Blanquer, “read, write, count” and “fundamental knowledge”


As part of the discussion of the French bill “Blanquer”, an amendment was adopted in committee with the approval of the Minister of National Education: the creation of “public institutions of fundamental knowledge” (ranging from CP to the third). The title could have been “Common Core School” or “Compulsory Schooling”. But these are the “fundamental knowledge”, an expression that Jean-Michel Blanquer associates willingly with that of “read, write, count, and respect others”.

It is therefore time to make a clarification between these formulas, even if, for Jean-Michel Blanquer, they seem equivalent. Thus, when the four ministerial circulars of April 26, 2018 were published, the pedagogical recommendations made were presented as “facilitating the learning of basic knowledge: reading, writing, counting, and respecting others”.

It is true that the formula “to read, write, count” is so familiar to us that it can be asserted as self-evident, without one wondering what it can actually mean. Not questioned, she can reassure us (we “re-insure”) inexpensively in this uncertain world.

As for “fundamental knowledge”, it can quickly raise perplexity as soon as the question really arises as to what can and should be considered fundamental. For here there are various possible approaches: is it of the order of the “logico-epistemic”, or of the domain of “patrimonial” (what a generation deems necessary to bequeath) or else of the order of the “pedagogical” (basic knowledge or skills, conditions of subsequent learning)? But these different dimensions are in tension, even in competition, even if they can sometimes be combined.

A leitmotiv since 1816

Historically – and contrary to a tenacious legend that imputes Jules Ferry and the Third Republic – it has been more than two centuries since the famous trilogy “read, write, count” is in the spotlight for primary education. From there, no doubt, comes the familiarity we have with her. Under the Restoration, the ordinance of 1816 indicates that primary education “necessarily includes moral and religious instruction, reading, writing, the elements of the French language and calculus”.

Under the July Monarchy, the decree of April 25, 1834, prescribes the division of all primary schools into three sections, the programs of which they delimit:

  • first division, from 6 to 8 years old: reading, writing, first notions of verbal calculation, prayers.
  • second division, from 8 to 10 years old: reading, writing, numeration, and first rules of arithmetic, holy history.
  • third division, from 10 to 13 years old: reading, writing, fractions, weights and measures, Christian doctrine.

We will have noticed that, if the story declines a little elaborate the third part of the trilogy (count), it is not the case for the first two, read and write. What can it really be about? What can these notions and the phrase “read, write, count” mean? We do not know anything about it. This remains in the infra-consciousness of the dominant practices in such a place or at such a time.

Broader programs

In 1848, King Louis-Philippe lost power, and the second Republic was proclaimed. The Minister of Education, Hippolyte Carnot , presents on 30 June 1848 a project of free education and compulsory primary education. The statement of reasons places the project in its republican political ambition:

“The difference between the Republic and the Monarchy is nowhere to be seen more deeply than in the case of primary schools. Since the free will of the citizens must henceforth impress the country with its direction, it is from the good preparation of this will that the salvation and happiness of France will depend in the future. “

As a result, the primary education curriculum needs to expand. It will henceforth contain “all that is necessary for the development of man and of the citizen as the present conditions of French civilization permit him to conceive”. In addition to reading, writing, computing and the metric system, it will include singing, “basic notions of history and geography”, or “knowledge of the duties and rights of man and citizen “.

But elections give a majority to conservative political currents. The Minister of Public Education Hippolyte Carnot is replaced by the Comte de Falloux: exit free and compulsory primary education, return of religious education. The Orleanist Adolphe Thiers set the tone in this case:

“To read, write, count, that’s what you have to learn; as for the rest, that is superfluous […]. This disproportionate extension of primary education must be restricted. “

Jules Ferry, between legend and reality

Everything is to be redone and will be at the time of the Jules Ferry laws of 1881 and 1882: free, secular, compulsory primary education. But what must be obligatory? The basic principle is in the 1887 Official Instructions:

“The object of primary education is not to embrace on the various subjects to which it touches all that is possible to know, but to learn well, in each of them, what it does. is not possible to ignore. “

For the founders of the Republican and Secular School this can not be confused in any way whatsoever with a fixation on the “read, write, count”. On the contrary. It is not the least of the paradoxes that this legend attributes to Jules Ferry, while he has constantly struggled in the opposite direction.

It is precisely in the so-called “ancillary” teachings that Jules Ferry finds the rupture between “the Old Regime” and the “new”, as he explains in 1881 at the pedagogical congress of the teachers of France:

“It is around the problem of the constitution of a really educative teaching that all the efforts of the Ministry of Education have been carried out […]. It is this dominant preoccupation that explains a very large number of measures that […] could give a pretext for reproaches of excess in new programs, exaggerated accessories […]: the lessons of things, the teaching of drawing. , notions of natural history, school museums, gymnastics, manual work, singing, choral music. Why all these accessories? Because they are in our eyes the main thing, because these accessories will make primary school a school of liberal education. “

When the amendment adopted at the end of January 2019 speaks of “public institutions of basic knowledge”, where is the line of separation between the traditional and the new?

Author Bio: Claude Lelièvre is a Teacher-researcher in history of education, honorary professor at Paris-Descartes at Paris Descartes University – USPC