Publish at May 03 2016 Updated January 12 2023

The precursors of secularism and co-education, Ferdinand Buisson and Paul Robin

Activate free will

Education is an area particularly subject to reflection and improvement. Sometimes brutal and sometimes too soft, the measures that are taken in the education of our children are often criticized because, if they fail, the consequences can be heavy.

However, over time, some propose advances that are sometimes major, but that require time to stick to the concerns and mentalities of the moment.

Ferdinand Buisson or secular and moral education

He was an intellectual, philosopher and politician who would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1927 with Ludwig Quiddle. This man of openness was also a co-founder of the League of Human Rights and a fierce defender of women's rights. He is known in education because he was director of primary education at the request of Jules Ferry.

Ferdinand Buisson would lay many of the groundwork for what has become the French education system today. Thus, he advocated a secular education, but based on the difference between good and evil, as in the Catholic religion. His moral lessons are a paving stone in the pond: it shows what the capacity of children to apprehend the two notions brings to act and choose in conscience. He thus declines the effects of morality on the body, the mind, the heart, the character, the society or the civic-mindedness. This is not without echoing the desire of Moral and Civic Education, which wishes to reactivate the free will of our young people.

The coeducational and secular characters of the French school today seem very natural to us, but they are in reality the result of many attempts, the main one of which is to be attributed to the work of two men: Ferdinand Buisson and Paul Robin.

Both met around the orphanage of Cempuis, set up by Joseph Gabriel Prevost. When the latter died, Ferdinand Buisson was the executor of his will in charge of finding a new person to run the orphanage, in accordance with the philanthropist's avant-garde principles, who wanted to make it a mixed and secular school. This pioneering establishment lays down a number of principles that are still very relevant in 2016.

Paul Robin, toward a coeducational and secular education

During his activities, Ferdinand Buisson met Paul Robin, a freethinker who triggered strong reactions regarding his desire to shake up education in France. The two men will collaborate through the dictionary of pedagogy and public instruction launched by Ferdinand Buisson, who writes several articles in it from 1882. The pedagogical axes favored by Paul Robin attracted the attention of Ferdinand Buisson, who offered him the direction of Cempuis.

What had disturbed in his pedagogical practice until then becomes an asset for the orphanage. Physical education, field trips, manual labor, etc. will become widely used tools on a daily basis, while the mixity that he advocated to the horror of some becomes the spearhead of his establishment. Thus was born Integral Education, which consisted of integral instruction (learning) and integral education (mode of receiving knowledge).

At the orphanage, youth ages 4-16 gather to work in a mixed, free, and strongly practice-oriented manner. These axes, which are in vogue in 2016, trigger very violent reactions and the hostility takes on its full force when President Carnot is assassinated. Paul Robin withdrew from the front of the stage and the project was abandoned in the mid-1880s.

For all that, this will not prevent the school diversity from being established from 1950 onwards. At first, it was linked solely to the cohabitation of the two sexes, then in 1990, its semantics referred to culture, religion or space as well.

Photo credits: Museum of Hartlepool / Flickr


Ferdinand Buisson - Nobel Peace Prize

Gallica - BnF website - Ferdinand Buisson "lessons in morality"

A history of co-education - Geneviève Pezeu - cahiers pédagogiques - n°487 - "Dossier filles et garçons à l'école"

Encyclopédie de Picardie - Paul Robin and the Cempuis Orphanage

BENP #44 - Modern School Collaborative Institute - Paul Robin Educator

Integral Education - Michel Violet

French Institute of Education

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