The Taboo Against Literature in the School of the Republic

  • M. Martin Guiney


Under the ancien régime education, especially literary study, was a privilege. Under the Republic education, including literary study, became a right. During the French Revolution, the principle of universal access to primary school and of equal opportunity of access to secondary school was high on the legislative agenda, as the debates over national education between 1791 and 1795 attest. Members of the Legislative Assembly and National Convention not only were concerned with the logistics of state control over education, but also with content and methodology. Clearly, in a country where according to the survey by Abbé Grégoire six million citizens did not speak French, six million spoke it badly, and three million spoke it well, national education would be first and foremost an initiation into a common language, into a community of transparent signs that conveyed laws and decrees, allowed citizens to exercise their right to free speech, and united the population under a national culture. It was immediately apparent, however, that these goals were contradictory; for if legal and political efficacy depended on transparency, that is, on universal agreement as to the true meaning of texts, national culture did not. In fact literature, the highest linguistic manifestation of culture, was under suspicion not only as the idle pastime of the aristocracy, but as a forbidding, tissue of useless subject matter and obscure rhetorical devices, in brief: the antithesis of a national patrimony accessible to every citizen. In brief: the antithesis of a national patrimony accessible to every citizen. In 1794 the bibliophages even proposed the destruction of all books; they were avant-garde of a widespread suspicion of the written word.


National Culture French Revolution National Education French Language Political Efficacy 
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© M. Martin Guiney 2004

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  • M. Martin Guiney

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