France - The Village Schoolmaster
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
AS we all know, education in France is nonsectarian, obligatory, and gratuitous. How much store is set by the splendid educational opportunities afforded every French child the following story will show.
Two years ago I was staying in Champagne with my friend Mademoiselle M-, the middle-aged daughter of a former schoolmaster. Not for the first time I enjoyed "harbour and good company " under her hospitable roof, making acquaintance with a charming little circle.
Mademoiselle M- occupied her own roomy house, which stood on the outskirts of the little river-side town, a large fruit and vegetable garden at the back making pleasant shade ; a small annuity and the letting of spare rooms completed her modest income, from the sum-total something ever remaining for benevolence. In a small way, indeed, mademoiselle was a veritable Providence to the waif and stray. The late schoolmaster had left his daughter a library of several hundred volumes, and the part of the house retained for her own use was most comfortably furnished. But, knowing how small are the emoluments of village pedagogues, I could not account for the numerous works of art and objects of luxury seen on every side. Every room seemed full of wedding presents !
One afternoon my hostess invited some neighbours to tea, and I ventured a comment upon the exquisite tea-service and silver-gilt plate set out in their honour.
"All gifts of pupils and pupils' parents to papa," was mademoiselle's reply ; " and when my visitors are gone I will show you some other things. At the New Year and on his fête day, my father always received handsome presents ; you see, he had been schoolmaster here so many years, and was so much beloved."
A list of the treasures now displayed or pointed out to me would fill a page. All represented considerable outlay, and all, be it remembered, were offered by small officials, artisans, and peasants. I especially noticed a liqueur service of elegant cut-glass, enclosed in a case of polished rosewood. Another costly gift was an ormolu clock surmounted with figures, that must have cost a hundred francs at least. The entire collection, I should say, represented several thousand francs ; in each case we may be quite sure that these offerings involved, on the part of the donors, no little self-sacrifice. Here, then, was a palmary proof of the French peasant's progressiveness, of the high esteem in which he holds education. Excessive thrift and lavish generosity are not compatible, but next to his paternal acres he evidently values the hard-won privileges wrested from obscurantism and bigotry.
Immense is the change that has come over the village schoolmaster since I first made his acquaintance in Anjou more than a quarter of a centry ago. The instituteur of the village in which I was then staying with French friends received £3o a year, besides lodging and trifling capitation fees. Both boys' and girls' schools were sup-ported by the State, but, unfortunately, the commune had been induced some years before to accept a house and piece of land from some rich resident, the conditions being that the school for girls should always be kept by nuns. The consequence was that, as education at that period was not strictly obligatory, boys were detained on the farm, the number of scholars being only twenty, whilst the girls numbered sixty. Under such circumstances the capitation fee was hardly worth taking into account. What mattered much more was the inequality of the instruction accorded, the schoolmasters possessing certificates of proficiency, the nuns being free to teach provided that they possessed une lettre d'obédience, a kind of character signed by the bishop.
This difference was evidenced in the prize distribution, in which I was flatteringly invited to take part. Whilst the boys received amusing and instructive books of history, travel, and adventure, the girls got little theological treatises, the only attractive feature about them being gilt edges and a gaudy binding.
Pitiable in the extreme was the position of a village schoolmaster during the MacMahon Presidency, indigence being often the least of his tribulations. The butt of clerical animosity, speech, action, and manners of life ever open to misinterpretation such was his position. The marvel is that candidates should be found for post so unenviable. Twenty-five years' strenuous fighting and endeavour have changed all this, and popular education in France is now the first in the world.
For the victory belongs to the Third Republic, as a retrospective glance will show. The ancien régime did not deem the R's a common necessity. Like house-sparrows depending upon stray crumbs, poor folks' children got here and there a modicum of knowledge, Danton's " bread of the understanding." In the more favoured provinces—Lorraine and Champagne, for instance were village schoolmasters fulfilling at the same time the functions of grave-digger, sacristan, bell-ringer, and sometimes combining with these a trade or handicraft. In the commune of Angles, Hautes Alpes, the schoolmaster offered to shave all the inhabitants for a consideration of two hundred livres yearly ! In very poor districts they were partly remunerated by meals taken alternately at the houses of their pupils. For want of a school-house, teaching, such as it was, had to be given in barns and stables, and when spring came both master and pupils exchanged the cross-row, strokes and pothooks for labours afield. These wandering pedagogues were called maîtres ambulants. In Provence schoolmasters were hired at fairs, as is still the case with domestics in Normandy.
One of the first preoccupations of Revolutionary leaders was the village school. Tallyrand laid a plan of popular education before the Constituant Condorcet drew up a scheme for the Legislative Assembly. The Convention revised and matured the respective systems of Barre, Lakanal, and others, but wars within and without the frontier, and want of finances, stood in the way. The noble project of non-sectarian, gratuitous, and obligatory instruction was adjourned for a century.
Napoleon did not care to waste thought or money upon the education of the people. The sum of 4250 francs, just £170, was deemed by him quite sufficient for such a purpose. The Restoration magnanimously increased these figures to 50,000 francs, the monarchy of July raised the sum-total to three millions, the Second Empire to twelve million francs. The budget of the Third Republic is a hundred and sixty million, municipalities and communes adding a hundred million more. This sum does not include the money spent upon the erection of schools, hundreds having been built both in town and country.
Instructive it was to zigzag through remote regions twenty years ago. I well remember an experience in the Burgundian highlands about this time. I was staying at Autun in order to be near my friends, the late Philip Gilbert Hamerton and his wife, and one day journeyed by diligence to Château Chinon, whilom capital of a little Celtic kingdom.
The five hours' ascent by splendid roads led through the very heart of the Morvan, wooded hills, gloomy forests, and masses of rocks framing brilliant pastures and little streams. Amid these thinly populated scenes, only a straggling village or two passed on the way, one sign of progress met the eye—the village school in course of erection. Of all French provinces Brittany was worst off as regards schools. A generation ago travellers might interrogate well-clad men and women, who, not under-standing a syllable of French, would shake their heads and pass on. At Nantes in 1875-6 the following inscription would meet my eyes : " Écrivain publique, 10 centimes par lettre " (" Public writer, a penny per epistle "). Women servants who could read, much more write, in that great, rich city were rare indeed. My hostess, widow of a late préfet, kept a well-paid cook, also a housemaid. The pair were both as illiterate as Hottentots.
All this belongs to the past. The noble dream of the Convention has been realized in its entirety. The Ferry laws of 1881 and 1882, for once and for all, have ensured for every boy and girl born within the French dominions that greatest heritage, a good education.
The following figures will show how the new state of things has affected both pupils and pedagogues.
In every chef-lien and commune numbering over 6000 souls exists an upper and lower school for the people. The former, called the école primaire supérieure, or collège communal, was created so far back as 1833 by M. Guizot. The Ferry decrees considerably increased the number of these upper schools, as well as improving the condition of teachers. The course of instruction in communal colleges is essentially practical, being designed for those youths about to engage in commerce, industry, or agriculture.
The maximum pay of schoolmasters in the primary school is £104 a year, with allowance for lodging, making a sum-total of £136 ; the minimum salary is £40, with £3 allowed for lodging. Women teachers receive the same pay in elementary schools, but slightly less in the communal colleges for girls. Masters and mistresses alike must be provided with a certificate, the brevet élémentaire sufficing for a post in the primary schools, the brevet supérieure being necessary for the collège communal. It will be seen, then, that my Champennois acquaintances of half a dozen years ago are in a very different position to the poor Angevin pedagogue of 1876 with his miserable £30 a year. And from a social point of view his advance has been far greater. Under the reactionary Mac-Mahon régime the instituteur was a pariah, as I wrote at the time, "There is no one more liable to censure and to political and social persecution ; if not born a trimmer, able to please everybody, he pleases nobody, and has a hard time of it." If any reader doubts this assertion, I commend to his notice the writings of the late Jules Simon.