Chapter 21


Public Education


Instruction of the people


Public education occupied a special place in the mission that Napoleon had set himself to improve the living conditions and happiness of citizens, and was constantly in his thoughts. He said, "The only victory that can leave no regrets is the victory over ignorance."


Public education had fallen into such a state of neglect during the Revolution that in 1799, 75% percent of French people were illiterate, i.e. they could neither read nor write. Napoleon asked the Ministry of the Interior, which was responsible for national education, to set up a plan in collaboration with the State Council. Then, as he did in every domain, he participated actively in the discussions and decisions.


As an example, let us listen to Thibaudeau: "Once Bonaparte had proposed the creation of lycées (state secondary schools) and of scholarships to permit children from poor families to attend them, the discussion began."


-Regneault: “If you give out government bursaries, you'll need to be very careful that you are not supporting a child for five years who turns out to be unworthy of benefiting from such a great reward.”


-Bonaparte: "That merits consideration, but we do not have the right to exact a punishment on a child that will follow him throughout his whole life. There may be some ten year olds who are further ahead than some twelve to fourteen year olds. A child must be constantly encouraged while his intellectual faculties have not yet fully developed."


The question of creating a school of arts and crafts in Compiègne was debated before the State Council:


Bonaparte: "The plan you are presenting is far too costly. I consider that the school should cost the government no more than 400 francs per student, after an initial launching cost of 60,000 francs; moreover, this sum will be repaid later by the sale of objects manufactured by the students. The lycées will provide the nation with leaders, doctors, officers, etc., and the school of arts and crafts (we will need at least two more) will train engineers to build ports, roads, and arsenals, as well as researchers to improve techniques and tools in industry and agriculture.”


Objections were voiced on the outlying location of Compiègne, which seemed ill-suited for selling objects manufactured in the school.


- Bonaparte: This is not a commercial enterprise, but a school designed to teach industrial methods to boys.


The school was created by decree on February 25, 1803. In 1806, it was transferred to Chalons-sur-Marne. A second arts and crafts school was established at Angers. Among the numerous questions discussed by the State Council was that of the diplomas of physicians and surgeons. Until that time doctors had been considered superior to surgeons. Bonaparte fought fiercely against this distinction. In his opinion, doctors did not know a great deal about diseases and their causes, whereas, through their operations, surgeons saved a great number of human lives.


At the beginning of the Consulate, certain former academicians began to dream of abolishing the Institute and re-establishing the academies, particularly the Académie francaise. They considered themselves to be a kind of literary and scientific nobility compared to the men of letters and the scientists produced by the Revolution, who in their eyes, were mere upstarts. Although the Institute was respected and admired by every foreign nation, it was to them a creation of the Revolution, which they found intolerable.


When Bonaparte returned from Marengo, he supported the Institute and made fun of his brother Louis, who had become a spokesman for the academicians. The Institute of France was divided into four sections:

1-      Physics and mathematical sciences

2-      French language and literature (40 members, as in the Académie française)

3-      Ancient history and literature

4-      Arts

The Moral and Political Sciences section was abolished.


In April 1802, Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1756-1832), the Minister of the Interior, presented a comprehensive plan for a three-level public education system. (The project was adopted by the Tribunat by 80 votes to 9 and by 251 to 27 in the Legislature, and came into force on May 1, 1802).


1-      Primary Education

The prefects, in cooperation with the mayors, were given the mission of creating public primary schools in the towns and villages. Private schools were authorized, and very soon, the bishops were to establish schools that would add to their numbers significantly. In fact, while the mayors experienced difficulty recruiting qualified teachers, the church had no such problems, since all its priests, and most of its nuns, were sufficiently well-educated to carry out the functions of teachers. Chaptal’s project resulted in a total of 23,000 public schools. The goal was to teach all children reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, and general moral principles. At the end of the cycle, which lasted from age 6 until age 12, a certificate of primary studies was awarded, following an examination. This diploma, called the certif, remained, until the 1960s, an important document that was indispensable for access to most basic forms of employment.


2-      Secondary Education

Bonaparte supported the creation of lycées, the state-funded establishments that still exist today and which prepare children from the age of 12 for the baccalauréate examination at the end of their secondary studies, at age 18. There were two major orientations, one of which culminated in the terminal class of rhetoric with a strong emphasis on Latin and literary studies, and the other on elementary mathematics. This formula survived without any major changes until after the Second World War, with the sole replacement of rhetoric for philosophy and the addition of a third option, experimental sciences, in the 1960s. Today, the bac is still very much alive, with multiple options, particularly of the technical variety. Every June, several million lycée students go with beating hearts to their schools’ notice board hoping to find their names among those who have obtained a passage into higher education. In 1804, there were already 160 lycées in France, an average of 2 per department.


The first ones were established in Bordeaux, Brussels, Lyon, Douai, Marseilles, Mayence, Moulins, Rennes, Turin, Besançon, Rouen, Strasbourg, Amiens, Angers, Bourges, Caen, Cahors, Dijon, Grenoble, Liège, Limoges, Metz, Montpellier, Nimes, Orléans, Paris (Louis-le-Grand, Henri IV, Charlemagne, Condorcet), Pau, Poitiers, Reims, Toulouse, Alexandrie, Avignon, Bonn, Bruges, Clermont-Ferrand, Gand, Nice, Nancy, Nantes, Pontivy, Rodez and Versailles.


At the age of 11, children from low-income families took part in a departmental competition for bursaries that included a written part and an oral part. The best among them, whose numbers were fixed by annual quotas, received for the duration of their secondary studies a scholarship that covered either the complete cost or a half-pension, depending on the family's level of income. This plan was extended to municipal colleges, which at the outset were far more numerous than the lycées. Only the private schools (the large majority of which were run by the Catholic Church) received no financial assistance from the State. However, all the secondary schools, whether lycées, municipal schools, or private schools, prepared their pupils for the baccalauréate, which was the same for everyone.


3 Higher Education

The universities were created with faculties of science, letters, law and medicine. The level of recruiting and instruction at the Polytechnic was increased (entrance examination, two-year study program leading to entry into the specialized programs of Bridges and Roads, Mining, and Artillery). A new law was passed to reorganize the study of medicine and another decreed the creation of six schools of pharmacy. Schools of Arts and Crafts were set up at Compiègne and Angers. By a law passed on May 1, 1802, the First Consul created the School of St-Cyr. "It will be established in one of the strongholds of the Republic and will be a special military school designed to teach a number of graduates of the lycées the elements of the arts of war. It will be made up of 500 students, forming a battalion, who will be accustomed to service and military discipline. The school's motto shall be "They were educated to conquer."


By creating a special military school, the First Consul knew that the education of officers, who are called upon to command men in the context of extreme violence, requires special training. In the 200 years since its creation, it has trained and educated almost 80,000 officers, 10,000 of whom have given their lives for their country.


It took several years to implement the entire education system. Instructors needed to be trained, and the institutions had to be designed and constructed. When it was extended to all of the 130 departments in the Great Empire, the education system was known by the name of the Napoleonic University.


In the north of Italy, the Napoleonic University was greeted enthusiastically by the public and by professors and students; this is because the intellectual climate there was favourable, due to the fact that the traces of culture had not totally disappeared since the time when Rome governed all of Europe.


In Rome, the Emperor personally ensured that the new institutions were established in the shortest possible time. He wanted Rome to occupy second place after Paris in the Empire. The new University replaced the archaic Sapienza, whose colleges and institutes had fallen into a shameful state of decay.


In Germany, in the departments bordering the Rhine, the new University was adopted without the least opposition, even with a degree of satisfaction, which may be explained by the fact that German princes had prepared the ground, being enthusiastic supporters of the ideas of the Enlightenment.


In Switzerland, there was a University that dated back to the time of Calvin, which produced excellent results. Napoleon had the intelligence to keep it, contenting himself with integrating the University of Geneva with its professors and its methods into the wider, more diversified framework of the Imperial University. In Belgium, the cultural heritage was very rich, as the country had known very brilliant periods in both the artistic and literary fields. Thus the reputation of the University of Louvain shone throughout Europe. By 1808, four extremely prestigious lycées were in operation: those of Brussels, Bruges, Liège and Gand.


The great monument that the Napoleonic University erected in 1814 has not been overturned in almost 200 years. It has just received light retouching. Napoleon is the true founder of modern, national education and thus of contemporary France, with its values, its mode of life and its permanent concern for organization and order. Like all the other great accomplishments of the Consulate, the University has been praised, admired and copied by the entire world.



 Return to the Life of Napoleon - page 1