France – The Boy

A FEW years ago the lycée or public school was drastically arraigned by that popular novelist M. Jean Aicard. Again and again through the picturesque and moving pages of ” L’Anne d’un Enfant,” we come upon Sully Prudhomme’s line—

” Oh, mères, coupables absentes ! ”

” Oh, mothers, guilty absentees ! ” he writes, “fain would I have these lines engraved on the portal of every lycée. For why play with words ? The lycée is a prison, substantially a prison, the horrors of which are aggravated by the innocence and helplessness of the prisoners. Children are therein subjected to penal servitude, a system based, not upon love, but upon compulsion and routine.”

If M. Jean Aicard indicts the feminine rather than the paternal head of a house, we must remember that in the home a Frenchwoman’s rule is autocratic. A child’s education is entirely in the hands of its mother, and–so writes our author—as soon as little Pierre or Paul begin to be noisy, to damage furniture, and need the discipline their fathers have not been permitted to exercise at home, oft they are bundled to a lycée. Of the seven or eight hundred boarders in any one of these barrack-like buildings, many, he asserts, belong to families living in the same town.

Throwing what reads like personal experiences into narrative form, our author describes the life of a little boarder. Oliver Twist seems hardly more to be pitied than this nine-year-old victim of militarism in education, but no mere autobiography is here, a child’s soul is laid bare. From beginning to end the book is a condemnation of scholastic methods in France.

In his little read but deeply interesting memoirs, Philarète Chasles tells us of George Sand’s dismay when visiting her son in a lycée. The bare yard doing duty as a recreation ground, the prison-like uniformity of the class-rooms, the military discipline shocked the novelist, and, adds the narrator, ” I am entirely at one with George Sand, Montaigne, and H. Frobel, I protest against those dismal jails for schoolboys.”

Montaigne’s great predecessor in Gargantua sketched an ideal plan of education. Rabelais would have a collegiate life ” so easy and delectable as rather to resemble royal pastime than scholastic drudgery.”

But Rabelais and Montaigne were voices preaching in the wilderness. That arch centralizer Napoleon worsened instead of bettering matters. Under his régime the lycée became half monastery, half barracks, an apprenticeship to military life. Professors, principals, and managers were bachelors ; a semi-military uniform was obligatory even in the case of nine-year-old boys, like soldiers, pupils were summoned to meals, lessons, and exercise by the drum.

The Restoration only altered matters extrinsically. The name of collège royal supplemented that of lycée, bells replaced the perpetual drumming so offensive to George Sand, and the Napoleonic three-cornered hat was exchanged for one of less military kind.

Some valuable reforms and many important changes were introduced under the second Empire by M. Duruy the historian, then minister of public instruction. Lycées were henceforth divided into two categories, those intended for the learned professions, and those about to devote themselves to commerce and agriculture. The first followed the usual curriculum ; the second studied modern languages, technical science, agriculture, chemistry, and the like. Certain lycées were set apart for the new course of study called l’enseignment spécial.

The third Republic not only revolutionized primary education throughout France, carrying out the magnificent scheme of the Convention and founding state schools for girls, but introduced a new spirit into the lycée generally. The Ferry laws of 1881 considerably reduced the time hitherto devoted to dead languages ; German, English, and elementary science were now taught in the lower classes. The so-called enseignment spécial was also modified.

How far were such changes from satisfying public opinion the Government commission of inquiry of 1899 makes clear. Five enormous volumes contained the reports of savants, professors, delegates of agricultural and industrial associations, and others.

Here is an extract from that of M. Lavisse, the historian—

” The uniformity of school routine is ludicrous. How inconsistent, for instance, that the hours of recreation should be timed in different climates at precisely the same time ! From one to two o’clock in the south of France, the heat of summer quite prevents pupils from taking exercise, but the same rules are in force for Marseilles and Dunkirk.”

One result of the five enormous volumes has been the introduction of athletic sports into the lycée. Cricket, football, and other games are fast supplanting the “walk and talk ” of former days.

” How do you amuse yourselves during recreation hours ? ” I once asked the inmate of a large lycée. ” We walk up and down and talk,” was the reply.

Whilst approving a certain amount of physical development, the President of the Commission, M. Ribot, deprecated the wholesale adoption of English methods.

” We do not want,” he wrote, ” to turn our lads into English boys. Rough sports do not suit our race, more refined in its elegant vigour (vigueur élégante) than that of the Anglo-Saxon.”

Hygienic conditions have also improved. We even hear that the much-hated pion, or superintendent of tasks and recreation yard, is to be suppressed. The herding together of enormous numbers, the complete absence of any approach to ‘home life and of feminine influence, the deadening military routine, are time-honoured abuses not easily combated. I must, however, say that my first visit to one of these great colleges gave me a very pleasant impression.

It was on a beautiful Thursday in September that I drove with friends from the heart of Paris to the lycée of Vanves, half a dozen miles off.

As we passed through the porter’s gate into the magnificent park, now an animated scene, I said to myself, ” How happy must young Parisians be with such a play-ground, acres upon acres of undulating woodland, almost another Bois de Boulogne, at their service in play hours ! ”

I was soon undeceived. When I congratulated my young friend Edmund upon such a privilege, he smiled at my naivete.

” We are never allowed here except once a month, when our parents and friends come to see us,” he replied. ” Our recreation ground is the yard (cour) yonder.”

The said cour was, however, invisible, being on the other side of the lycée, formerly a seigneurial château.

Today the beautiful grounds presented the appearance of a vast picnic. Fond mothers and fathers had brought baskets of cakes, fruit, and sweets, and everywhere bivouacked happy groups.

Little wonder that these boys clung so tenaciously to mothers, sisters, any feminine relation. The lycée as absolutely excludes womankind as the monastery and the barracks. Except on the Thursday half-holiday, a lycéen never sees a woman’s face or hears a woman’s voice. Tiny boys of nine and upwards are straightway committed to masculine governance and care.

The following illustration of a little lycéen’s life is from M. Aicard’s book

” One half-holiday, I had brought back a rose, and, wishing to keep it as long as possible, I put it in a glass of water inside my desk.

“I could not help from time to time looking at my treasure—a crime, I admit. For roses speak, but not in

Latin ; they say all sorts of forbidden things, they invite little boys to run about in country lanes, they incite to rebellion. You never see a lycéen censeur (overseer or supervisor of studies) sniff a flower. Flowers do not bloom on the schoolmaster’s ruler. Well, I harboured my rose, just as an anarchist harbours his bomb. When I opened my desk to give the poor flower air, a ray of sunshine bathed it, seemed to kiss it ;—a dark shadow suddenly blotted out the beam. A big hand seized my splendid rose, in another second it lay in the courtyard below. Justice was satisfied ! ”

A state system of education is not easily changed, but outside the French University and its dependencies, voluntaryism is actively at work.

Our good friend, M. Demolins, author of ” La Supériorité des Anglo-Saxons,” does not share M. Ribot’s misgivings. He is not aghast at the notion of French boys losing their vigueur élégante–in other words, becoming too English.

Aided by a valiant band of co-operators, this indefatigable Anglophile has boldly seized the bull by the horns. From the Ecole des Roches, Verneuil (Eure), every vestige of the lycée is banished. Here are no enormous dormitories with spy-holes in the doors, no prison-like routine, no walks and talks up and down bare yards. Outdoor sports, occupations, and excursions in summer, social evenings in winter, vary the scholastic year, whilst an element of family life enters both into upper and preparatory schools. Little wonder that when the boys separated after the first term, i.e. Christmas 1899, they gave three cheers for M. Demolins, and exclaimed how delighted they should all be to return.

Whilst the primary object of this great educational reformer and his colleagues is a sound physical, moral, and mental training, equally important is their secondary aim, namely, to make each pupil not only a good citizen, but a citizen of the world—in the best sense of the word, to de-nationalize him. M. Demolins’ scheme and organization tend to nothing more surely than the uprooting of national prejudice. One feature of his school is the six months’ stagiare, or residence abroad. The youths are sent into English or German families or to schools, not only for linguistic opportunities, but in order to familiarize them with modes of life among other nations. Here indeed the originator of the .Ecole Nouvelle shows an insight and political prescience that entitle him to universal gratitude. English and German professors are also engaged in contradistinction to the lycéen system. After the Franco-German war, a regulation was made totally excluding foreigners from the public teaching staff. Hence lycéens could only learn foreign languages at second hand, an immense disadvantage. In the Jesuit colleges, on the contrary, M. Demolins’ arrangement has been generally followed. On the subject of language Michelet wrote eloquently, “How many unhappy beings lost their lives during the Hundred Years’ War simply because they could not cry ‘ Mercy’ in the tongue of the foe ! In later times, how many European conflicts, especially between near neighbours, might have been averted but for common prejudices and ill-founded antipathies!”

A first step to destroy these is the internationalization of school life, and M. Demolins’ experiment so far has proved strikingly successful. Take, by way of example, the following extracts from French boys in England “Chère Madame,” writes a thirteen-year-old to the founder’s wife, “I write to thank you and M. D- for having sent me to Dulwich, for every one is most kind to me, and I am not at all sad.” Another boy aged twelve writes, “My brother and I are quite well. We are four in one bedroom ; one boy is an Australian, who is very nice (tres gentil), the other English and very amusing.” A third aged eleven, who had evidently crossed the Manche in fear and trembling, wrote, “The English boys here are not at all what I expected to find them, noisy and rough ; one of them especially I am very fond of.”

And so on and so throughout the collection included in the half yearly report ending October, 1900.

“Only think,” M. Demolins observed to me when lunching at Verneuil, “my boy has become so English that he did not want to come home at all, and actually relishes porridge for breakfast ! ”

Delightful indeed is a day spent amid such surroundings, on every side evidence of Utopian dreams put into practice.

“My master whipt me very well,” quoth Dr. Johnson to his friend Langton ; “without that, sir, I should have done nothing.” Wiser far is the Rabelaisian theory of a scholastic training doux legier et délectable, a theory carried out in particular at Les Roches.

M. Demolins has, of course, driven a very thin edge of the wedge only into the colossal educational machinery put together by the Jesuits and elaborated by Napoleon.

Expenses are necessarily higher. A hundred or two boys located after English fashion with married professors cost more per head than four or five times as many herded together in barracks.

Again, there is the prejudice against innovation to combat, the mistrust of novelty and of foreign methods. Doubtless many parents do not share M. Demolins’ enthusiasm for the cold bath ; some with M. Ribot would fear lest football overmuch might rob their sons of native vigueur élégante; others, again, would consider the discipline insufficient.

Be this as it may, the Boole nouvelle alike as a theory and a fact flourishes amazingly. Since my visit to Verneuil just six years ago, a congeries of handsome buildings has sprung up around the original schoolhouse, many acres of recreation ground have been added to the former area, and every year pupils are refused for want of accommodation.

In my account of the Lycée Fénelon for girls, I animadvert on the absence of foreign teachers for their respective languages. This protective system is happily doomed. The papers recently announced that our Board of Education has been approached by the French Government on the subject of young English schoolmasters who would give two hours’ daily conversation in return for board and lodging in the lycées or other institutions receiving them. Doubtless the same innovation will ere long be introduced into the lycée for girls.

I will now say something about the French schoolboy as I have found him. One marked characteristic distinguishes him from his English compeer. The French boy is a conversationalist, the other is not.

A facile tongue is encouraged in France from the cradle upwards. The one child or the only son, invariably present at the family board, will naturally have more opportunities of expressing his opinions than one of six or seven. At an age when our own boys and girls are set down to nursery or schoolroom meals with nurse or governess, French children join their parents in the dining-room. Thus social habits are prematurely formed ; the walks and talks of the lycée further develop conversational powers. At the age of eighteen, often earlier, a well-educated French youth can intelligently discuss widely divergent subjects ; he has become a more sociable being, more generally companionable, than an English stripling, is more addicted to books and indoor life, above all, to reflection.

National systems of education have contributed to this result. By the time Etonians go to Oxford or Cambridge many young Frenchmen are already bachelors of art, science, or letters. Minors before the law, from an intellectual point of view they have attained their majority. Excellent company are often these youthful students, love of conversation, relish of society and domesticities, accentuated by the barrack-like lycée and the hated barrack life in earnest to come.

Serviceableness and a desire to oblige I should set down as characteristics of the French boy.

I well remember several instances in point.

Upon one occasion I was staying with Burgundian friends at the pretty little inland spa of St. Honoré les Bains. Among my casual acquaintances was a family belonging to the humbler middle classes, consisting of parents and three children, a girl and two boys, whose ages ranged from eleven to fourteen or thereabouts. We often took long walks together, and one day I asked my friend Paul, the elder boy, to tell us a story, Without hesitation, and in clear, well-put-together sentences, he epitomized Hector Malot’s popular novel, ” Sans Famille.”

Upon another occasion I spent the best part of a very wet week with friends near Is-sur-Tille, in the Côte d’Or, My hosts were not reading people, but the eighteen-yearold son of the house had lately brought some new novels from Dijon, and very good naturedly volunteered to read them aloud. From morning till night the rain poured down. It was quite impossible for his grandmother and myself to stir abroad, but never for a moment did he relax his efforts on our behalf. And when the stories were got through, he took me upstairs, where I found an excellent library of French classics, not a volume of which apparently had been touched for years. As the rain continued the reading went on, Gresset’s inimitable ” Vert-Vert,” among other favourite pieces, being given with the same untiring alacrity.

Such incidents may appear trifling, but they are none the less indicative of character. The French boy has his faults as well as any other. His virtues are eminently social, the fostering of inherited inclinations and aptitudes. And his mentalite to use here a French word hardly translatable his intellectual attitude, is what we should naturally expect ; that is to say, eclectic, critical, analytic, addicted, perhaps overmuch, to logic and reasoning.

” My boy ” (the child in question was between ten and eleven) ” must always reason about everything,” I once heard a French mother say. ” Whatever he has to do must first be reasoned about.”

A habit, of course, checked at the lycée and in the barracks, but which, nevertheless, remains a habit through life.