Five memoirs on public instruction

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Commentary on Condorcet's book written during the French Revolution

Condorcet's main work dedicated to the problem of education gives the reader the opportunity to become acquainted with one of the most provocative writings of the French Revolution. In 1791, the year the book was written, Condorcet was an influential figure in political life, an intellectual of great prestige in Europe, but his ideas seemed to be ahead of their time. In fact, this one of the last great Enlightenment artists, and the only one to take an active part in the Revolution, addressed themes and suggested solutions that even in the creative years that followed the fall of the Bastille were capable of astonishing.

An example of this was her firm position in favor of equality between the sexes and even her belief in female superiority in certain fields of knowledge. It is true that the Revolution had incorporated many women into the nation's political scene, but it had also preserved many of the prejudices of the Ancien Régime, which contributed to maintaining a differentiated status for them within a society in full transformation. Condorcet anticipated certain themes, which will be dear to feminist movements, and also came out in defense of blacks and Jews.

To carry out the broad moral and political reform he dreamed of, he saw education as a fundamental tool. By approaching this theme, Condorcet is linked to a debate that since the middle of the 18th century has galvanized attention. In this context, the central reference used to be reason, thought of as the driving force behind any positive transformation in the ways of humanity. Inside, however, the combat of the Enlightenment, many themes intersected and served to call the attention of those who were enthusiastic about the new ideas.

In particular, the question of the relationship between education and politics gained ground when the publication in 1751 of the book by Duclos, Considerations sur les moeurs de ce siècle. At that time, the main debate was guided by establishing the difference between education and what was called simple instruction. While the first was thought of as knowledge linked to the nation's destinies, the second was seen as a mere accumulation of information with no connection to the demands of the time for greater freedom and knowledge. With Duclos, as after him with La Chalotais, who proposed a real national education plan in 1763, it became current among those who gravitated around the culture of the Enlightenment to propose educational models that aimed to form citizens moved by values ​​linked to the defense of homeland.

In the course of the Revolution, the educational problem had already become an issue for the participants in the Revolution. Constituent since 1789. Talleyrand was responsible for writing a text, which should serve as a guide for the implementation of a national education plan, which corresponded to the new institutions and values. Applauded by the members of the Assembly, the text would be distributed to all, but it was never discussed. Its merit was that of leaving open the problem of educating the citizens of a free nation, without, however, correctly measuring the scope of its adoption as a public policy.

Condorcet took his predecessor's text into account when writing the Five memoirs on public instruction, without even mentioning it. His view of the problem, however, was much broader and he had a sense of the urgency of the task to which he set himself which had entirely escaped Talleyrand. Therefore, his book begins with the statement of principles that should guide public education, and unfolds into a set of suggestions and indications that should serve as the basis for a true republican education.

He states that instruction should help to free men and cannot be at the service of any dogma, be it religious or pedagogical. The fight against superstition, typical of the Enlightenment, takes on an institutional face to the extent that it is incorporated as a principle of the public school. With this, its secular and rational character is affirmed. By freeing the school from religious authorities, Condorcet also intends to free it from any constraint coming from an authority other than that of knowledge.

In this way, the rational dimension of its project is guaranteed, which does not turn into dogma not even the French Constitution and its foundations in the Declaration of the rights of men and citizens.

Universal public education should help citizens to live free but also to be equal. With it, it should be possible to go beyond the affirmation of equal rights for all, to arrive at a state in which men and women can in fact aspire to occupy the highest positions in the nation, having merit and dedication as a reference and no longer distinctions. that unequal birth confers on each.

With this, he intends to transform the struggle for equality into a movement that makes true the abolition of privileges, which had been the hallmark of the first revolutionary years. Without public education and its extension to all members of the body politic, Condorcet feared that distinctions of social origin and gender would end up meddling again in the life of the nation.

Condorcet's work was sucked, like its author, into the maelstrom of the Terror and remained little known in the decades that followed. Throughout the XNUMXth century, when political struggles gradually shaped the scenario of what would later be the Third Republic, the first to forge a stable republican regime for France, his thinking became visible to the point of serving as an inspiration for the public men who would help build an institutional seat for republican ideas.

Jules Ferry, Gambetta, and many others, will know how to give the importance to the education required by Condorcet in the turbulent years of the Revolution. Equality, universality, gratuity, secularism, humanity were the principles that guided the great educators of the late 19th century to create what later came to be known as the French republican school. These principles were all made explicit or presupposed in Condorcet's writings, and this contributed greatly to the re-dimensioning of its importance not only in the context of Enlightenment philosophy, but also in the formation of the central ideas of French republicanism.

*Newton Bignotto Professor of Philosophy at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and author, among other books, of The Adventures of Virtue (Company of Letters).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 4, August 2009.



Condorcet. Five memoirs on public instruction. Translation and presentation: Maria das Graças de Souza. São Paulo, Unesp publishing house, 264 pages.




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