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The History of Secondary Education in 19th Century France

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Lee, Eun Soo
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2008

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Background of Secondary Education of 19th Century
II.1 Social Background
II.2 Theoretical Background
III. Lycees
III.1 Boy Lycees
III.2 Girl Lycees
IV. Colleges Communaux
V. Military Education
V.1 Ecole Imperiale Polytechnique a Paris
V.2 Ecole Imperiale Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr
VI. Impact of the New Education on French Society
VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Until the 19th century, not many people could get secondary education in France. Especially, girls almost had no chance of ever getting secondary education. Also, the existing secondary education was mainly administered by church, for the main purpose of secondary education was to educate future clergy. Thus, it taught only what priests had to know; it taught little of practical studies like mathematics or geography. However, in the 19th century, the situation changed. New types of education institutions emerged, and the givers and receivers of secondary education changed greatly.

II. Background of Secondary Education of 19th Century

II.1 Social Background
            Up until the French Revolution, secondary education was only for a few people. However, as the revolution progressed, people came to believe in education for the public. This is shown in Titre Premier of Constitution du 3 Septembre 1791; it states ¡°Il sera cree et organis? une Instruction publique commune a tous les citoyens¡± (1) which translates into "Public education for all citizens will be created ' and organized."
            In the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France. He was quite concerned about education; he implemented many reforms to the education system of France.
            Among many levels of education, his main interest lied in secondary education, for secondary education was what will mold students into future leaders of the nation. The state had a strong interest in the curriculum being presented, and wanted the schools to b under the control of central government. Many of these secondary schools would be established by private initiative, including clerical, but no matter who established the school, the government controlled it. Covering students roughly from age 10-16, schools were to provide a level of education designed to provide students for higher levels of education.
            Secondary education was divided into those boys who were preparing for a civil career, and those aiming for a career in the military. Civil careers focused on languages, rhetoric and philosophy, while military education focused on mathematics, physics, chemistry, and military matters.
            Also, Napoleon thought that education for girls was important, although he did not think they needed the same amount of education as boys. Hence, education system for girls was introduced (2).

II.2 Theoretical Background
            The 18th century was the era of Enlightenment. Before Louis XIV had monopolized political power, Jesuits were in control of higher education and censorship, so no one could criticize the educational system openly. However, as Louis XIV monopolized power, Jesuits were no longer able to censor the words of enlightened thinkers. Enlightened thinkers suggested that since Jesuits used education as a form of control over the society, education should be removed from the hands of Jesuits and given to the enlightened thinkers. (3) Also, they argued for universal education. These thoughts of enlightened philosophers set the bases for the secondary education of the 19th century.

III Lycees
            The heart of Napoleonic reforms on education was a 6-year school called Lycee. Every district was to have a lyc?e, and they were to be completely supported by the state. Later on, even lycees for girls emerged.
            The first lyc?e was created in 1802. Article 5 of Decree of 17 March 1808 and sets the program: "The ancient languages, history, rhetoric, logic, and elements of mathematics and physics." (4)
            The Law of May 1 1802 changed the system of education wholly. It substituted replaced ?coles centrales, or central schools, with 30 lyc?es. Also, this law defined the term secondary school: "every school established by the communes or conducted by private individuals wherein are taught French, Latin, the first principles of geography, of history, and of mathematics will be considered as secondary school." This definition gives the origin of lycees and colleges communaux.
            For a while, lyc?es had the name "colleges royaux," but after the advent of Second republic, it regained its old name. (5)

III.1 Boys Lycees
            As everything else, lyc?e education was centered on males. Lyc?e for boys was a school of 6 years, building on previous education of lyceens. The education included studies on languages, modern literature, science, and all other studies necessary for a "liberal" education. Every lycee had to have at least 8 professors and 3 masters. The government provided a fixed salary for teachers, but also provided bonuses for successful teachers. They were also provided a pension. Teachers were, incidentally, chosen by Napoleon from a list of recommendations provided by inspectors and the Institute. The inspectors were given over-all responsibility for inspecting the schools on a regular basis. (6)
            For the first 5 years, Latin and French ran parallel, and Greek in the second to fourth year. In the last year, pupils were to learn philosophy in either French or Latin. History with a bit of geography, chronology, and mythology was taught, but science lost its ground. (7)
            Scholarships were provided, with about one-third going to sons of the military and government, and the rest for the best pupils from the secondary schools. (8)

III.2 Girls Lycees
            As mentioned before, Napoleon thought it was important to give girls education that suits girls. Therefore, education for girls emerged. Girls' lycee did not teach as extensively as its counterpart for males; girls' lyc?e stressed religion and assorted domestic skills necessary for the attraction of husbands. Nonetheless, it taught basic numbers, writing, and the principles of their language, as well as history, geography, physics and botany. (9)
            Although lyc?es for girls did not provide education that could match boys' lycees, it was the cornerstone for education for girls.
            Lycees, both for boys and girls, constituted a lot to French education. Boys' lycee was the cornerstone for modern education in that it did not emphasize religion. Girls' lycee, on the other hand, set the start of women education, although at this level, the education lycee for girls provided was much inferior to it for boys. At least, it was a start that led to today's gender-equal education.

IV. Colleges Communaux
            Right after the Revolution, only "central schools" existed. Following the law of May 1802, some schools were transformed into state-run lycees. Others were taken by the city administration to be called coll?ges, or ¡°communal secondary schools.¡± What they taught was according to the Article 5 of Decree of March 17, 1808: ¡°elements of ancient languages and basic principles of history and sciences.¡±
            With the Restoration, lycees were to be called "coll?ges royaux," or royal colleges. To distinguish from these coll?ges royaux, communal secondary schools got the name "colleges communaux," or communal colleges.
            Theoretically, they were to teach what lyc?es taught and conduct baccalaureats, but colleges usually remained at the level of institutions of second orders. Some colleges were ¡°full-function¡± and led even to baccalaureat, but most stopped beforehand.
            To meet the needs better, colleges developed "special courses." The idea was first introduced through creation of "special secondary education" by Victor Duruy. The measure was brought to reality in 1882: "baccalaur?at special." The decrees of June 4 and 5, 1891 changes this into "baccalaureat moderne," or modern bachelor: from this moment on, classical secondary education - lycees and colleges - is called modern.
            Also, just like lycees for girls opened, colleges for girls opened as well. The programs are not as vigorous and demanding as its counterpart for male, but is quite close to "modern" education. (10)
            Nowadays, college serves as the former of two parts of secondary education, the latter part being lycees. Although the position of coll?ge has changed from equivalent of lycee to a school preceding lyc?e, it is possible to say that the system of two secondary institutes started from then.

V. Military Education
            The French army consisted of a considerable proportion of officers who were professionally educated to lead the army: over one-third in the line, and two-third in the scientific corps. Although some officers were taken upon their superiors, but only those who received proper military education could go beyond captain. (11)
            There were many types of military schools, but the two schools that have the level of secondary education were Ecole Imp?riale Polytechnique a Paris, which is the Preparatory school for Ecole Imperiale Speciale Militaire, and Ecole Imperiale Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr. (12)
            French did not believe in admitting young students to military schools; the youngest age in which one could get into either Polytechnique or Saint-Cyr was 16 until mid-19th century, and 17 afterwards. To enter these schools was very competitive, but the knowledge required to enter these schools-mainly mathematical, especially for Politechnique-could all be acquired through ordinary schools of lower level.
            Also, Politechnique and Saint-Cyr had the system of "Bourses," or State foundations. This foundation would give money to those students in need, based solely on needs and not ability (13); somewhat like need-based scholarship.

V.1 Ecole Imperiale Polytechnique a Paris
            Among the two secondary military institutes, Ecole Imperiale Polytechnique a Paris is the one which focuses mostly on, as the name implies, science and technology.
            Its curriculum, up until the student turns at the very least 18, is the same as civilian lycees or colleges. They learn languages, basic social and natural sciences, mathematics, and so on. After that, their curriculum becomes highly concentrated on mathematics and science. However, it is not to say that they only learned mathematics and science; they also learned literature, German, drawing (especially that of machines), military art and topography.
            The school was highly competitive in itself, and students there are forever in competition. In order to ensure the fairness of the competition, all students were required to take exactly the same courses. The school discipline was entirely military, even including imprisonment, due to the fact that the pupils were actually subject to military laws. (14)
            Aid to this school from the State was extensive; expense to the state of the military schools in the year 1851 was as much as 554,911.91 francs, (15) and the student-teacher ratio was 5.63:1. (16)

V.2 Ecole Imperiale Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr
            Louis XV, in 1751, opened Ecole Royale Militaire, in hope that sons of poor families could get proper military education to become cadet officers. However, as time went, the school was monopolized by wealthy families. In 1776, the Ecole closed temporarily and reopened later on, admitting only the best students from top ten colleges. Napoleon Bonaparte was a graduate of this school. After he came into power, he opened a new military school: Ecole Imperiale Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr. (18)
            Ecole Imperiale Speciale Militaire is the school where they actually educate the pupils who will grow to be officers in line. The minimal age requirement for entering this school was 16 until mid-1800s and 17 since then, and entering this school was really competitive, although all that is needed can be learned through ordinary education. This school was subject to military laws, and if dismissed from school, were sent into the ranks as private soldiers.
            Although it also emphasized fairness in competition and didn¡¯t usually allow pupils to choose different subjects from each other, they did have the choice between German and English. Also, after a brief review of many subjects, students were to concentrate only on what they needed in order to become officers except for few subjects. (19)
            Aids for this school were extensive as well; its fund from state in 1851 was 682,187.35 francs (20, and its student-teacher ratio was about 10:1. (21)
            Military schools were very competitive and funded immensely. From this, it can be inferred that military played a crucial role in 1800s. Also, Polytechnique is now a world-renowned engineering school. In this fact, it can be said that the education that pupils of military school got was possibly the most elite education that France could provide at that time. These facts are sensible in that in the early 1800s, the ruler of France was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Constantly at war and an army officer himself, he must have felt the need of educating the soldiers. This could explain why military schools were supported so much.

VI. Impact of the New Education on French Society
            This new education system, brought in the era of many drastic changes, meant many things.
            For one, there were new occupations that were created. Before 19th century, the Ancien R?gime was in charge, and the King by inherited right and his noblemen ruled the country, no matter whether they knew anything about ruling or not. The saying of Louis XV, "Apres moi, le deluge," shows that he was not interested in the ruling. Nonetheless, there were rulers. However, in republic or constitutional monarchy, there were needs for the people who knew what they were doing. The education they needed, which could not had been given in old schools where education was centered around religion, was given in new schools. Plus, as industrial revolution spread, new jobs regarding machinery came to be. Knowledge for this kind of jobs could not be given in traditional schools; there was no machinery to speak of in the days of traditional schools. Thus, education on machinery and sciences could be given in Polytechnique; although it was a military school, it was not "exclusively" military. (23)
            Also, the percentage of educated people changed drastically. Beforehand, education was only for the wealthy nobility. However, as coll?ges, which cost less than traditional schools, and military school which gives out almost excessive amount of money to its cadets strictly based on their needs (24), gave opportunity for poor people to get education. Also, girls could get proper secondary education for the first time. All these factors greatly increased the percentage of people getting proper education. Nowadays, 97% of children enroll to secondary education institute. (25) What made this possible is the education reform in 19th century.

VII. Conclusion
            Until the revolution, the education was not an opportunity that was given to many. During the revolution, everything including the education was so uncertain. After the Revolution, education finally settled and became what would be the start of modern education.
            The education system changed wholly. New kinds of schools-lyc?es, coll?ges, and military schools that remain until the present time were established in the early 1800s, and although there were several quite important changes thereafter, the most basic structure of French secondary education did not change a lot since that time.
            Many of these changes have something to do with Napoleon, the ruler of France in the early 19th century. Had he not been involved in so many wars, the military schools of France would not have been such prestigious places. Had he endorsed private education rather than centralized one, state-controlled lycees and colleges would not have been the center of French secondary education. A historian said, "In the beginning of everything, there was Napoleon." (24) From his immense influence on French education, it is easy to see that Napoleon was the beginning of not only European nationalism, but also French education.
            In other words, the French secondary education system of 19th century, based on Napoleon, was the firm bedrock on which French second education could build on.


1.      Constitution du 3 Septembre 1791, from Wikisource
2.      The Revolution, Napoleon, and Education, from The International Napoleonic Society
3.      WHKMLA: Narratives-European History, Enlightenment, from WHKMLA
4.      The Revolution, Napoleon, and Education, from The International Napoleonic Society
5.      Farrington, 1910, pp.66, 74
6.      The Revolution, Napoleon, and Education, from The International Napoleonic Society
7.      Farrington 1910, p.68
8.      The Revolution, Napoleon, and Education, from The International Napoleonic Society
9.      ibid
10.      Article: College en France. from Wikip?dia
11.      Barnard 1872, p.273
12.      ibid. p.12
13.      ibid. p.270-274
14.      ibid. p.273-278
15.      ibid. p.12
16.      ibid. p.275
18.      Kim 2008, ¡®History of Military Academies (until 1800)
19.      Barnard 1872 p.273-278
20.      ibid.. p.12
21.      ibid. p.275
23.      Barnard 1872, p.275
24.      iibid.
25.      France: General Data of the Country, from Population Statistics: Historical Demography
26.      Thomas Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte 1800-1866 (1983), quoted after Mr. Ganse, history teacher at KMLA


Note : websites quoted below were visited in December 2008.
1.      Article: Constitution du 3 Septembre 1791, from Wikisource, in French, (
2.      The Revolution, Napoleon, and Education, from The International Napoleonic Society (
3.      F.E. Farrington, 1910, ¡°French Secondary Schools: an Account of the Origin, Development, and Present Organization of Secondary Education in France¡±, posted on Internet Archive
4.      WHKMLA: Narratives-European History, Enlightenment, from WHKMLA (
5.      Article: College en France-from Wikipedia French edition (
6.      H. Barnard, 1872, ¡°Military schools and courses of instruction in the science and art of war: in France, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Sardinia, England, and the United States¡±, posted on Internet Archive
7.      Article: Ecole Polytechnique, from Wikipedia French edition (
8.      Jisoo Kim, 2008, ¡®History of Military Academies (until 1800)¡¯, posted on WHKMLA
9.      Celebration Nationales 2002 ? Creation de l¡¯Ecole Speciale Militaire "de Saint-Cyr¡±, from Ministere de la Culture et de la Communication ? Novembre 2008 (
10.      France: General Data of the Country, from Population Statistics: Historical Demography (

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