The Waterloo Association: Members Area

Get Involved:

Facebook Twitter Email
The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Battles and Campaigns

INS: J. David Markham

French Revolution




The Revolution, Napoleon, and Education

Les vraies conquêtes, les seules qui ne donnent aucun regret, sont celles que l'on fait sur l'ignorance. [1]

The French Revolution and Napoleon each in their turn had a tremendous impact on the development of the French educational system. This article will briefly review the development of French education prior to the Revolution, and then place the contributions of the Revolution and Napoleon in their proper context.

Much of the history of Europe can be seen in the rise and fall of its educational systems. With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D., educational institutions, such as they were, declined rapidly. The Dark Ages which followed the fall of Rome may not really have been completely dark, but there is little question that the level of intellectual development on the part of the people suffered. Learning was largely confined to private study, often isolated from other people making the same effort. There was a movement in England to preserve, restore, and copy some of the old manuscripts, and institutional education did survive, but it was a far cry from earlier years.

It was not until the reign of Charlemagne, made King of the Franks in 768 A. D. and crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas day of 800 A. D., that there was a revival of formal learning on the continent of Europe. After meeting with the Saxon teacher Alcuin at Parma, Charlemagne established the palace school, with Alcuin at its head. [2] His famous capitulary of 787 established the idea of a more widespread educational effort, and he imported educators from throughout the rest of the world. Education under Charlemagne spread throughout his realm, and three important characteristics can be drawn from this period. First, the system of education being developed was very centralized. In this case it began with the palace school, and spread to some monasteries throughout the kingdom. Second, while Charlemagne had a genuine intellectual interest in education, most of the education provided was religious in nature. Third, the education was provided to a very tiny elite. These three characteristics would continue to dominate education in France for centuries, and the centralization and elitist aspects can be seem, to one extent or another, up to the present day.

By the end of the eleventh century, various church schools had been established throughout France. Eventually, Paris became the intellectual center of learning, though other cities gave it competition. Ecclesiastical schools provided free education, and taught grammar and other traditional subjects. It is important to note that during this period (the early twelfth century in particular) the Catholic Church became alarmed with the level of "liberal" education being provided in some schools, and insisted on the right to license teachers. Thus, in order to teach you had to get the permission of the bishop. This authority could and did stifle intellectual development in directions considered improper by the church. This strong influence of the church would continue until the French Revolution.

By the 13th century, the University of Paris had been established. It provided education in theology, law, medicine, and the liberal arts. Students were enrolled as young as 14, and a system that was the forerunner of the modern degree system was established.

The middle of the 16th century saw the increase in educational activities brought on by the Renaissance. The Church maintained its control, however, as France saw many years of religious strife that ended with effective Catholic domination over the country. One educational development of note, however, was the replacement of Latin by French as the language of scholars.

In the years immediately prior to the French Revolution, the idea of universal education was beginning to develop. Cardinal Richelieu, the power behind Louis XIII (ruled 1610 to 1643), and later Rolland advocated the principle that "each one ought to have within his reach the education for which he is best fitted." [3] But, for all the talk, it could be argued that the involvement of the French government was less than overwhelming, and education was largely left to the Catholic Church. As Farrington suggests, "The time was not then ripe, however, for accomplishing these reforms. It needed the drastic purgation of the Revolutionary period, followed by the constructive genius of Napoleon, to put them into effect." [4]

The French Revolution

The period of the French Revolution (1789-1799) is not noted for its stability, either of policy or of government, and it may be a surprise to the average reader that this period dealt with education at all. While most literature concentrates on the activities surrounding foreign policy and internal conflicts, the fact is that the leaders of the Revolution were very concerned with education. This was seen early in the Revolutionary period, in the cahiers that had been requested by Louis XVI. These cahiers consisted of grievances and/or suggestions for improvement. While the cahiers of the third estate (workers and peasants) seldom mentioned education, those of the first and second estates (clergy, nobility) often called for improvements in the educational system. [5] Later, in 1793, the Convention established the Committee of Public Instruction, and charged it with reordering education in France. It is not surprising that the destructive tendencies of the other components of the Revolution were carried out in education as well. That which existed had to go, simply because it had existed before the Revolution.

But it would be unfair to characterize the Revolution as merely destructive. They considered the problem of education from a variety of points of view, including "the duties and prerogatives of the state, the rights of parents, the potential benefits of higher education, the economic needs of the nation, the necessity for training teachers, and the suitable status of the teaching profession in a republic." [6] That list sounds very much like the debate in late 20th century America. While education was not mentioned in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, that 1789 statement of rights so like the US Bill of Rights, it was included in the first constitution and in the constitutions that would follow.

One of the first changes made to French society had to do with religion. Much of the Revolution can be seen as a rejection of the old order, including the prominent role played by the Church. Thus, while Revolutionaries were destroying the statues at Notre Dame, they were also removing any vestiges of influence by the Church in the educational system. Interestingly, the great revolutionaries of France were willing to change just about everything, but they were not willing to change attitudes toward women in education. Thus Mirabeau, the Revolutionary leader, in line with Rousseau, the philosophical "father" of the Revolution, felt that education was for men who were to become involved in the affairs of state, while women, whose main job was to raise the family, had little need for such things. [7]

During the early years of the Revolution, there was a lot of talk about education, but relatively little institutional action. Many reports were issued, and some changes were made, but the internal turmoil and external conflict made domestic reform difficult. With the execution of Robespierre on July 28, 1794, some level of normalcy was established, and the government was able to pay more attention to educational reform. Action soon followed with the decree that teacher training was now the top educational priority. The Paris Normal school was created with a curriculum that included "republican morality and the public and private virtues, as well as the techniques of teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, practical geometry, French history and grammar;" and they were to use books which would be published and prescribed by the Convention. [8] This latter requirement merely reflects what had by that time become a strong French tradition, namely the extreme centralization of educational policy. Also instituted at this time was the establishment of a public secondary school for every 300,000 people. The curriculum for these écoles centrales consisted of literature, languages, science, and the arts. The decree establishing the écoles centrales also provided that

. . .the age-range of the pupils will be from eleven or twelve to seventeen or eighteen . . . every school is to have one professor for each of the following subjects: mathematics; experimental physics and chemistry; natural history; scientific method and psychology; political economy and legislation; the philosophic history of peoples; hygiene; arts and crafts; general grammar; belles lettres; ancient languages; the modern languages most appropriate to the locality of the school; painting and drawing. The teaching throughout will be in French. Every month there is to be a public lecture dealing with the latest advances in science and the useful arts. Every central school is to have attached to it a public library, a garden and a natural history collection, as well as a collection of scientific apparatus and of machines and models relating to arts and crafts. The Committee of Public Instruction is to remain responsible for the composition of text-books which are to be used in central schools, and the citing of these schools is to be determined by special enactment. [9]

Again, we see the strong French commitment to centralization. It is also of interest to note that the teacher salaries were established by the national government, and that the schools were to be run by a committee of teachers who were to meet every ten days (which was once per week, under the new Revolutionary Calendar). Financing was to be the responsibility of the Department. The commitment to central financing soon weakened, with the responsibility for teacher salaries soon delegated to the town governments to be paid by the parents. [10]

The requirement that instruction be in French may at first seem to be rather routine, but it reflects a political problem of the time as well as the use of education to political and nationalistic ends. A common language is one of the most fundamental of nationalistic tools available to a country. In Revolutionary France, however, a great many different languages and dialects were spoken. If France was to become unified under the new Revolutionary Government, then surely one measure of that unity would be a common language. And if there is to be a common language, then it must fall to the schools to instruct all citizens in that language. Indeed, during the early years of the Revolution, non-French was seen as counterrevolutionary and, therefore, dangerous. [11] This extreme nationalistic attitude toward the French language can still be seen in modern France.

The central schools were further strengthened, especially in regard to competition with some religious based private schools, by a provision that required almost anyone who desired a position with the government to present evidence that he had attended "one of the Republic's schools." [12] This gave them an enormous competitive advantage over any private efforts.

In spite of all that has been recounted here, by the end of the 18th century the position of public education in France, especially that of the central schools, was weaker than one might have expected. Numerous problems existed, including a shortage of qualified teachers and, more importantly, a shortage of qualified students. The schools in Paris and several other major population centers did fairly well, but throughout the country the story was not always as positive. One problem had to do with the organization and curriculum of the schools. There was really no continuity in the curriculum, and very little in the way of required courses. Thus, a "graduate" from a central school might or might not have met some reasonable standards, either academic or curricular. In short, the system of central schools had not lived up to its promise. [13] It remained for one of the great figures of history to bring some order to the system.


During much of the middle and late period of the French Revolution (1796-1799), the young General Bonaparte had been winning battles and gaining great popularity among the French people. This was largely due to his image as a savior of the Revolution, an image which remains today. In 1799, he participated in a coup d'état which established a three person consulate with him as first consul. Under the newly established system of government, most of the power rested with Napoleon. On December 2, 1804, First Consul Bonaparte became Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, and his control over the government became virtually complete.

While Napoleon is often seen in terms of his military image, he was also one of history's great administrators. Napoleon set out to make France the greatest nation of Europe. To do this, he proposed many changes and projects, ranging from a complete re-do of the nation's legal system, including the establishment of the civil Code Napoléon, to a massive road construction project.

Education was high on Napoleon's list of priorities, which were in large part those of the middle class. Napoleon believed in a system of merit, and for such a system to be effective there must be some form of widespread education, especially at the secondary level. Besides, the state of French education was not all that it could have been when Napoleon began to rule. This fact was made abundantly clear by the results of a survey of all prefects in the nation conducted in March of 1801, under the direction of Minister for Home Affairs Chaptal. Numerous complaints were heard regarding the lack of schools in many areas, lack of professionalism among teachers, lack of discipline and attendance by the students and, in a few areas, the lack of religious education. [14]

The issues of religious and primary education were partially resolved by the Concordat between the Pope and Napoleon, which allowed some of the religious elementary schools to be reestablished. These schools had provided most of the education available to girls, a fact that conveniently reflected Napoleon's attitudes toward female education. Napoleon felt that education was important for girls, but did not generally expect them to have the same sort of education given to boys. In his Note Sur L'Établissement D'Écouen, [15] Napoleon suggests that religion and assorted domestic skills necessary for the attraction of husbands should be stressed at this girls' school. While Napoleon's comments in this note regarding women are hardly designed to win him favor in the modern world, he at least does call for their learning numbers, writing, and the principles of their language, as well as history, geography, physics and botany. Napoleon has been criticized for his attitude toward women and their education, but he was simply a reflection of the historical trend in France. Indeed, women received the right to vote in France almost a quarter century after they did in America.

Secondary education was extremely important to Napoleon. In a letter to Home Affairs Minister Chaptal on June 11, 1801, Napoleon outlined in some detail his opinions on the structure of education for boys. He divided such education into two parts: under age twelve and over age twelve. The first four classes [grades] would teach general topics such as reading, writing, history, and the use of arms. The second class would be divided into those boys who were destined for a civil career, and those destined for a career in the military. Civil careers would stress languages, rhetoric and philosophy; military education would stress mathematics, physics, chemistry, and military matters. Both civil and military graduates would be guaranteed employment in their chosen career. [16] On May 1, 1802, a decree established what was to be a new system of education in France. [17] This new system would be the foundation for the system found in France today.

Under the new system, elementary schools (écoles populaires) were to be the responsibility of the local municipalities. Napoleon had relatively little interest in this level of education, and was not firmly committed to the mass education that would result from a state-wide elementary education system. As a result, the religious schools were to share a significant amount of the responsibility for elementary education. Secondary education, however, was the base education for the future leaders of the nation, as well as members of the bureaucracy and the military; hence, Napoleon's greater interest. The state had a strong interest in the curriculum being presented, and control would be easier if they established a system of secondary schools under the direction of a central authority. Many of these secondary schools would be established by private initiative, including clerical, but all such schools were controlled by the state. Covering students roughly from age 10-16, they would provide a level of education designed to provide students for higher levels of education. Indeed, some bonus plans were established for teachers who had large number of students qualifying for advancement. [18]

The heart of the new system was the establishment of thirty lycées, which provided educational opportunities beyond the secondary schools and replaced the écoles centrales. Every appeal court district was to have a lycée, and they were to be completely supported, and controlled, by the state. 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. [19]

The lycées had a six year term of study, building on the work of the secondary schools. The curriculum included languages, modern literature, science, and all other studies necessary for a "liberal" education. Each lycée was to have at least eight teachers, as well as three masters (a headmaster, an academic dean, and a bursar). In a reflection of modern debate on the subject, 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.

It is clear that the new system of education introduced by Napoleon had more than one purpose. It was intended, of course, to provide an educated elite that could help run the country and the military. It was also designed to provide for an increased middle class; a middle class that would be successful and hence non-revolutionary. Moreover, there was a great emphasis on patriotism in the schools; an emphasis that was to increase during the years of the empire. This is not surprising, of course, as even in modern America we are expected to teach a certain amount of patriotism in our classes.

When Napoleon became Emperor in December of 1804, he became even more interested in centralized control of the educational system. He raised the issue of education in at least one meeting of the Council of State. At such a meeting in 1807 he declared:

Of all our institutions public education is the most important. Everything depends on it, the present and the future. It is essential that the morals and political ideas of the generation which is now growing up should no longer be dependent upon the news of the day or the circumstances of the moment. Above all we must secure unity: we must be able to cast a whole generation in the same mould. [20]

Napoleon was particularly concerned with the independence of the secondary schools. Moreover, there were problems with the lycées as well. Financial constraints had limited the number that had actually opened, and competition with the private schools had limited enrollment. Napoleon's solution was to be the ultimate in centralized control of the French educational system. He established the Imperial University in 1808. The law creating this "university" stated, in part:

...the Imperial University, a body charged exclusively with instruction and public education throughout the Empire. . . No school, no educational institution of any kind whatsoever, shall be permitted to be established outside the Imperial University, without the authorization of its chief. No one may open a school or teach publicly without being a member of the Imperial University and a graduate of one of its faculties. [21]

The Imperial University was actually something of a compromise with those who wanted to eliminate private education altogether. This allowed private schools to exist, but put them under strict public control and demanded various taxes from them, designed to reduce the educational outlay of the central government. The quality of instruction in private schools was controlled, however, in part by a requirement that teachers must have degrees. Later revisions to the law reduced the number and enrollment of the private schools, especially those of the Catholic church.

Perhaps the most important element in the development of the Imperial University was that for the first time the state took responsibility, and control, of the elementary education of its citizens. [22] Teachers were placed under stricter controls, including dress, discipline, and salary.

Napoleon had long been concerned about the teaching profession. He recognized the central importance of teachers to the educational system. He had at times suggested that the teaching profession should take on some of the characteristics of an order, or corporation, with very specific expectations, privileges, and rewards. He had, for example, in a Note Sur Les Lycées [23] of February 14, 1805, suggested that beginning teachers might be forbidden from marriage. On the other hand, by the end of his career a teacher should see himself in the highest ranks of state officials, having been placed under the protection of the Emperor himself.

As stated earlier, the purpose of education went beyond the need for an educated elite. As is the case with schools today, patriotism and loyalty to the state were a major part of the purpose of educational institutions. We might be somewhat reluctant, however, to be as bold about it as was the law establishing the Imperial University:

All schools of the Imperial University will take as the basis of their instruction (i) the teaching of the Catholic religion, (ii) fidelity to the Emperor, to the imperial monarchy which is entrusted with the happiness of the people, and to the Napoleonic dynasty which ensures the unity of France and all the liberal ideas proclaimed in the constitution, (iii) obedience to the regulations of the teaching body, the object of which is to secure uniformity of instruction and to train for the State citizens who are attached to their religion, their prince, their country and their family. [24]

The system of education under the Imperial University was as follows. First was elementary education. This was, as before, the lowest priority of Napoleon. Following that was the secondary education of the middle class. As before, Napoleon placed the greatest emphasis on this level of education. The lycées were, as before, mainly boarding schools supported by the state and providing a six year course heavy on the Classics and mathematics. Along with them were the collèges which were municipal or communal secondary schools, a bit lower than the lycées. These schools stressed French, Latin, geography, history and mathematics. There were also some independent schools known as instituts, which were more or less the equivalent of the collèges. This system was not, of course, uniquely Napoleonic; it mirrored ideas of earlier systems as well as other systems in Europe. It is also no surprise to learn that Napoleon stressed various military aspects in his schools, including uniforms, formations, music, and discipline.


The real value of an institution may be in its ability to survive the ravages of time. On this basis, one must evaluate the Napoleonic educational system in mostly favorable terms. After the downfall of Napoleon, it might have been expected that his system would be abolished, or greatly modified. There has certainly been some turmoil in French education over the years, especially as regards the role of the Catholic Church. During the Third Republic, the separation of church and state was made complete, and the teaching of religion was no longer part of the public school curriculum. Thus, the curriculum of Napoleon was replaced by that of the Revolution. The Imperial University has, of course, disappeared, but centralized control lives on in the Minister of Public Instruction. The lycée continues and, indeed, plays an even more important role. It is a virtually self-contained unit, and graduation from a lycée is adequate for many careers (unlike, say, the American high school.) As in Napoleonic times, French education is much more stratified and elitist in nature than in the American system; success and progression are based on examination results rather than on the belief in universal education.


  1. Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. Correspondance de Napoléon Ier; Publiée par ordre de l'empereur Napoléon III. Paris, 1858-1869, [Hereafter Correspondance.], III, 2392 "Au Président de L'Institut National [Camus]." (December 16, 1797) The real conquests, the only ones that do not cause regret, are those that are won over ignorance.
  2. Farrington, F. French secondary schools: an account of the origin, development and present organization of secondary education in France. New York, 1910.
  3. Farrington, 56.
  4. Farrington, 57.
  5. Bernard, H. Education and the French Revolution. Cambridge, 1969.
  6. Vignery, R. The French Revolution and the schools. Madison, 1966.
  7. See Bernard for a more detailed discussion.
  8. Bernard, 154.
  9. Bernard, 171.
  10. See Lefebvre, G. The French Revolution from 1793 to 1799. J. Hall and J. Friguglietti, trans. New York, 1964; and Soboul, A. Understanding the French Revolution. A. Knutson, trans. New York, 1988.
  11. See Lefebvre, 1964; and Soboul, 1988.
  12. Bernard, 185-186.
  13. See Farrington, 1910.
  14. See Bernard, 1969.
  15. Correspondance , XV, 12585, May 15, 1807.
  16. Correspondance, VII, 5602, Au Citoyen Chaptal, Ministre de L'Intérieur, June 11, 1801. Partially translated in Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, Napoleon Self-Revealed in Three Hundred Selected Letters. J. M. Thompson, trans & ed.) Boston, 1934, 78-80.
  17. Lefebvre, G. Napoleon from 18 Brumaire to Tilsit, 1799-1807. H. Stockhold, Trans. New York, 1969a.
  18. Bernard, 1969.
  19. Lefebvre, 1969a; Correspondance VII, 5874 Exposé de la Situation de la République [November 22, 1801]; partially translated in Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, The Mind of Napoleon; a selection from his written and spoken words. Edited and translated by J. Christopher Herold. New York, 1955, 116.
  20. Molé, Mathieu Louis, Count, The Life and Memoirs of Count Molé. Edited by the Marquis de Noailles. 2v London, 1923, 61.
  21. Bernard, 216-217.
  22. Lefebvre, G. Napoleon from Tilsit to Waterloo, 1807-1815. J. Anderson, Trans. New York, 1969b.
  23. Correspondance, X, 8328.
  24. Bernard, 218.


J. David Markham
International Napoleonic Society


Editor's Index ]

© Copyright 1995-2005, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.