Teaching Civilization Through Old French School Manuals

Welcome to a new semester! I’m teaching a civilization class this spring and thought I’d share some of the ideas I’m using for course material.

In this post I talked about using Gallica to find primary sources, and used the example of a geography text book to demonstrate the process. As an introduction to the Third Republic, I’ve found some excellent examples of republican ideology in the manuals used in primary schools from the 1880s to the First World War. Some of the most succinct, for my purposes, are the “moral instruction” guides, which are often written specifically for boys or girls and explicitly discuss the role of the child in the family, the citizen in the Republic, etc.

The example pictured on the left was published in 1904 for use in girls’ schools. You may find it on Gallica here. In addition to the parts about the family, school, and work, I am going to have the students read the “Janvier” chapter, which includes entries on “La Patrie,” “Devoirs de la femme envers la Patrie,” and “Droits du citoyen.” Additionally, the manual includes the full texts of the 1789 Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen and the 1791-1793 version. The second part of the book is dedicated to civic instruction. It’s particularly telling to read the matter-of-fact description of “le suffrage universel” in a girls’ schoolbook.

I also have a physical copy of a schoolbook for boys, entitled L’Année préparatoire d’Instruction morale (1912, 11th edition), and for which I have not found a digital version online. There are similar ones available on Gallica, however, if you simply search for “instruction morale” between the dates of 1880 and 1914. What I found revealing in this version, which I found in a little use bookshop in the provinces, is that from the start there are clearly delineated gender roles: men are the workers, women are the caregivers. But a child should love his mother and father equally, and they have equal importance in the family. These lessons are reinforced through short, illustrated stories. But there is also a clear class division, teaching the young boys who read the manual to respect servants, for example.

In class we are going to outline the principal values promoted in these didactic stories and examples, deduce the intended audience, and think about the republican project in general. Why moral instruction? What was this kind of teaching replacing or reinforcing?

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