School, republican or utilitarian?

What is the purpose of school? To train citizens, as Condorcet thought, or individuals capable of finding their place in the division of labor, as Bentham believed? The comparison between these two divergent conceptions sheds light on contemporary problems.

At the turn of the XVIIIe and XIXe century, two major projects for educational institutions were developed: in France, that of Condorcet, the most striking formulation of which is found in his Memoirs on public education (1791); in England, that of Bentham, exhibited in the Chrestomathia (1816). At first glance, these two projects are so different that it is difficult to see how it would be possible to propose a comparative analysis of them: in a word (we will return to this), Condorcet proposes a republican institution responsible for the moral instruction of the citizen, while Bentham’s institution pursues a more utilitarian purpose that can be reduced to the desire to ensure access to happiness for the greatest number. In Create the schoolAlain Fernex nevertheless offers us a point of view that allows for a comparative approach. As different as the projects of Condorcet and Bentham are, Fernex suggests interpreting them as two different responses to the same problem: that of the practical conditions that would allow the implementation of a particularly ambitious educational program that claims to be valid (and useful) for all.

Condorcet versus Bentham

For Condorcet, the purpose of school is to ensure the education of the citizen, that is to say, of an individual capable of understanding his rights and participating in their development in the public sphere (p. 51). To realize this project, he proposes a free public school institution whose vocation is to provide common instruction to all members of society (the rich as well as the poor, men as well as women). Although financed by the state, Condorcet insists that school should not become an instrument at the service of power: what is learned there must allow students to grasp what is interesting and useful in scientific progress, not to ensure their submission to public power. Condorcet retains from the Enlightenment the idea that science allows us to think of the human community in terms of a learned society: through the exercise of reason, each man can participate in the improvement of human knowledge (p. 55). In this context, it must be considered that teachers belong to the scientific community and that their work consists of transmitting scientific knowledge to their students so that they can, in turn, become members of this learned society. Finally, it should be noted that, for Condorcet, the civic education of students also requires moral instruction modeled on scientific instruction: the goal here being to introduce students to the practice of a “moral and political science” whose purpose is not only to make them aware of their rights and duties, but also to enable them to understand them and to think about them rationally (p. 150).

For his part, Bentham considers that the role of the school is to give each individual the opportunity to find a vocation, that is to say to find, at their individual level, a place in the division of social labor where it will be possible for them to be happy while working. Although this institution proposed in the Chrestomathia could, in law, be beneficial to all social classes, it is not primarily thought of as a place of universal education: its school is intended, as a priority, for the middle classes (p. 37). On closer inspection, we understand that Bentham first reflects on the conditions of an effective, useful, inexpensive institution capable of making education more accessible without necessarily giving it a universal pretension. The whole project is permeated by a concern for maximization: the architecture of the school is designed to facilitate the supervision of students (on the model of the Panopticon), relationships between students that promote the smooth running of the school are encouraged (competition and denunciation), the teaching methods used are designed to be as effective as possible (short lessons, use of summary tables, systematization of exercises, etc.), etc. This concern for efficiency leads Bentham to move in the direction of individualizing the educational path of students: since students do not necessarily learn at the same pace, it is important to observe their progress through continuous assessment so that they are directed towards the lessons that are most beneficial to them at a given time (p. 242).

The importance of technical education

The comparative analysis developed by Fernex allows us to account for a historical originality common to both projects: the teaching of technology, that is to say the study of the instruments by which man can apprehend and transform reality, occupies a central place. This is how the ambitious programs proposed by Condorcet and Bentham are distinguished from those (no less ambitious) that humanist authors could propose to the XVIe And XVIIe centuries: in the education projects of the XIXe century, scientific knowledge is only worth as much as its applications can contribute to the development of technical progress. Science teaching is no longer conceived as the transmission of static knowledge that one must take possession of, but as entry into a constantly evolving experimental field.

To better understand the importance of the approach of promoting technical education, we must return to the historical context in which these two projects developed: that of the industrial revolution, the continuous development of machines and the new forms of work organization that accompanied it. For Bentham and Condorcet, who shared a strong enthusiasm for these developments, technology was the expression of the progress of the human spirit and of what could be useful in the sciences (p. 66). Following a proposal by Simondon, Fernex proposes to trace this modern interest in technology back to theEncyclopedia by Diderot and d’Alembert, in which one could already find diagrams and models of machines that could be used by the reader wishing to get involved (p. 164).

Finally, Fernex shows that this valorization of technical education is linked to a critique of the learning of trades, taken over by corporations then accused of exercising oppressive control over access to training and the movement of workers (p. 71). Technical instruction then appears here as a means of making individuals autonomous in relation to their professional activity. In the programs of Condorcet and Bentham, learning the trade then depends on a common initial intellectual and practical training that can be useful to all individuals, whatever the trade in which individuals engage (p. 168).

Education and autonomy

The main interest of the analyses developed in the book lies in the way in which the author manages to find in these two very different projects the distinctive mark of their time. After reading the book, one can consider that the problem common to Bentham and Condorcet can be formulated as follows: what should be the education of modern man in a society marked by the industrial revolution? The common answer given in this book here is the following: it is through technical instruction that modern man will be allowed to become an actor in his social life. However, one will regret that Fernex sometimes comes to underestimate the differences between our two authors, without seeing that these could allow us to enrich the understanding of the common problem that he presents to us. It is in the conclusion of the book that this minimization is most striking: the difference between Bentham and Condorcet would be “only in appearance” since both defend an education independent of public authorities, which is aimed at the greatest number, which grants a central place to science and technology and which allows individuals to gain autonomy (pp. 300-302). However, between Condorcet and Bentham, we do not only have two possible solutions to a common project, but also two distinct (and perhaps even competing) ways of giving a political response to this problem: in Condorcet, a republican response which sees in the sciences and the exercise of reason an opening which makes possible the foundations of a society based on critical discursivity rather than on monarchical power; in Bentham, a liberal response which sees in the sciences a resource which can be put at the service of individual happiness.

Taking these differences seriously, we see that the common problem highlighted by Fernex is not just a technical problem or a practical enigma to be solved: it is a historical problem that forces social actors to rethink the categories with which they reflect on the form of political life to which they aspire. In other words, we cannot respond to the practical problem of education without, at the same time, situating its proposals within the horizon of a political project. That said, if Fernex probably does not go as far as we would have liked, we must recognize that his book has the important merit of offering a very stimulating description of a piece of the modern history of education.