This past weekend was the meeting of the Society for French Historical Studies at Colorado College. I saw a number of excellent papers and some quite cohesive panels. I’m going to do brief write-ups of only two of these panels. The first, here, is a panel titled “Education, Religion, and Laïcité in Republican France,” with papers by Linda Clark, Eleanor Rivera, and Rachel Hutchins.
Linda Clark—“Women Educators and the Politics of Laïcité: Normal School Directrices, 1879-1889”—spoke about the directrices of écoles normales for women in the first decade after the institution of generalized secondary education for women. In this period, there were approximately 180 such directrices (Clark has the exact number, but I missed it). A few écoles normales already existed, of course, but a large number of new women were needed to run the new schools that would be created under the law. Eventually, although not at first, these women would be trained at the new ENS at Fontenay-aux-Rose. Clark opened her talk with a letter sent by an archbishop to Jules Ferry in 1880. Did Ferry know, the archbishop asked, that one of his directrices was a Protestant? Ferry replied that he did, but that her religion was not important, only her professional capacity. Clark is broadly interested in this question: how laïque were these early teachers? Who were they? Clark’s paper was rich with valuable detail about this all-important group. After all, if the schools were the heart of the republican project, and the republic could survive only if it ‘won the battle’ for women, then this group—those who would run the schools to teach the teachers—was of great importance.
Clark divides her subjects into three groups. There were 17 normal schools for women in France when the new law went into effect in 1879. 10 had laïque directrices, and all these were retained as new schools were opened. This is the first group. Second are the 33 directrices appointed to newly-created schools mostly in the first year (79-80), who did not pass through Fontenay-aux-Rose. Third is the remaining majority, women who passed through the ENS at Fontenay and thus received the laique training that was, ideally, supposed to prepare them for their task.
Clark’s paper showed that, at first, Ferry and co. had to rely on more Catholic teachers, and allowed much greater latitude for the expression of Catholic doctrine on the part of these directrices. In fact, especially in the early years, Catholic directrices sometimes met with more success in effective laicization than did non-Catholics. There was great turnover in the first few years. This depended in part on regional differences, with more turnover in more Catholic areas. Vendé saw four different directrices in four years. Mostly these women were not married. The directrice had to live in the school, so some people thought they should not be married, or perhaps that it wasn’t a good idea to have husbands in the “couvent laïque.” On the other hand there are several examples of married women as directrice causing no particular difficulty or scandal. Republicans were in principle committed to tolerance, so they noticed but accepted Catholic directrices as long as this didn’t disrupt or obstruct laicization. Religious practices on the part of directrices could be cause for dismissal—often were, although sheer incompetence was as well—but there are also cases of directrices being accused, and then defended successfully. Perhaps surprisingly, complaints came both against too radically laïque directrices and against those who were not laïque enough. By the late 1880s, there was less tolerance for Catholics. Once the ENS at Fontenay is running, dismissals because of excessive Catholicism drop off sharply. Only 1 of the 81 who went through was, ultimately, dismissed for catholic practices.
My central take-away here was that, indeed, these directrices were an effectively laïque bunch. Compromises were made, especially at first, but the larger picture is of a surprisingly effective construction of a corps of elite teachers.
Eleanor Rivera’s paper, “Neutral Space: Laïcité and Early Third Republic Classrooms,” also examined the contested edges, we might say, of Ferry-era laicization efforts, but in a quite different mode. She uses the optic of space to inquire about how laicization worked at the level of the primary school, focusing on the Seine-inférieure. In fact what this means is a close look at very local conflicts over the signs and symbols of religion mostly within classrooms—especially crucifixes. I wonder, then, if Rivera’s framing might be different: perhaps it is not so much space as material or visual traces of religion that interests her? Or perhaps I’m over-remembering the spatial framing of her paper?
However that may be, the paper itself was a fascinating and detailed recounting of several such conflicts. Although at a different level of the French educational systems than Clark, Rivera’s paper also demonstrated the great variations according to local response that characterized efforts at laicization—and, concomitantly, the flexibility in many cases of the higher administration. Even after it became illegal to have crucifixes up in classrooms, many remained when local conditions made it difficult for the administration to have them removed without great conflict. Guidelines existed, Rivera tells us, for when and how local teachers might best take these symbols down (over a long break, quietly, quickly, and decisively). Conflicts nonetheless arose. Rivera recounted in some detail one particular sequence in which a local mayor declared his complete legitimacy—given by universal suffrage—in attempting to re-install a crucifix removed from a classroom in his town. This is interesting partly because the election of mayors was an innovation on the part of the Third Republic, and so we see here a nice dialectic of democratic legitimacy being accepted by opponents of republican policies. The broader point of Rivera’s research (at least this part of it) was that especially in primary education, teachers and administrators were willing to retain a substantial amount of Catholic paraphernalia in and around the classroom if it meant they could get the children into the school, and they could still control the curriculum.
Rachel Hutchins’ paper took us out of the early Third Republic and into the (late?!) Fifth Republic. She is interested in the uses of the term “laïcité” since 1980 in French primary school curriculum and textbooks (which are importantly different). Hutchins’ paper, too, was rich with detail and impressed upon me how little I know about recent French pedagogical debates. For instance, in the early 1980s official policy removed ‘histoire’ from the curriculum, replacing it, on the basis of reasoning drawn from Piaget and Annales historians, with direct interaction with artifacts and historical documents, but without significant framing? If this is even partly right, I’d be interested to know more.
In any case, Hutchins’ central argument is that, especially in the textbooks that schoolchildren actually use, laïcité has undergone a process of idealization. It has been transformed, in Hutchins’ excellent phrase, “from value to myth.” She shows the differences between the official position taken in the preambles to various curricular documents and the actual content of the textbooks, which are not legally required to fit in any particular way with official curricula. An important turning-point, she argues, came as around 1985 national history returned to primary school curricula. At first, in textbooks from the late 1980s, laïcité is mentioned only briefly, if at all. By 2008, however, the main textbook for primary use on civil education gives exactly as much space to laïcité as to liberté, égalité, fraternité. Despite space also given to explicitly anti-racist messages, this way of presenting the 1905 law in fact re-enforces, and this last is a paraphrase of Hutchins, traditional nationalism in the guise of republican universalism. Hutchins even shows that Islam is handled in history textbooks so as to emphasize its warlike, conquest-oriented aspects. The crusades appear as a ‘reconquest’ on the part of Christian rulers. Muslims were commercial and scientific in the past, but not, these textbooks suggest, in the present. This part of Hutchins’ paper was very interesting, but I would have liked to see it treated in a broader way—not something, of course, there was time for in the paper.
A number of useful questions emerged from the audience. (There was a very substantial comment from Barry Bergin, but for some reason my notes from it are missing, so I won’t try to reconstruct it—suffice it to say that he raised several of the below points as well). Hutchins, for instance, who had framed the curricular changes she describes largely in terms of xenophobic or anti-immigrant discourse and the rise of the FN, was asked about other possible relevant changes. These are indeed numerous and not to be discounted in post 1968 France. Jean Pedersen asked two (related!) questions of the panel as a whole, which I shall mangle in paraphrasing. First, what is really the continuity or the difference between laïcité in 1880 and the same term today? Second, the form taken by laïcité in all these papers is subtractive (my word), that is it removed symbols or practices in order to achieve ‘neutrality.’ What about an (American) positive or inclusive model of neutrality? This last, for any number of reasons, was indeed never on the table in France. In fact, Rivera told in response a nice anecdote about a newspaper column in which this very specter was raised—a crucifix with a cross, a start of David, a ‘head of Mohammad’ (!), the mason’s level, all together—as a possible outcome of botched laicization. This appeared as an abomination in the 1880s. (And today it is left to Slavoj Zizek to become outraged (or at least worked-up) about the “coexist” bumper-stickers made out of these symbols.) Pedersen did not really get an answer to her first question—indeed it is a difficult one.
Of course, laïcité even over the long-term has been the object of an enormous amount of excellent scholarship in France. Jacqueline Lalouette leaps to mind here. It seems to me that we would be well-served to analytically separate republican anticlericalism, which has roots well before the Revolution and which played such an important role in it, from laïcité, which I would understand as a 19th century synthesis of free-thinking and Protestant approaches to deconnecting organized or institutionalized religion from morality. It seems pretty clear that in the late 19th century, in the run-up to 1905, Protestants played a key role in laicization, and that, at least on its face, there was nothing atheist (we might say) about laïcité. The default understanding—the rhetorical frame in the present—seems to be that laicization worked in the Third Republic, but isn’t working now, should be made to work with the same moral energy and clarity that it had in the 1880s. Certainly the papers in this panel suggest that Ferry’s project (not that it was only his) was a remarkable one. But it seems clear that to really understand the laïque schools of the 1880s, we need at least to begin with the educational policies and politics of the Second Empire. We need to think about the significance of the Paris Commune in shaping political possibilities (and fears) in the first decades of what would become the Third Republic. Republicans were not simply Enlighteners fighting obscurantist Catholics. They were also (even the more staunchly democratic among them) property-owners fighting socialists. And then if we want a bilan of the Republican school system, we’d better think very hard about the 1930s and Vichy, in particular the extent to which the latter had “Republican origins.” Hutchins’ characterization of laïcité in recent years as a “myth” rather than a “value” of the republic seems, at least from my perspective, dead on. The place that the concept—the administrative strategy—of laïcité had in the political conjuncture of the early Third Republic made it a functional part of the Republic and gave it, it seems to me, a completely different meaning than it has today. Laïcité may have been a genuine myth in the late 19th century, and today merely rhetorical cover.
All of which is a long-winded response to three great papers, Bergin’s comment, and questions from the audience—as well, I should say, as conversation after the panel. Having just written substantially more about this than I meant to do, I’ll commit to doing the same (although at less length) tomorrow with another, quite different panel: “Beyond Determinism: Rethinking the Philosophy of History and Political Economy in Postwar France.”