public conference has become the spoken record of the great events that demand the people’s attention.” [30] According to the primary school inspectors, whose observations prove to be a precious resource on this topic, the public’s taste in conferences tended particularly toward colonial explorations (a great source of exotic exhilaration), current events, scientific discoveries, and the inexhaustible supply of practical advice (health, medicinal plants, etc.). [31] These conferences were designed to improve both the public’s understanding of the world and their general conversations. They taught proper behavior and self-care, and thus displayed elements of social education. The working-class adults who attended these conferences at the end of the work day acquired “the habits of well-bred individuals,” according to one jubilant issue of L’Instituteur pratique in 1895. [32]

13It is difficult to disregard the similarity these conferences had to the renowned “popular universities” of the same period, whose ephemeral and ebullient activities were widespread at the time. These schools were either socialist or libertarian, and aimed, just like the popular conferences, to reform society through “social education and mutual instruction.” [33] The working-class suburbs of most of the larger cities, from Saint-Denis to Aubervilliers, had their own. A discussion on the similarities between the two initiatives is enough to evoke the effervescence of mass education at the turn of the century. And yet, we must not confuse the two. While some popular universities, such as the one in Pré-Saint-Gervais, simply replaced the school conferences, and while the school conferences thrived more in less industrialized cities, the prevalence among popular university speakers of “intellectuals” (professors from universities and lycées, renowned writers, etc.) and activists (anarchists, feminists, etc.), and a penchant for more political, literary, or artistic themes suggest that there was some degree of division of labor in educating the masses. [34]

14Although on occasion the local pharmacist, lawyer, or justice of the peace might give a talk at a primary school public conference, the teachers served, despite reticence from the Ministry of Public Education in response to this “excess labor,” as the “real lecturers for the people.” “They are accustomed to speaking to the people’s children, and so they have adopted the proper tone to use when speaking to the people,” said Gaston Dodu in 1900. [35] This did not prevent a few false starts, and codification of best practices carried out through the Ligue de l’enseignement. “These are not simply conferences dispensed from a pulpit on high that we are going to offer people,” said the Guide pratique à l’usage des conférenciers populaires[36] (“Practical Guide for Public Conference Organizers”). The delivery style expected for these conferences, much like that used by town council members in their public addresses in the same period, was conversational. [37] No clever quips, pretentious allusions, or courtroom eloquence. The goal was to speak “honestly” and “casually,” to make the audience forget that they were listening to an orator. Consequently, once the presentation had been well-referenced through the use of dictionaries and “methodical note-taking,” it had to be spoken, and not read. Improvisation, it was thought, ensured lively speech and warmth of expression. Above all, memorized speeches were to be avoided. “The speaker’s effort to recall exact terms he must use is almost always sensed by the audience; the tone is less natural and a lapse of memory could put the speaker in a difficult position.” It was also important to keep the language accessible to a working-class population. “How many of our conferences are not understood and are tiresome; how many repel people from our events because they are perceived to be too scholarly, too urbane?” The terms, therefore, “shall be simple, and the ideas expressed simply.” For the popular audience, one must “speak of what they already heard about in primary school, and pick up where the schoolteacher left off, and lead on from that point, or else the memory will retain nothing.” At the conclusion of the conference, which to avoid fatiguing the audience was not to surpass 45 minutes, it was recommended that the speaker present a summary of what was said “so that the audience may then think about the subject that has been developed for them. Thus, they leave with a more lasting memory of the conference.”

15Unsurprisingly, the teachers emphasized the educational ambitions of these conferences. This motive, however, is far from providing a complete explanation of the role these conferences played in the lives of the attendees. They served as a latter-day, urbanized version of the traditional “veillée,” or evening gathering, the prevalence of which was then waning in the French countryside. [38] The public conference was in tune with the general redefining of collective leisure activities, and became incorporated into the web of social activities and gatherings. “A distraction at once anticipated, desired, and sought after,” [39] the conferences were accompanied by other entertainment: a theatrical monologue, a piece of music played on the phonograph, or songs performed by the children attending the school. But the evening’s highlight was something else: starting in 1896, the teachers began embellishing the evening with “lit projections”: “What Can Be Seen in a Pond,” “Scenes from Military Life,” “What the Microscope Reveals about the Human Body,” “The Soaps and Oils Industry.” [40] Projected via magic lantern, for a quarter hour, a small number of these viewings served to “entertain” the audience after the discussion. If the conference was about literature, the slides might address a topic in science. “One must not show all the scenes at once,” the guides recommended. “It is better to allow the audience to view each slide for some time.” The images, which the speaker would discuss one by one, as a guide to interpretation, were the means of an ambitious visual education that was dear to the Ministry for Public Education. [41] An obscure but important link was thought to exist between sight and learning. These scenes, it was thought, had the advantage of capturing the audience’s attention more effectively than speech, and of introducing new ideas to the mind in a more lasting way. [42] Above all, however, the magic lantern satisfied the appetite for spectacle and all manner of visual wonderment that wove through the turn of the century. [43] It was used less for teaching than for captivating, stirring, and “touching every fiber of the soul.” And as a result, it drew crowds. In 1901, Charles Gide, a leading French economist, describes its powers of attraction:


It is a well-known fact that the public will turn its nose up at conferences with even the most seductive titles, but will come in droves as soon as they see this word on the poster: “Projections!” What a powerful remedy for the speaker!… [H]is role is limited to speaking as little as possible and explaining the images, and if he has nothing more to say, he can get away with simply saying to the audience, “Look!” To assure success, there is but one condition: do not forget to light your lantern. [44]

17This seduction is not lost on the schoolteachers. “No matter the value of the speaker,” said one of them. “It is not for his sake that the audience can be bothered to come. They ‘go to the lantern.’” [45] In 1898, the mayor of Raincy acquired a “magnificent projection device … permitting the use of limelight.” [46] At the insistence of the local schoolteachers, other suburban mayors quickly followed suit and equipped their schools likewise. From Saint-Ouen to Gagny, it was a great success: adults who ordinarily attended the evening classes brought family, friends, and acquaintances with them. “Heads of household returned to the benches of their old elementary school classrooms,” and it was not uncommon, according to the teachers, for the classrooms to prove “too small to hold everybody.” “Similarly, the schoolteacher for Livry-Gargan affirmed that, for some conferences, there were as many as 300 spectators.” [47] The conferences started to become a local institution. At the same time, they indicate the extent to which the story of mass education was intimately connected to the development of personal entertainment. Heading to school at dusk to listen to the conference meant taking part in an evening of entertainment.

18Intense as the schoolteachers’ activities may already seem, this was not the extent of their involvement in these working-class communities of the French Republic. To their teaching efforts, they added a vibrant solidarity movement.

The “Little A’s,” or the “Republic in Ideal Form”

19After school, the teachers organized a variety of youth groups and charity clubs, which, under the auspices of democratic ideals, aimed to keep the teenagers occupied during their free time and provide them with social education. [48] In class, they also played a part in establishing “school mutual insurance” programs, which were savings accounts that the parents contributed to each Monday. The highly celebrated ambition for this account was both to introduce working class families to the principles of foresight in providing for their children’s future, and to cover the costs of retirement, accident, or illness once the child reached majority, all while paving the way for the practice of solidarity. [49] Though it has received less attention, the teachers were also concerned with bringing about new forms of mutual aid and cooperation among adults, based from the school. A prime example of this type of activity were the “Little A” associations for former students of the primary schools (“anciens élèves” in French), although these have long vanished from memory. These “alumni associations” were founded by a local industrialist, doctor, or school principal, and led by a schoolteacher. They functioned in the same manner as the youth associations that were a tradition in the villages. They were true “schools of friendship and solidarity,” where the “elders” took it upon themselves to guide the “young,” teenagers or young adults who had just finished school, and where “among friends, they enjoy themselves, teach each other, and help each other.” [50] It must be added that, in keeping with ambitions that were typical of the time, these associations claimed to replace the predominance of social stratification with a kind of solidarity and social gathering based – for those who had attended school – upon a sense of belonging to the local community.

20The schoolteachers’ efforts aimed at ensuring the realization in deeds of the principle of solidarity for which Leon Bourgeois was then laying the foundations, and which was the blueprint for the French Republic’s entire social structure in this era. The ideal of a society in solidarity, wherein the individual is “a being who belongs to a larger group, who is capable of nothing if he is not in association with others,” [51] was then circulating widely in the field of primary education. The “Little A’s” are one incarnation of this. In working-class suburbs, they formed a close-knit network that spread rapidly. [52] Their proximity to the capital, and their division into school districts influenced this development. A primary school inspector named Bonhoure, who was responsible for the first constituency of Paris including the towns of Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers, proved to be particularly zealous in his efforts to ensure the success of these associations, even beyond those who expressed enthusiasm for the idea. In 1898, Saint-Denis had 18 chapters, Aubervilliers had 16, and Montreuil had six. In 1897, the Bulletin des œuvres auxiliaires de l’école (“Bulletin of Auxiliary School Activities”) said:


It is difficult to find such great diversity in such a small territory as what exists here between the farmers of Dugny and Pierrefitte, and the laborers of Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers. A veritable blossoming of “Little A’s,” appearing everywhere with strength and vitality, took place this year in these very different areas. [53]

22The teachers often drew most of the association members from their evening classes, and the school served as the associations’ meeting place. Integration was unheard of in these associations, and they tended to reinforce gender-specific roles. The women’s associations proved to be the most inventive. The young women whom they recruited, mostly laborers and housemaids, unsurprisingly focused on clothing and cooking. In Aubervilliers, where one of the first “Little A’s” was led by the principal of the School for Girls, solidarity supplanted other longstanding charitable activities. In winter, the more “fortunate” ladies in town brought in their old or out-of-fashion clothing to the school. In the evenings, the roughly 15 young women who belonged to the association would come to the school after their workday, week after week, to wash, patch, mend, and modernize the clothing, so that it could be donated to local children in need. In 1897, the alumnae prepared 275 articles of clothing. Édouard Petit came to see with his own eyes what was happening in these working-class circles in the outskirts of Paris, and was elated to find “the most beautiful example of active brotherhood that could be displayed by the common people.” [54] On a larger scale, the major event for women’s “Little A” associations was the preparation of trousseaus. Begun in a nearby school on rue Riblette, near the gates of Bagnolet, the Trousseau Club was founded in 1902, and led by two women, the school principal and the primary school inspector. In 1903 trousseau preparation became one of the most important activities for associations in Aubervilliers, La Courneuve, and Noisy-le-Sec. On Friday evenings, about 50 students and former students, ages nine to 20, assembled under the guidance of a teacher in the covered courtyard of “their” school. There, with help from older housewives in the role of “sponsors,” the girls made monthly contributions for the purchase of fabric, and, together, little by little they made the 71 items including shirts, blouses, sheets, and linens necessary to “start their households.” [55]

23Toward the end of the 1890s, in light of the success of the popular cooking classes held on Thursdays in Saint-Denis by Charles Driessens and his wife, the Ligue de l’Enseignement encouraged other teachers to follow suit. [56] As a result, numerous “Little A’s” added culinary education to their programs. In Aubervilliers, then in Saint-Ouen and La Courneuve, female schoolteachers invited small groups of young women into their homes and kitchens, so that they could pool their knowledge of the “indispensable skills for the working woman and the housewife.” Together they would visit the grocer and vegetable stalls, prepare meals, set the table, and eat together. The learning process seemed to be complete. It combined knowledge of foods and their properties, the use of utensils and the mastery of recipes, including those circulated in the pages of L’Enseignement pratique (Practical Education) starting in 1897. [57] Providing valuable assistance in maintaining social skills, the “Little A’s,” in the words of a schoolteacher from Livry-Gargan, “form the link for young girls between the end of their schooling and their entry into working life.” [58] These associations resembled “working women’s learning cooperatives.” [59]

24For the men, emphasis was placed on group recreation activities and physical education. Toward this end, the young men assembled in the schoolyards, where, on Sundays, they would sing together, engage in theater activities, and prepare the association’s annual festival. In the warmer months, outings, picnics, and “educational” excursions rounded out the program. The “Little A” of Aubervilliers visited Tréport in Normandy, then Brussels in 1903; during these trips “photographs were taken and then used in conferences and lighted projections.” The purpose was to “strengthen the bonds of friendship” and to provide the younger men, “in a warm and friendly atmosphere,” with the benefits of “moral direction.”

25The program’s essential character remained rooted in the practice of solidarity. In Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers, the teacher initiated a new program to extend the reach of the school mutual insurance movement. Members of the “Little A’s,” most of whom were skilled laborers, paid into a fund whose purpose was to assist one of their own who had been struck by illness or unemployment. It also became common for them to gather together when a conscript left home to join the service, and they would send a bit of money to members of the association who were serving in the French Army, to celebrate the New Year or the conscripts’ first promotion. [60] “Placement” was the fraternal groups’ crowning practice. The elders took care to guide the young men, who had just finished primary school, and did their best to find positions for them. They advised them, spoke to their bosses on their behalf and vouched for them. The various “Little A’s” in Aubervilliers were among the most active in the region. In 1897, according to the director of École Paul-Bert, these associations had, on their own, “placed 54 young men and 36 young ladies – [with] alumni assisting these young people to succeed.” [61] These small local meetings were the venue for the practices that prove so mysterious for the historian: networks of acquaintance, relationships of trust and personal recommendation. Their annual festivals, which attracted town councilmembers and sometimes even luminaries of the French Republic, could draw as many as 2,000 people, as was the case for the associations in Aubervilliers. These festivals sought to establish a formal role for the associations on the local public stage. [62]

26The solidarity organized in the region under the guidance of the schoolteachers retained a certain local identity. And yet, it must not be forgotten that these “Little A’s” were, in the eyes of their promoters as well as most of the country’s reformers, the promise of an important social reform. Rooted in local ways of life, respectful of their manners and ways of interacting, and committed to ensuring that the young people received a social education, these associations gave substance to a form of solidarity that aimed to link collective protection of the weak and reliance on individual initiative. Similar to the school mutual insurance programs, this other form of mutual aid on the local level gave each member the feeling that they were escaping the habits of commiseration and bourgeois charity. It was “the Republic in ideal form,” said one schoolteacher from Aubervilliers, the “symbol” of “solidarity among citizens.” [63]

27The principles of mass education that the schoolteachers instilled in this suburb, as they did all over the country, require us to reconsider certain facts. These are not simply the remnants of the grand scholastic feast of the Third Republic. Though the vitality and coherence that belonged to these activities would not survive World War I, engulfed as they were by other issues, [64] they contain within them all the flexibility of the schoolteacher’s profession. The teachers brought their school setting to the center of local life, spurred by competition with the church, which was then investing in mass education as well. [65] They established a set of practices, which they progressively codified and organized means of mutual aid at the local level, in which modern democracy was emerging. With these mass education activities, the schoolteachers laid the foundations of a broad renewal of a shared future, according to those who described the teachers’ indefatigable commitment. If the teachers gave their time to their former students, if they spent their energy “in the evenings hanging the little lantern of progress and intellectual emancipation at the school’s gates, assembling the adolescents, holding ‘evening gatherings,’ and ‘creating electors,’ in the words of Jean Macé,” said Édouard Petit following a decade of investigation, “it was because they know well what service they may be to the young democracy. They have a full awareness of the responsibilities that they uphold, of the social action they have committed themselves to. They have a clear intuition that the future of the Republic rests upon what happens after the end of formal education.” [66]


  • [1]
    In the long list of works addressing this question, see Antoine Léon’s Histoire de l’éducation populaire en France (Paris: Nathan, 1983); Geneviève Poujol, ed., Éléments pour l’histoire de l’éducation populaire (Paris: Éditions de l’INEP, 1976); Françoise Tétard’s synthesis, “De l’affaire Dreyfus à la guerre d’Algérie, un siècle d’éducation populaire,” Esprit 3–4 (2002): 3–59; and the panoramic view recently provided by Laurent Besse’s “Éducation populaire,” in Dictionnaire d’histoire culturelle de la France contemporaine (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2010), 270–271, which offers this definition of mass education: “educational initiative which intends primarily to affect working-class populations, and which aims to influence the individual outside of the school setting in order to transform society.” As this article neared completion, a work by Alain Corbin was published, Les Conférences de Morterolles, hiver 1895–1896: à l’écoute d’un monde disparu (Paris: Flammarion, 2011), which, in the context of rural Limousin, not only shows the villagers’ regular and willing attendance of these presentations, but also reproduces the valuable transcriptions of these presentations, which the teacher first delivered orally, then published in a local magazine.
  • [2]
    Édouard Petit, Rapport sur l’éducation populaire adressé au ministre de l’Instruction publique, 8 volumes (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1894–1903).
  • [3]
    The ideal of the citizen and “education for democracy” is discussed in Pierre Rosanvallon, Le Sacre du citoyen : histoire du suffrage universel en France (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 468-505, and Yves Déloye, École et citoyenneté: l’individualisme républicain de Jules Ferry à Vichy (Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1994).
  • [4]
    The following are noteworthy classic texts on this subject: Jacques and Mona Ozouf, La République des instituteurs (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1992); Mona Ozouf, L’École, l’Église et la République, 1871–1914 (Paris: Gallimard, 1982); Francine Muel-Dreyfus, Le Métier d’éducateur : les instituteurs de 1900, les éducateurs spécialisés de 1968 (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1983). The preceding quotation is from Christophe Charle, Histoire sociale de la France au xixe siècle (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1991), 201-205.
  • [5]
    For a broader view on this topic, see Jean-François Chanet, “Vocation et traitement : réflexions sur la nature sociale du métier d’instituteur dans la France de la IIIe République,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 47 (3) (July–September 2000): 581–603.
  • [6]
    Regarding this point, see Jean-François Chanet, L’École républicaine et les petites patries (Paris: Aubier, 1996), 69–97.
  • [7]
    Alain Faure, Les Premiers Banlieusards: aux origines des banlieues de Paris, 1860–1940 (Paris: Éditions Créaphis, 1991); also see John Merriman, Aux marges de la ville: faubourgs et banlieues en France, 1815–1870 (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1994) for the wider context.
  • [8]
    On the history of adult education, see Dictionnaire de pédagogie et d’instruction primaire, Ferdinand Buisson, ed. (Paris: Hachette, 1887), 1:21-22; Henri Boiraud, “Les instituteurs et l’évolution des cours d’adultes au xixe siècle,” Éducation permanente, 62-63 (1981-1982), 29-52; Claude Lelièvre, “L’offre et la demande d’éducation populaire: les cours d’adultes dans la Somme, 1860-1940,” Histoire de l’éducation 37 (January 1988), 17–46; and more recently, Françoise Laot, La Formation des adultes, (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2002).
  • [9]
    Decree adopted January 11, 1895, Journal officiel de la République française (Paris: [s.n.], January 12, 1895). Documented research on this topic may be found in Jean Bonsens, Réorganisation des cours d’adultes (Paris: Librairie de la France Scolaire, 1895). The quotation from Ferdinand Buisson is from his speech before Parliament, Journal officiel (February 15, 1985).
  • [10]
    Édouard Petit, “L’instruction populaire,” L’École moderne (Paris: Delaplane, 1892), 176.
  • [11]
    In 1897, more than 30,000 classes for adults were conducted by schoolteachers, according to Édouard Petit, Rapport sur l’éducation populaire en 1896-1897 (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1897).
  • [12]
    General education meeting on December 29, 1898, Bulletin de l’Instruction primaire (January 1899). The “monographs” authored by the teachers in the region that concerns us have all been collected in the Archives for the Seine-Saint-Denis department (Municipal Monographs, 1899–1907), folio 13–14. In this article, we will cite information drawn from these archives by mentioning the city and the year.
  • [13]
    This was the case in Les Lilas, where, in 1898, the city council ruled that the classes for adults would replace the older philotechnical association (Monograph, Les Lilas, 1900); see also the debates on this topic in Bulletin municipal officiel de la ville d’Aubervilliers (June 15, 1906). In Saint-Denis, on the other hand, the Philotechnical Association, which was directed by the mayor, and whose activities were held in the downtown elementary school, took precedence over the new evening classes (City Archives of Saint-Denis, 1R55). Regarding these City Hall battles, see Maurice Agulhon, ed., Les Maires en France du Consulat à nos jours (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1986), 37–41.
  • [14]
    Aside from information on this subject contained in the teachers’ monographs, see the precise reports concerning teachers working on the outskirts of Paris in René Crozet, Les Instituteurs de Seine-et-Oise vers 1900 (Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône: Musée Départemental de l’Éducation, 1991), see table, page 462.
  • [15]
    Crozet, Les Instituteurs, 330.
  • [16]
    Monograph, Le Raincy, 1902. Aubervilliers, 1899. Saint-Ouen had a similar arrangement, with classes held in the Boys’ School located on rue Michelet.
  • [17]
    For an overview, see Édouard Petit, “Autour de l’école du soir,” Revue pédagogique (April 4, 1898): 303-22. On the development of literacy in France, see the classic work by François Furet and Jacques Ozouf, Lire et écrire: l’alphabétisation des Français de Calvin à Jules Ferry (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1977).
  • [18]
    Monograph, Vaujours, 1900.
  • [19]
    Monograph, Le Raincy, 1902.
  • [20]
    Monograph, Noisy-le-Grand, 1899.
  • [21]
    Monograph, La Courneuve, 1900, cited in Petit, Rapport sur l’éducation populaire, 34.
  • [22]
    These details were drawn from Fernand Bournon, État des communes du département de la Seine à la fin du xixe siècle: les Pavillons-sous-Bois (Montévrain: Imprimerie Typographique de l’École d’Alembert, 1906). This socialist town counted fewer than 4,000 inhabitants in the 1906 census; its only real factory (Saving) employed 60 workers at the time.
  • [23]
    Raphaël Périé, L’École du citoyen: histoire et morale à l’usage des cours d’adultes (Paris: Gedalge, 1899); Georges Lamy and Édouard Petit, Jean Lavenir (Paris: Librairie d’Éducation Nationale, 1904) contains several lessons for “evening classes” and conferences.
  • [24]
    These numbers are from monographs from Neuilly-Plaisance, Pantin, and Livry-Gargan.
  • [25]
    Édouard Petit, Rapport sur l’éducation populaire en 1902–1903 (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1903).
  • [26]
    Monograph, Neuilly-sur-Marne, 1899.
  • [27]
    Eugène Defrance, “L’œuvre de la Société nationale des conférences populaires,” Bulletin des œuvres d’éducation sociale (July 1902): 3-6; Petit, “Les conférences populaires,” L’École moderne, 182–91.
  • [28]
    Petit, Rapport sur l’éducation populaire.
  • [29]
    Monograph, Neuilly-Plaisance. An incomplete list of public conferences is available in François Husson, Annuaire départemental de Seine-et-Oise (Paris, 1900). It is also possible to obtain an idea of these conferences, their frequency, and their attendees, by consulting the list of conferences held by the schoolteacher in Loir-et-Cher between 1899 and 1910, reproduced in Jacques and Mona Ozouf, La République des instituteurs, 468–69.
  • [30]
    Monograph, Rosny, 1899.
  • [31]
    This was what Édouard Petit concluded after examining hundreds of reports submitted by primary school inspectors (see under the “Conférence populaire” heading in each volume of his Rapports sur l’éducation populaire). See also Paul Crouzet, L’Éducation populaire et le peuple: expériences et projets (Paris: Bibliothèque d’Éducation, 1899).
  • [32]
    L’Instituteur pratique: journal d’enseignement primaire (August 1, 1895), 408.
  • [33]
    On this topic, see the classic work by Lucien Mercier, Les Universités populaires, 1899-1914: éducation populaire et mouvement ouvrier au début du siècle (Paris: Éditions Ouvrières, 1986).
  • [34]
    Monograph, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, 1903. See also, in addition to Mercier’s research in Les Universités populaires, the developments in Jean-François Gouel, “Gervaisiens, enfants de la République sociale: les politiques éducatives, culturelles et sportives (1860-1970),” in Le Pré entre Paris et banlieue: histoire(s) du Pré-Saint-Gervais, ed. Valérie Perlès, 191-20 (Paris: Éditions Créaphis, 2004).
  • [35]
    Gaston Dodu, Guide de l’éducateur populaire (Paris: Picard and Kaan, 1900). However, in 1882, Jules Ferry recommended against the schoolteachers’ participation in the public conferences, due to the “excess labor beyond their capacity” that was required, which risked to “divert their efforts […] from their primary mission” (memorandum from April 4, 1882, quoted in Jacques and Mona Ozouf, La République des instituteurs, 375).
  • [36]
    Henri Gilbault, Conférences populaires: guide pratique à l’usage des conférenciers populaires (Paris: Bibliothèque d’Éducation, 1905). Unless stated otherwise, the quotations that follow are from this little work, which was widely distributed at the time.
  • [37]
    For additional reading on this subject see Ferdinand Gache, La Rhétorique du peuple : la lettre, la conversation et le discours public (Paris: Picard et Kaan, 1901); and, more specifically, E. Amet, Comment on apprend à parler en public et à traiter par écrit les questions du jour (Paris: H. Jouve, 1905); the analyses of Olivier Ihl, La Fête républicaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 168–69.
  • [38]
    For further reading on this topic see Eugen Weber, “La veillée,” La Fin des terroirs: la modernisation de la France rurale, 1870–1914 (Paris: Fayard, 1983), 590–597; Jean-Claude Farcy, “Le temps libre au village, 1830–1930,” in Alain Corbin, ed., L’Avènement des loisirs, 1850-1960 (Paris: Aubier, 1995), 230–74.
  • [39]
    A. Artaud, “L’éducation populaire en 1901-1902,” Revue populaire d’économie sociale, 1902, 88–90.
  • [40]
    Program of 1901, Monograph, Vaujours, 1903. For more general information on this subject see René Leblanc, Les Projections lumineuses à l’école, aux cours du soir et en famille : guide pratique (Paris: E. Cornély, 1904).
  • [41]
    To verify this point, look no further than Alfred Espinas, “Observation,” and especially Gabriel Compayré, “Sens (Éducation des),” in Ferdinand Buisson, ed., Dictionnaire de pédagogie et d’instruction primaire (Paris: Hachette, 1887), 2150–7 and 2774–6.
  • [42]
    René Leblanc, “Les vues circulantes,” Après l’école, 1897. See also Nelly Kuntzmann, “À la lumière des images: les cours du soir de Léonard Guillemain, instituteur,” in Ségolène Le Men, ed., Lanternes magiques: tableaux transparents (Paris: Re?union des Muse?es Nationaux, 1995), 123–7; Armelle Sentilhes, “L’audiovisuel au service de l’enseignement: projections lumineuses et cinéma scolaire (1880–1940),” Gazette des archives 173 (1996): 165–82.
  • [43]
    Regarding this broad topic, see especially Vanessa Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); and, for a different perspective, Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).
  • [44]
    Charles Gide, “La lanterne magique coopérative,” Le Devoir: revue des questions sociales, January 25, 1901, 177–8.
  • [45]
    L.J. Debord, “Ce qui se fait,” Bulletin des œuvres d’éducation sociale du Centre, March 2, 1902, 5–8.
  • [46]
    On this topic, see Petit, Rapport sur l’éducation populaire en 1896–1897, in which he cited the Montreuil Primary School Inspector’s response to a government investigation on adult education in 1897; see also Monograph, Le Raincy, 1902; Petit’s report indicates that “the number of spectators was limited only by the classroom’s dimensions, [which were] too small for the attendees’ liking.”
  • [47]
    Monograph, Livry-Gargan, 1901. In the nearby town of Gagny, the conferences, which began in 1897, attracted an average of 25 to 30 attendees, said the teacher (Monograph, Gagny, 1900).
  • [48]
    For a detailed view of this topic, see Godefroy Ratton, Les œuvres postscolaires: éducation populaire et sociale, (Bordeaux: Avenir de la Mutualité, 1905).
  • [49]
    See especially Paul Beurdeley, “Les progrès de la mutualité scolaire et sa valeur éducatrice,” Revue pédagogique, June 6, 1898, 495–502; Maurice Bellom, Question de mutualité, vol. 1: La mutualité scolaire (Paris: Imprimerie Chaix, 1903).
  • [50]
    These expressions are from La Fédération: organe des associations d’anciens élèves, patronages et mutualités scolaires, May 1901, 77.
  • [51]
    Léon Bourgeois, “L’éducation sociale,” Bulletin des œuvres auxiliaires de l’école, July 1897, 5–6; Bourgeois, Éducation de la démocratie française (Paris: E?. Cornély, 1897). Regarding this conception of solidarity, see Jean-Fabien Spitz “Le solidarisme de Léon Bourgeois: liberté et justice” in Le Moment républicain en France (Paris: Gallimard, 2004).
  • [52]
    On a national scale, according to the data presented by Édouard Petit, there were roughly 50 “Little A’s” in 1889, and 3,700 in 1899 (Petit, Rapport sur l’éducation populaire).
  • [53]
    “Les ‘petites A’ dans la première circonscription d’inspection primaire de la Seine (1er arrondissement de Paris et cantons de Saint-Denis et d’Aubervilliers),” Bulletin des œuvres auxiliaires de l’école, October 1897, 1–5.
  • [54]
    Le Radical, May 31, 1897.
  • [55]
    From the report by Mme. Fredel, principal of the elementary school in Aubervilliers, cited in Petit, “L’œuvre du trousseau,” L’École de demain (Paris: Picard and Kaan, 1902), 185. On the role linens played in the culture of women, see Alain Corbin, “Le grand siècle du linge,” in Le Temps, le désir et l’horreur: essais sur le xixe siècle, 23–52 (Paris: Flammarion, 1991).
  • [56]
    For further discussion of this subject, see Christophe Granger, “‘Y a pas que les pâtes dans la vie…’: un enseignement populaire de cuisine, Saint-Denis, années 1890,” Histoire de l’éducation populaire en Seine-Saint-Denis (2010), accessed September 16, 2013.
  • [57]
    Charles Driessens, “Économie Domestique” and “Sautés. Rognons, Viande. Sabayon” L’Enseignement pratique: journal pédagogique et scolaire, October 10, 1897, 11–12 and 12–13. See also Bulletin des œuvres d’éducation sociale du Centre (August 1904); Charles Drouard (primary school inspector), Les Écoles de fille: féminisme et éducation (Paris: Belin, 1904).
  • [58]
    Monograph, Livry-Gargan, 1901.
  • [59]
    Report by Mme. Fredel, director of the Aubervilliers’ girls’ school, cited by Petit, “L’œuvre du trousseau,” 185.
  • [60]
    This is the case of the “petites A” of Aubervilliers. See Édouard Petit, “Départ de conscrits,” in Rapport sur l’éducation populaire, 177–8.
  • [61]
    Mémoire of Mme. Devimeux, Director of École Paul-Bert, Aubervilliers, cited in Bulletin des œuvres auxiliaires de l’école, October 1897, 1–5.
  • [62]
    “Fête à Aubervilliers,” L’Enseignement pratique: journal pédagogique et scolaire 47–48, (September 11, 1898): 351; the festival occurred in the presence of Édouard Petit and, the following year, of Ferdinand Buisson.
  • [63]
    “Association des Anciens et anciennes élèves de l’école d’Aubervilliers,” La Fédération: organe des associations d’anciens élèves, patronages et mutualités scolaires, May 8 1901, 69–83.
  • [64]
    Regarding the issues which preoccupied schoolteachers in the interwar period, see Olivier Loubes, L’École et la patrie: histoire d’un désenchantement, 1914-1940 (Paris: Belin, 2001).
  • [65]
    It is possible to develop some idea of this rivalry by reading Max Turmann, L’Éducation populaire: les œuvres post-scolaires de l’école, (Paris: Lecoffre, 1904); this work, which was the subject of much discussion at the time and received high honors from the Académie française, was explicitly intended as a Catholic response to Édouard Petit’s government report, from which it drew its rubrics, methods, and volunteer-based model.
  • [66]
    Petit, “Paroles d’instituteur,” L’École de demain, 354.

Between 1890 and 1914, primary education, the secular heart of local life, was also the locus for an intense “adult education” movement. In the evening, after school, the teachers worked with the local population, endeavoring to foster in each student an understanding of the world at large and of public debate, and to create an “enlightened citizen” whose existence was at the heart of the French Republican ideal. The “working class” suburbs then forming around the city gates of Paris proved to be a particularly lively venue for this movement. In addition to the evening classes, the schoolteachers organized conferences, whose inclusion of magic lantern projections secured their success. Moved by the ideal of an inclusive society, they also organized associations for former primary school students, which established a network of mutual aid in the local community, as well as the socialization of the young by their elders. This mass education was not the simple remains of the grand scholastic feast of the Third Republic. It expressed the teachers’ level of social involvement, the flexibility of their profession, and their pragmatic inventiveness. It is also a testament to the intensity of a national campaign in which modern democracy was emerging.

Christophe Granger
A member of the Centre d’histoire sociale du 20th siècle, Christophe Granger is currently completing a doctoral thesis in contemporary history at l’Université Paris-I titled, “Les étés de Marianne: histoire du temps des vacances, 1880–1980” (“Summers with Marianne: A History of Vacations, 1880–1980.”) He published Les Corps d’été: naissance d’une variation saisonnière (Summer Bodies: The Birth of Seasonal Variation) (Autrement, 2009) and co-edited the issue titled “Faire l’événement” for the journal Sociétés & Représentations (no. 32, 2011).
Centre d’histoire sociale du 20e siècle (CHS),
CNRS, 75004, Paris, France.
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