Bryan Caplan  

The Mixed Messages of French Schooling

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I finally got around to reading Eugen Weber's classic Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914.  It wasn't what I'd been led to believe.  I heard that the book blamed World War I on public schooling: Europe's late 19th-century public schools forged passionate new national identities, which in turn inspired bellicose foreign policies.  But as far as I can tell, Weber doesn't connect these dots.  Instead, he creates the impression that nationalism went hand in hand with progress.

Consider this passage from his chapter on "Schools and Schooling":
The great problem of modern societies, or so Francois Guizot considered in his Memoirs, is the governance of minds.  Guizot had done his best to make elementary education "a guarantee of order and social stability."  In its first article, his law of 1833 defined the instruction it was intended to provide: the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic would furnish essential skills; the teaching of French and the metric system would implant or increase the sense of unity under French nationhood; moral and religious instruction would serve social and spiritual needs.

What these social needs were is laid out clearly in various writings, both official and unofficial.  "Instructing the people," explained an anonymous writer of 1861, "is to condition them to understand and appreciate the beneficence of the government."  Eight years later, the inspecteur d'Academie of Montauban concurred: "The people must learn from education all the reasons they have for appreciating their condition."  A first-year civics textbook set out to perform this task:

(summary): (1) French society is ruled by just laws, because it is a democratic society.  (2) All the French are equal in their rights; but there are inequalities between us that stem from nature or from wealth.  (3) These inequalities cannot disappear.  (4) Man works to become rich; if he lacked this hope, work would cease and France would decline.  It is therefore necessary that each of us should be able to keep the money he has earned.
Talk about whiplash!  I was expecting Nicolas Chauvin, and got Horatio Alger instead.

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Tom West writes:

Instead, he creates the impression that nationalism went hand in hand with progress.

Given humanity's natural suspicion of people who are "not like me", I could easily understand if nationalism aided progress by widening the circle of people who are "like me" from the village borders to the entire nation.

Makes for much larger group with whom it is felt it is safe to do business.

Chris H writes:

@Tom West,

I'm a bit skeptical that nationalism really did constitute a broadening of "people like me." In large part it seems like a re-drawing of the lines in a way that was often less inclusive than previous levels of identity people had embraced. For centuries prior to the 19th, most Muslims and Christians in the world primarily relied upon religion for the purposes of identifying with broad groups of people. These links were far more widespread than nationalism accomplished in the majority of cases, though it did often divide groups that might be identified as nations (a good example being Germany, prior to the rise of nationalism a Catholic Bavarian might actually feel closer ties with Spaniards or Italians than some protestant from Brandenburg). Further back in the past that sense of identity could also come from imperialist control that had little link to nationalism and could be far more expansive (think the Roman Empire and the eventual spread of Roman citizenship to almost everyone in the Empire).

Indeed, nationalism as it was understood in the 19th century was a definite step backwards in expanding the "like me feeling" from these earlier concepts. Nationality was something you were born with and conversion was either completely impossible or designed to be so difficult as to be effectively so (the French were big into that idea of assimilating their imperial subjects into being "French," but through a process so onerous only a tiny fraction ever bothered). With both religious and imperial connections with others, people who were outside your group could switch and be (mostly) accepted. It doesn't seem clear to me that nationality is a closer connection than religion or empire. If nationalism has redeeming factors they probably arise out of its parochialism of identity not its expansiveness. Nations tend to be smaller and less unwieldy to govern than empires or huge religious conglomerations.

Tom West writes:

@Chris H

I have to concede that I really don't know how seriously religion facilitated commerce, so your points are both interesting and very plausible. Thanks for your comment.

One of the things is that it's very hard (for the layman, at least) to get a general sense of what daily life was like for the lower classes. What did they know? What did they fear? What did they believe and what did they just conform to? All questions for which it's very hard to get real answers.

Furthermore, "like me" is a continuum, not binary, so it'd be very hard to make definitive case in any direction.

Graham Peterson writes:

I think Tom makes an incredibly important point: creating larger-scale cultural groups within which people could identify with, expanding trading networks, was incredibly important for providing a bedrock of trust and social institutions and norms in early social development.

This doesn't get at the Growth, capital G, question because economic growth didn't happen until much later, but he's likely right that a small nation state over which people can commune over is helpful in facilitating economic transactions.

Chris H writes:


If this stops making sense I'm relying on you to let me know! A good example of religion helping to create strong trade links would be the Indian Ocean trade prior to the Portuguese arrival. The major ports along the edge of that area, which during the Middle Ages was the biggest and most important trade area on the planet, were almost all Muslim ruled and Muslim merchants at the same time spread commerce and Islam. It's a fascinating area that I'd like to read even further into, but it provides a good example of large scale commerce being built on religious trust. I will note however that in European history, the strongest trading nations have been those with relatively weak nationalistic or religious feelings (Venice traded with Muslims, the Dutch were very competitive between provinces and after the first stage of the war of independence moved away from radical protestantism, and the Brits didn't view patriotism or nationalism as particularly fashionable until the end of the 19th century).

But you are right it's not always easy to get at the ideas and motivations of peasants given their lack of writing. However, luckily there are some good examples of revealed preferences in the historical timeline. For the depth of commitment to religious ideas, there are a wealth of examples in the pre-Enlightenment era. A few of the most notable include the Hussite Wars, the German Peasants' War, and the mob violence of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. They aren't exactly friendly trade examples of religion bringing people together, but they are examples of how religion can be used to rally large groups of people into huge cooperative endeavors even against the will of elites.

I guess my priors on this subject are just that the rise of nationalism and the rise of industrialization are probably not casually linked or if they only very weakly. The rise of democratic politics (including the relative democratization of politics many totalitarian dictatorships represented as they represented actually caring about manipulating popular will where most aristocracies didn't really care as long as peasants weren't actively revolting) may be linked to the rise of both perhaps. After all it's much simpler to hold elections and public debates, or spread propaganda, if you only have to use one language and the early conceptions of nationality were intimately linked with the idea of shared language.

Tom West writes:

@Chris H, thank you again for taking the time to write this post. It's quite fascinating.

Wikipedia is just the right tool to give you an overview of historical episodes like the Hussite Wars without drowning you in details. (I'd known there was a crusade in Central Europe, I hadn't remembered the cause.) Your examples of religious fervor are certainly on the mark.

Anyway, you've made your case as strongly as can be made for such a limited space, and my post was plausible speculation rather than fact-based, although I was thinking of somewhat smaller scale trade (i.e. did Nationalism allow a peasant to trade with someone from the next city.)

Thanks again.

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