But who would educate French youth now that the Jesuits were gone? Here was chaos, but also an opening for a pedagogical revolution.

La Chalotais, still warm with his indictment of the Jesuits, seized the opportunity, and offered to France an Essai d’éducation nationale (1763) which the philosophes crowned with acclaim. His present plea was that the schools of France should not pass from one religious fraternity to another—for example, to the Christian Brothers or to the Oratorians. He was no atheist; at least he welcomed the support of religion for morality; he would have it taught and honored, but he would not have the clergy control education. He admitted that many ecclesiastics were excellent teachers, unrivaled in patience and devotion, but sooner or later, he argued, their domination of the classroom closed the mind to original thought, and indoctrinated pupils with loyalty to a foreign power. The rules of morality should be taught independently of any religious creed; “the laws of ethics take precedence over all laws, both divine and human, and would subsist even if these laws had never been declared.”69 La Chalotais too wanted indoctrination, but with nationalist ideals;70 nationalism was to be the new religion. “I demand for the nation an education that will depend upon the state alone.”71 The teachers should be laymen, or, if priests, they should belong to the secular clergy, not to a religious order. The aim of education should be to prepare the individual not for heaven but for life, and not for blind obedience but for competent service in the professions, in administration, and in the industrial arts. French, not Latin, should be the language of instruction; Latin should receive less time, English and German more. The curriculum should include plenty of science, and from the lowest grades; even children of five to ten years of age can absorb the elements of geography, physics, and natural history. History too should have a larger place in school studies; but “what is ordinarily lacking, both to those who write history and to those who read it, is a philosophic mind”;72 here La Chalotais handed Voltaire the palm. In later grades there should be instruction in art and taste. Greater provision should be made for the education of women, but it was unnecessary to educate the poor. The son of a peasant would not learn in school anything better than he would learn in the field, and further education would merely make him discontent in his class.

Helvétius, Turgot, and Condorcet were shocked by this last opinion, but Voltaire applauded it. He wrote to La Chalotais: “I thank you for forbidding laborers to study. I, who cultivate the earth, need manual workers, not tonsured clerics. Send me especially ignorant brothers to drive or harness my coaches.”73 And to Damilaville, who had proposed education for all: “I doubt if those who have only their muscle to live by will ever have time to become educated; they would die of hunger before becoming philosophers.… It is not the manual worker whom we must instruct, it is the urban bourgeoisie.”74 In other passages he condescended to favor primary education for all, but hoped that secondary education would be sufficiently restricted to leave a large class of manual workers to do the physical work of society.75 The first task of education, in Voltaire’s view, was to end the ecclesiastical indoctrination which he held responsible for the superstitions of the masses and the fanaticism of the crowd.

Diderot, at the request of Catherine II, drew up in 1773 a Plan d’une université pour le gouvernement de la Russie. Like La Chalotais, he denounced the traditional curriculum, in terms that we hear today:

In the Faculty of Arts there are still taught … two dead languages, which are of use to only a small number of citizens, and these languages are studied for six or seven years without being learned. Under the name of rhetoric the art of speaking is taught before the art of thinking; under the name of logic the head is filled with Aristotelian subtleties; … under the name of metaphysics trifling and knotty points are discussed, laying the foundation of both skepticism and bigotry; under the name of physics there is an endless dispute about matter and the system of the world, but not a word of natural history [geology and biology], of chemistry, of the movements and gravitation of bodies; there are very few experiments, still less anatomical dissection, and no geography.76

Diderot called for state control of education, for lay teachers, and for more science; education should be practical, producing good agronomists, technicians, scientists, and administrators. Latin should be taught only after the age of seventeen; it could be omitted altogether if the student had no prospect of using it; but “it is impossible to be a man of letters without a knowledge of Greek and Latin.”77 Since genius may arise in any class, the schools should be open to all, without charge; and poor children should receive books and food free.78

So belabored, the French government struggled to avert the educational interregnum threatened by the expulsion of the Jesuits. The confiscated property of the order was largely applied to a reorganization of the five hundred colleges of France. These were made part of the University of Paris; the Collège Louis-le-Grand became a normal school to train teachers; salaries were established at what seemed a reasonable rate; teachers were exempted from municipal duties, and were promised a pension on completing their term of service. Benedictines, Oratorians, and Christian Brothers were accepted as teachers, but the philosophes campaigned against them, and with some effect. Catholic doctrine was still a substantial part of the curriculum, but science and modern philosophy began to displace Aristotle and the Scholastics, and some lay teachers managed to convey the ideas of the philosophes.79 Laboratories were set up in the colleges, with professors of experimental physics, and technical and military schools were opened in Paris and the provinces. There were several warnings that the new curriculum would improve intellect rather than character, would weaken morality and discipline, and lead to revolution.80

The philosophes, however, pinned all their hopes for the future on the reform of education. Generally they believed that man was by nature good, and that some false or wicked turns of priestcraft or politics had depraved him; all he had to do was to cleanse himself of artifice and go back to “nature”—which no one satisfactorily defined. This, as we shall see, was the essence of Rousseau. We have noted Helvétius’ faith that “education can change everything.”81 Even the skeptical Voltaire, in some moods, thought that “we are a species of monkey that can be taught to act reasonably or unreasonably.”82 The belief in the indefinite possibilities of progress through the improvement and extension of education became a sustaining dogma of the new religion. Heaven and utopia are the rival buckets that hover over the well of fate: when one goes down the other goes up; hope draws up one or the other in turn. Perhaps when both buckets come up empty a civilization loses heart and begins to die.

Turgot formulated the new faith in a lecture at the Sorbonne on December 11, 1750, on “The Successive Advances of the Human Mind.”

The human race, viewed from its earliest beginning, presents itself to the eye of the philosopher as a vast whole which, like every individual being, has its time of childhood and progress… . Manners become gentler; the mind becomes more enlightened; nations, hitherto living in isolation, draw nearer to one another; trade and political relations link up the various quarters of the globe; and the whole body of mankind, through vicissitudes of calm and tempest, of fair days and foul, continues its onward march, albeit with tardy steps, toward an ever-nearing perfection.83

Voltaire hesitantly agreed:

We may believe that reason and industry will always progress more and more; that the useful arts will be improved; that of the evils which afflict men, prejudices—which are not their least scourge—will gradually disappear among all those who govern nations; and that philosophy, universally diffused, will give some consolation to the human spirit for the calamities which it will experience in all ages.84

The dying philosophe hailed Turgot’s rise to power in 1774, for he had no faith in the masses, and had attached his hopes to the enlightenment of kings. We cannot educate the canaille, as he called the commonalty of mankind; they are worn out with toil before they learn to think; but we can educate a few men who, nearing the top, may educate the monarch. This dream of “enlightened despots” as the leaders of human advance was the precarious these royale upon which most of the philosophes rested their vision of progress. They had many premonitions of revolution, but they feared rather than desired it; they trusted that reason would win the governing class, that ministers and rulers would listen to philosophy, and that they would effect the reforms that would avert revolution and set mankind on the road to happiness. So they hailed the reforms of Frederick II; they forgave the sins of Catherine II; and had they lived they would have rejoiced in Joseph II of Austria. And what is our faith in government but that hope revived?

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!