Education Masters

2003 marks the 350th anniversary of Marguerite Bourgeoys’ arrival on Canadian soil. She left France in 1653 with the 100 recruits, men who had come to Montreal to save the imperilled colony.

At the request of Sieur de Maisonneuve, Marguerite Bourgeoys agreed to set out for Canada and move to Ville-Marie, which later became Montreal. She left her homeland for good to provide support to the colonists and open the first school where she would teach the children of both the colonists and the Native People.

In 1658, Sieur de Maisonneuve gave Marguerite Bourgeoys a stone stable, which she cleaned up to welcome her first students on April 30 of that same year. Over the past three centuries, schools have multiplied in Montreal and throughout the St. Lawrence valley.

Marguerite Bourgeoys’ work was strongly influenced by the pedagogical views of Pierre Fourier, a 17th century pioneer of primary school instruction in France.

In the upcoming history columns, we will introduce several education masters to you. To be continued...

Click on a title to access an episode or to close the tab.

First episode
Saint Peter Fourier, a pioneer of primary education

Saint Peter Fourier, a pioneer of primary educationIn France, and particularly in Lorraine, elementary school instruction started to bloom at the end of the 16th century as a result of the pedagogical views of Peter Fourier (1565-1640). It should be noted that this period, which was marked by the humanistic movement and the Roman Catholic Reform was propitious for educational initiatives. Starting in 1613, the movement initiated by Fourier reached Champagne, the region next to Lorraine. A famous native of Champagne who was just as passionate about education, Marguerite Bourgeoys, put Fourier’s views to good use in 1658, when she founded the first school in Ville-Marie, which later became Montreal, in Canada.

Peter Fourier came from Mirecourt, in Lorraine. He was known as a brilliant, cultivated and fervent man who was attentive to others. He took his vows as a Canon Regular at Saint-Augustin in 1587 and was ordained in 1589. About ten years later, he was made parish priest of Mattaincourt, a rural area where the school situation was of great concern to him. The absenteeism of the students and the resulting vagrancy pushed him to develop pedagogical methods that have survived through the centuries and still apply today. In other words, he was firmly convinced that the initial school experiences of an individual remained decisive throughout his life.

One of Fourier’s first initiatives was to denounce mixed classes. The horrific tale of a young girl who had been assaulted by a school regent confirmed his belief in the justness of creating schools reserved for girls, who would be taught only by women. This conviction appealed to a devout young woman, Alix Le Clerc (1576-1622), a citizen of Lorraine who cannot be dissociated from the educational work of Peter Fourier. In 1597, the two compatriots founded a religious community devoted to teaching. Initially, the group consisted of Alix Le Clerc and four companions who opened a first school in Poussay in 1598. Although this may look like a mundane event, it was the start not only of elementary education for girls in Lorraine but this schooling was free for both poor and rich alike.

The teaching community founded by Peter Fourier and Alix Le Clerc came to be known as the Congrégation Notre-Dame (Congregation of our Lady), which is not to be confused with the Congrégation de Notre-Dame (also Congregation of Our Lady, in English), founded by Marguerite Bourgeoys in Montreal. The particle de in the name is the first difference between the two teaching congregations. Moreover, following lengthy legal proceedings in Rome, the sisters of the Congrégation Notre-Dame came to be called the Canonesses of Saint Augustine. This new community, which was devoted to the education of young girls, inspired Fourier to found the Congrégation de Notre-Sauveur (Congregation of Our Savior), which was made up of Canons of Saint-Augustine, who pursued the same goals as the canonesses, but with young boys.

Fourier also came up with the idea of founding schools specifically for teachers who would in turn work in "small schools" in outlying areas. In this way, young people everywhere could receive the essential rudiments of education from qualified individuals. It is clear that, for Fourier, the training of teachers was essential. He took charge of this duty with the pioneers of the Poussay school, instructing them with respect to the subjects to be taught and the methods to be used. His pedagogical system is essentially based on the knowledge he inherited from the Jesuit teachers of his youth, to which he added a personal touch. The next history column will deal with the teaching methods Peter Fourier promoted for the education of children.

To be continued... on January 28, 2003.

Second episode
The Pedagogical Principles of Saint Peter Fourier

The Pedagogical Principles of Saint Peter FourierThe pedagogical principles of Peter Fourier (1565-1640), a French master in the field of education, are based on a very optimistic view of childhood. The educator focuses on the receptiveness and malleability of early childhood, which are so favourable for rapid learning. At the time, teaching referred to the etymological sense of developing the child’s personality and not simply transmitting knowledge. In this way, according to Fourier, the child’s enormous desires must not be obliterated, but rather guided.

The educational programme proposed by Fourier reflects the standards of the Catholic Reform that were intended to give the child the skills he/she needed to earn his/her living and salvation. The school supported the primary role of the parents by teaching children how to maintain harmonious relationships with God and with others. The development of skills specific to school (reading, writing and arithmetic) as well as practical skills (embroidery, sewing, drawing up a receipt...) help the children make their way honestly through life.

Fourier’s instructions were of particular concern to teachers, who were not viewed as isolated contributors. Teachers and administrators share the same objectives and meet frequently to discuss both their work experiences and the progress made by the students. Individual initiatives must be endorsed by the administration. At the same time, since the child’s ability to imitate is a powerful learning tool, the individual in the position of authority must behave in a dignified manner without, however, being austere. Good humour, not familiarity or frivolity, is essential.

Fourier was a pioneer in group teaching where a lesson is given to several students at the same time. He even invented the individualization of group teaching which classifies students at a certain number of levels, from beginners to the more advanced. Group teaching does not exclude individual teaching. The more advanced students can provide valuable assistance to the beginners, during which time the teacher provides individual support. Moreover, having students at the same level ask one another questions is a form of mutual teaching.

Numerous examples demonstrate that pleasure and balance are part of Fourier’s educational principles. Question and answer sessions encourage students to take part. The "victory bench", invented by Peter Fourier, focused on healthy emulation. Recess periods were included in the schedule to allow the students to take part in "joyful" recreational periods. Beginning seamstresses started with easy work. The use of images, sketches and songs made it easy for children to absorb the abstract concepts of the catechism. Piety was present in the classroom, but in a timely and moderate manner.

Discipline was imbued with a certain sense of balance. Fourier asked teachers to be patient with the children and to discipline them constantly. He required punctuality, silence and application. He insisted on a graduated system of mistakes and punishments: dialogue, warning, time out on a bench and, as a final resort, physical discipline administered outside the classroom by someone other than the teacher. Moreover, touching children in the classroom was prohibited: no caresses, no brutality. Finally, students were expelled when justified. Fourier set educational limits for the child.

Should you require additional information, we invite you to read the book by Marie-Claire Tihon, Un maître en éducation, Saint Peter Fourier, published by Éditions Don Bosco, of Paris, in 2002.

Peter Fourier made an important contribution to the "small schools". The next chronicle will provide a more detailed picture of these small schools under the Ancien Régime in France. To be continued... On February 11, 2003.

Third episode
Elementary school or the "small schools" in the Ancien Régime

Elementary school or the "small schools" in the Ancien RégimeThe "small schools" that were opened in France between the time of the Renaissance and the French Revolution inaugurated the lengthy process of bringing literacy to the masses. The phenomenon occurred alongside the tutoring and educational institutions provided for the elite. The development of elementary teaching and the small schools grew out of a need for religious instruction. Peter Fourier (1565-1640), a great teacher from the Lorraine region, believed that parents and the parish catechism did not provide children with sufficient religious training, particularly in the case of poor families. The small schools provided support for religious instruction, while also ensuring a lay education. Church people backed these schools while the State, pursuing other interests, remained essentially indifferent. Moreover, French opinion remained ambivalent with respect to the small schools. Despite everything, the idea that a minimum amount of education for all supports not only religion but also order and prosperity gradually caught on.

Fourier's dream to have elementary schools built and prepared specifically for that purpose, as in the case of the colleges of the time (secondary instruction for boys), was not necessarily accepted right off. In the time of the Ancien Régime, the small school was often held in the main room of the teacher's dwelling, unless a benefactor provided a room or house for that purpose. Occasionally, teachers and students had to settle for mere shelters. In addition to benches and a few rare tables, the basic equipment included the blackboard, which Fourier introduced in the wealth of teaching materials developed for group teaching in Lorraine. He also recommended that teachers in Lorraine use a form of boxed chair in order to create a respectful distance. Other pieces of school furniture included a cupboard, with some schools better equipped than others.

The lay or religious teacher generally came from the region in which he taught. Female lay teachers, particularly married women, were less common. The teacher had no particular theoretical training. He learned his profession from an experienced teacher. It took some time to develop the schools Fourier wanted for training teachers. It was also common practice to employ the teacher for various parish or community duties. He might sing at church services, ring bells, visit the ill with the priest, keep records, etc. This gave him a certain amount of dignity, which was combined with the obligation to be pious and demonstrate good moral values. The teacher's salary was, however, modest. It depended on regional conditions: the taxes collected from the inhabitants, the number of students, the length of the school year, the existence of a foundation, etc.

In a society that was essentially agrarian, most of the small schools were rural. However, school attendance was higher in the urban areas. In the time of the Ancien Régime, it was possible to have more than 100 students for a single teacher. As a result, an adapted teaching method, particularly that developed by Fourier, and strict discipline were essential. Since the justice system provided for corporal punishment, it was no surprise to see physical punishment used in the school as well, although it was avoided as a general principle. Compared to the small rural school, the small urban school was more diversified: parish schools, boarding schools, private schools and free or so-called charity schools. Co-education was frowned on everywhere. If it was tolerated, measures were taken to keep boys and girls as separate as possible.

And now, what about the material taught and the results. To be continued... on February 25, 2003.

Fourth episode
Learning in the "small school" of the Ancien Régime

Learning in the "small school" of the Ancien RégimeProviding free elementary-school education to the largest number of students in France and no longer just poor boys destined for the orders was a completely new idea under the Ancien Régime. Free education was first made available to girls. In 1598, in the Lorraine countryside, the Congrégation Notre-Dame, founded by Peter Fourier and Alix Le Clerc, opened a free elementary school for girls. In 1628, a Roman decree sent that female congregation to the city and subjected it to the cloister. Since the start of the 17th century, several cloistered orders had been teaching young day students in the urban areas free of charge. These included the renowned Ursulines. Towards the middle of the 17th century, the easing of canon law made the proliferation of uncloistered communities possible which in turn resulted in the creation of a number of"small schools" in the rural areas. Free education for boys became available in the second half of the 17th century. In this respect, the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, founded by John Baptist de La Salle (1651-1719), became the best known of the popular institutions for boys.

In the "small schools", academic instruction essentially involved learning to read, write and count. These three matters were not taught simultaneously, but one after another. The "small school" was primarily a place for learning to read. John Baptist de La Salle published a Syllabaire français (French syllabary) in 1698 and stirred up lively debates by proposing to teach students to read French before Latin. While preserving Latin, La Salle's innovation fit in with the thinking of the times, which placed more value on French than on the regional dialects. Moreover, teaching methods, particularly for the teaching of reading, abounded in the major cities during the century of lights. In particular, the use of images in books became a common technique for initiating children in the art of reading. Nevertheless, for most of the "small schools", the methods and materials used remained simple and changed little, which does not mean that they were not effective.

For many children learning to read was the only schooling they received. Most of them did not stay in school long enough to learn to write. If they did manage to learn to write, the purpose of their education was the writing of useful texts: receipts, leases, proxies, etc. As in the case of reading, the students had to master letters before moving on to syllables, then words and sentences. The ability to count was partially related to the ability to read and was, in principle, taught after reading. Learning to count in that time meant learning to do sums or count using tokens. Counting could be done by hand or in writing, using Arabic numerals.

The literacy rate in France under the Ancien Régime is difficult to assess, generally because more people could read than write. It appears that, overall, despite the real progress that was made, women, rural people and the poor still accounted for the largest number of illiterates. Since school was not compulsory, the child was quickly sent out to work, particularly in the case of poor families or those living in isolated areas where there was no adequate school network. As for women, it is possible that parents were more likely to keep girls at home. Although boys had only minimal opportunities to go to college, girls had virtually none. Moreover, girls had no legal rights once married. As a result, girls had fewer opportunities to put schooling to use. Given this situation, it is still remarkable that so many girls were able to take advantage of elementary schooling.

As for basic schooling, the "small school" also dispensed "know-how." To be continued... on March 11, 2003.

Fifth episode
The "Know-how" of the "small school" of the Ancien Régime

The "Know-how" of the "small school" of the Ancien RégimeIn the French "small schools" of the Ancien Régime a good religious education was given priority, along with the acquisition strictly scholastic skills. Learning to earn one's living took second place to learning to earn one's way to heaven. The teaching of the catechism focused on integrating piety in life through prayer, the sacraments and the practice of evangelical values. All instruction and the general climate at school were filled with religious sentiment. People crossed themselves with holy water as they entered the classroom, which was decorated with pious images. The class started and ended in prayer. Children attended church regularly with their teacher, and so on.

Instruction in faith gave way to instruction in behaviour. The moral rules prescribed by religion had to be followed in order to maintain harmonious relationships with God, others and oneself. In addition to promoting a certain social harmony, the awareness of the rules of good conduct complemented religious moral values. Good manners were not formally taught in all of the "small schools", but they were in keeping with the spirit of a complete Christian education. Knowing how to live meant respecting the standards of politeness in effect, such as behaving properly at the table, being able to converse politely and blowing one's nose. The manual of civil behaviour written by Erasmus (1469-1536), published in 1530 and translated into French in 1537 was well known in the "small schools". At the start of the 18th century, it was replaced by a manual written by John Baptist de La Salle (1651-1719).

In the case of girls, the utilitarian mindset of the "small schools" left room for learning manual work such as sewing, embroidery, and lace-making. This needlework, which did not require any cumbersome equipment, was well suited for the limited space of the classroom. Such practical skills prepared girls to run households, as most of them were intended to do. It also gave them an opportunity to practice an honest trade that would eventually protect them against falling into a disreputable lifestyle. This was the philosophy of Peter Fourier (1565-1640) when he founded the first free elementary school for girls in Lorraine. Reformers of his ilk understood that basic education contributed to social promotion. The education provided in the "small school" prepared future mothers of families to become privileged vessels for transmitting Christian values.

During the time of the Ancien Régime, boarding schools for girls or boys increased in number in the large cities. In addition to allowing students to board, these schools enriched their programmes with various scholastic disciplines. Although they were not equivalent to the colleges of the time, the boarding schools provided a great deal of cultural learning compared to the "small schools". Geography, history and living foreign languages were taught there. The boarding schools established a social separation in the panorama of elementary instruction. Since parents had to pay considerable sums, these institutions were only accessible to a very limited number of children. This takes us most definitely away from the category of the "small schools" and into another educational sector: elitist instruction.

For more information about the "small schools", in addition to the book by Marie-Claire Tihon mentioned earlier, we invite you to consult Les petites écoles sous l'Ancien Régime, by Bernard Grosperrin, published by Ouest-France, Paris, in 1984.

Are you interested in an overview of the elitist elementary school? To be continued... on March 25, 2003.

Sixth episode
Elite elementary education under the Ancien Régime
Elite elementary education under the Ancien Régime

The "small schools" of Port-Royal, which existed from 1637 to 1660 in Paris and the surrounding areas, were a renowned institution of elementary teaching. Jean Duvergier de Hauranne, also called Saint-Cyran (1581-1643), was the driving force behind this institution. As a result of his ties with the nuns of Port-Royal, the outbuildings of their monasteries often served as the first sites for his educational project. For various reasons, many of which were polemic in nature, the classes moved several times and were rarely held in a single location. It should be noted that Saint-Cyran was a friend of Cornelius Jansen (Jansenius) (1585-1638), the bishop who developed the highly controversial Jansenist doctrine. Attendance at the "small schools" remained modest: between 10 and 50 boys between the ages of 7 and the end of adolescence per year, for a total of 100 to 150 students for the 23 years this institution existed. Most came from fairly wealthy families, although donations provided for the education of a few poor students.

The originality of the "small schools" lay in the fact that each teacher was constantly responsible for a group of four to six children. He was responsible for providing perfect Christian instruction as well as rigorous intellectual training. The child was cut off from anything that could hinder his education. The fact that children spent a good part of the year in a boarding school far from home and the limited number of students per class served to control unhealthy influences. Moreover, the setting attempted to reproduce a nurturing family atmosphere. The essential idea of this type of education, provided at a remove from the world, was to provide the best possible training for solid Christians who would exert a positive influence once involved in society.

In the "small schools", the best educated the best. They served as "small colleges" which ensured access to the larger colleges. An ambitious elementary training program was extended to include secondary education provided by means of methods developed by the teachers of the "small schools". Basic courses were complemented by in-depth study of Latin, various living languages (essentially Spanish, Italian and Greek) and the Classical authors. The study of other matters was intended to enhance the understanding of major works. This was the case for geography, history, applied mathematics (astronomy, topography, mechanics, etc.), rhetoric (the art of developing an idea) and philosophy.

Men known as the Solitaries or the Messieurs de Port-Royal (gentlemen of Port-Royal) taught the Petits Messieurs (little gentlemen). The solitaries, including both priests and laymen, were hermits in a sense, living in a community in keeping with the religious spirit of Port-Royal. Some of these men were highly educated and had prestigious professional backgrounds. Although not all of the teachers of the "small schools" were extraordinary, they were not in the least ordinary, as demonstrated by Jean Racine (1639-1699), famous playwright and former student of the "small schools". Ironically, the theatre was a forbidden discipline at the "small schools". During the course of his career, Racine was welcomed at the royal house of Saint-Louis, at Saint-Cyr, to present a few plays with the Demoiselles. This remarkable boarding school for the daughters of impoverished nobility, which operated from 1686 to 1793, is a fascinating example of elitist education.

For more information about the educational work of the "small schools", you can read Les Petites Écoles de Port-Royal by Frédéric Delforge, published by Cerf (Paris) in 1985.

This is the final history column on education under the Ancien Régime.