France – The Lycee Fenelon For Girls

GENERATION ago the education of French girls was far behind that of England and Germany. I have no hesitation today in affirming its superiority to both Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic systems.

My convent-bred contemporaries in France, nay, younger women whose studies were but beginning when their own had long since ended, would treat their education as a subject of gentle irony.

“What did I learn at the convent, you ask me ? ” said one dear old friend to me some years since. ” Absolutely nothing.”

And another convent-bred friend, the other’s junior by-thirty years, by this time a wife and mother, informed me that she was sedulously applying herself to the study of history.

“Would you believe it ? ” she said, smiling, “in my convent French history stopped short at the Revolution, for us it ended with the ancien régime I”

The convent school was simply a school of manners. With M. Turveydrop, the teachers’ business was solely to polish, polish, polish. A little French literature, a little music, perhaps a little drawing, were thrown into the bargain. If pupils quitted the place ignorant as they had come, they at least acquired habits of self-possession, a faultless deportment, and scrupulous attention to minutiae of dress, speech, and behaviour.

What must be regarded as a drawback to the lycee will be mentioned in its proper place.

When M. Hanotaux’s work on contemporary France attains the colophon, we shall be in a position to appraise the Third Republic as an intellectual force. No sooner was French soil rid of the invader, the army re-organized, the war indemnity had been paid into German coffers, and on September 16, 1873, the last detachment of Prussian troops saluted the tricolour on the frontier near Verdun, than reforms began in earnest. The re-organization of the army, the raising of the French colonial empire to the second in the world, financial, municipal, and legislative reforms, were worthily crowned by the great Educational Acts, or Ferry laws, of 1881 and 1882. Popular education as projected by the Convention eighty years before now became a fact. Primary schools, lay, gratuitous, and obligatory, were opened in every commune throughout the country, and by the creation of the lycee for girls two rival camps were brought together ; in the noble words of Gambetta–”French youths and maidens would henceforth be united by the intellect before being united by the heart.” The reign of smatterings and polish, polish, polish was doomed.

The lycée de filles has no counterpart in England. A foundation of the State, a dependence of the University of France, a body subsidized alike by the Government and by municipalities, every member of the various staffs is a civil servant. With not a few Frenchmen, we are apt to rail at such instances of centralization. The results are what we have to consider, and the inspection and study of a lycée will eradicate many prejudices.

If a hard-and-fast rule of uniformity governs this administrative department as any other, if voluntaryism is rigidly excluded, it must be borne in mind what voluntaryism had cost the country before the Ferry laws. Until 1881 both men and women could teach provided only with the so-called lettre d’obédience, or pastoral letter signed by the bishop—no certificate whatever of competence, merely a testimony to good conduct and submission to clerical discipline.

Under the stately aegis of the University of France, the French girl is protected from incapacity, favouritism, or misdirected patronage. The only title of admission to professional chair or to an inferior post is tried capacity. From the modestly paid surveillante, or supervisor of studies, to madame, la directrice, or the lady principal, and certified lady teachers, the entire staff is responsible to the vice-recteur of the Académie de Paris. Here I may mention that there are sixteen académies in France, all affiliations of the university, the head of the university being the Minister of Public Instruction.

By the courteous permission of the vice-recteur of the Sorbonne, I was lately not only enabled to see over the magnificent Lycée Fénelon in Paris, but to be present during several lessons. In this vast congeries of buildings, annexe after annexe having been added to the ancient Hôtel de Rohan, five hundred and odd pupils from six to seventeen are accommodated with thirty agrégées—that is to say, ladies who have passed the examinations obligatory on professors teaching in a lycée , or Faculté, or school of art, science, or literature.

Unlike the lycée for boys, that for girls is exclusively a day school. Pupils living at a distance can have a mid-day meal and afternoon collation on the premises, but the State holds itself responsible to parents no farther. Omnibuses do not collect the children and take them home as is the case with convent schools. A new experience was it to see little girls of twelve, or even younger, deposit their pass ticket with the porter and run home unattended as in England.

I was assured that the habit is on the increase, and as many professional and middle-class families in Paris keep no servant, great must be the relief of this innovation to over-worked mothers. Indeed, the excessive supervision of children in France has ever, of course, been a matter of money and circumstances.

An amiable young surveillante, or supervisor of studies and playground, etc., acted as my cicerone, explaining everything as we went along. Quitting the porter’s lodge and large waiting-room, we entered the recreation ground, a fragment of the fine old garden in which contemporaries of Madame de Sévigné once disported themselves, now noisy with romping children. Class-rooms and refectories opened on to the gravelled spaces and shady walks, here and there lady professors taking a stroll between lesson and lesson.

Ascending a wide staircase, relic of former magnificence, with elaborate iron hand-rail, we zigzag through the labyrinthine congeries of buildings, now looking into one class-room, now into another. In some of these, fine mouldings and ceilings remind us that we are in what was once a splendid mansion of the Renaissance. The sight of each room made me long to be a schoolgirl again. Instead of receiving stones for bread and thistles for figs, the use of the globes, Mangnall’s questions, and the like, a mere simulacrum of instruction, how delightful to be taught by the competent, to be made to realize our great thinker’s axiom—knowledge is seeing !

In one class-room, or rather laboratory, a young lady professor was preparing her lesson on chemistry. Very business-like she looked in a long brown linen pinafore like a workman’s blouse, as she moved to and fro, now fetching a retort, now some apparatus or substance for her demonstration. Great prominence is given to the study of elementary science in the lycée curriculum, Elsewhere we lust glanced into a class-room where a second science mistress was lecturing on physics with practical illustrations. In yet a third room, a vase of freshly gathered wild flowers betokened a forthcoming lesson on botany.

” Our pupils delight in their lessons on natural history,” said my cicerone, as with natural pride she showed me the school museum, a small but comprehensive collection of stuffed animals, birds, and skeletons, scientifically classified, and constantly enlarged by friends and scholars.

One feature that more particularly interested me was a small room containing specimens of the pupils’ work—delicately adjusted scales and weights, thermometers, and other mechanical appliances made by little girls unassisted. Here indeed was a proof positive that with the young mans knowledge is seeing. About twenty-five girls form a class, those attending the French lesson I was permitted to hear being from eleven to thirteen. Very much alive looked most of these little maidens, all wearing the obligatory black stuff pinafore fastened round the waist, and having long sleeves, many with their hair dressed â la infanta of Velasquez—that is to say, hanging loose, and knotted on one side with a ribbon ; not a few still in socks ! French girls, indeed, often go bare-legged and in socks till they are almost as tall as their mothers.

Dictation and grammatical analysis are subjects naturally less attractive than chemical experiments or a lesson on field flowers. More than once the lady professor was obliged to call some laggard to order ; one, indeed, she sharply threatened with dismissal on account of inattention. But on the whole I should say the class was a very intelligent one, and two or three girls of eleven or twelve, called up for examination, showed a really remarkable mastery of syntax.

An admirable English lesson, given by a thoroughly capable French lady, was another interesting experience. Of the twenty-five pupils, their ages being the same as those of the former class, about a third, not more, showed lively interest in the study. Two or three, indeed, made a not unsuccessful attempt to tell the story of Whittington and his cat in English ! One bright little girl of twelve seemed ahead of all the rest. On the disadvantage of employing French professors of modern languages in Lycées, both for boys and girls, there at first sight would seem to be but one opinion. No amount of erudition and experience can surely here atone for the sine qua non of fitness, namely, native idiom and accent, that vitality in language hardly less individual and racial a matter than physical idiosyncrasy.

The exclusion of foreign professors from State schools became law after the Franco-Prussian war, the measure being solely directed against Germans. At the present time I believe the measure is partly protective, in the interest of the excessive number of native teachers, and partly pedagogic, viz. in the interest of the scholars. And as a French friend writes on the subject—” It is my firm conviction that foreign professors should never be employed unless they can speak French fluently and without accent. Otherwise they are not respected by their pupils, and fail to exercise the desired authority.”

Where, indeed, would these be found ? Is it not for a similar reason that English professors of French and German are engaged for our own public schools ? What seems at the onset a defect may therefore be a necessity.

The immense importance attached to the teaching of science more than compensates for any linguistic drawbacks. The French mind is naturally acquisitive and logical, instruction here so directly appeals to natural aptitude, that great things may be expected from the future. Already we find Frenchwomen coming to the fore in scientific discovery, law, medicine, and literature. The lycée fosters inclination for studies hitherto considered the province of the other sex. In the programme before me I find that students of the second division, i.e. girls from twelve to seventeen, are taught the following subjects, two or three being optional, and the complete course occupying five years ; La morale, moral science, general history, German or English (in departments bordering on Spain and Italy, Spanish and Italian replace these), domestic economy and hygiene, common law, natural history, physics, chemistry, geometry, and the elements of algebra. French language and literature, drawing, solfeggio, with gymnastics, needlework including cutting out, are added; also a dancing-class and practical lessons in cookery, these being an extra charge. In the preparatory class, i.e. for girls from six to twelve, the fees amount to 200 francs, just £8 a year, with an extra charge of £6 English pounds for pupils preparing their lessons under the supervision of a répétitrice, or under-teacher ; in the second division the charges are from, £10 to £12, the same sum as in the first being charged for what is called the externat surveillé.

Before quitting the Lycée Fénelon I sent in my card to madame la directrice, who received me most cordially, saying that, with the permission of M. le Vice-Recteur, she should at any time cordially welcome myself or friends. I mention this fact to show how the principle of authority is insisted upon in every administrative department of France.

“Take but degree away, untune that string, And hark I what discord follows I Each thing meets In mere oppugnancy.”

In these words we have the key of that centralization so incomprehensible to ourselves, but which works so satisfactorily in France. The vast administrative machine moves apparently by itself, unhinged by outward events however disturbing.

A boarding-house at St. Mandé, within half an hour’s distance from the lycée, was opened in 1903, Here bath-rooms, tennis court, croquet ground, and other modernities are offered on moderate terms.

As I was unable to visit this establishment, I will give some particulars of a boarding-house for girl-students at Toulouse visited some years since.

I arrived, unfortunately, during the long vacation, but a young lady teacher in residence kindly showed me over the house, or rather block of buildings, standing amid pleasant wooded grounds. Although we were as yet only midway through September, from attic to basement every corner was spick and span. In the vast dormitory of the upper school, I was, alas ! reminded of the lycée for boys. Here were no less than thirty compartments or cubicles containing bed and toilet requisites, whilst at the upper end of the room, commanding a view of the entire length, was the bed of the surveillante, or under-mistress. Sleeping or waking, the lycéenne, like the lycéen, was here under perpetual supervision. In other respects the arrangements seemed excellent.

The lycée of Toulouse, like those of other provincial cities, is a dependance of the State, the department, and the municipality. Thus, whilst the programme of studies is drawn up by the M. le Recteur of the Toulouse Académie, the boarding-house just described is authorized by the town council, and the prospectus is signed by the mayor. Every detail, therefore, alike scholastic and economic, must receive the sanction of these respective authorities. How deep is the interest in secondary education the following citation will demonstrate : ” At a sitting of the Conseil Municipal of December 29, 1887 “—I quote from the prospectus of the boarding-house—” it was decided that a graduated reduction should be made for two, three, or four sisters, a fifth being received entirely free of charge.” It would be interesting to learn how often this generous privilege has been enjoyed.

The charges both for school and boarding-house are about a third cheaper in the provinces than in Paris. The curriculum embraces the same subjects with occasional deviations. Thus, at Toulouse, on account of geographical position, Spanish may supplant German or English. Religious teaching in every lycée is left entirely’ to parents.