Rethinking school democracy: a key to boosting citizen participation?


The high rate of abstention during the two rounds of the presidential election brings to the fore the question of changing the functioning of the institutions, or even moving towards a Sixth Republic. This should also lead to the correlative question of the functioning of the republican school so that it effectively trains citizens participating in the political life of the country.

Even before the presidential election that has just taken place, the “Committee for the evaluation of public policies” filed an important information report , registered on March 8 of this year at the presidency of the National Assembly, on ” evaluation of public policies in favor of citizenship”. It was already a real cry of alarm.

The general observation: “The disaffection of young people towards politics is significant. It affects political parties as well as institutions and leads to relativizing the importance of democracy. It results in different practices: abstention on average ten points higher than the rest of the population. An intermittent vote »

The report indicates an ambition clearly present in the secondary programs from 2013: “an ambition for citizenship which has developed considerably in its themes as in its methods: two essential axes with moral and civic education (EMC) and media and information literacy (MIL); and in parallel the development of school democracy”. But the report strongly points out that the “assessment is below the texts: learning of debate avoided, transversality of teaching non-existent, school democracy rarely effective […]. Disappointed, college and high school students tend to turn away from the authorities of school democracy.

“Simultaneous” mode, “mutual” mode

One of the two factors explaining the disappointing results of “moral and civic education” is therefore “the marginalization of school democracy” according to the report. The work of Mrs Géraldine Bozec (cited by name) whose research focuses on citizenship education and its effects effectively highlights that pupils retain the feeling of not being heard in the school environment because the participatory bodies developed these years have not changed the power relations between adults and students.

In this regard, it must be clearly understood that this state of affairs is the legacy of a long and strange history which tends to endure… Throughout the first half of the 19th  century, the two educational “modes” which then disputed leadership of the school (namely the “simultaneous mode” of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, and the “mutual mode” of the Society for Elementary Instruction of politically liberal obedience) clearly considered that their mode of organization school had to be homologous to the kind of society they wanted and supported.

The “simultaneous mode” of the Brothers of the Christian Schools – where a master teaches all the pupils the same knowledge at the same time – appears to the protagonists as the very “mode”, in its organization and its pedagogy, of a theocratic conception of society, that of the ultra-royalists who want to restore the Old Regime, an absolute monarchy by divine right. Their first virtue is obviously obedience. The others are regularity, humility, modesty. It’s about disciplining, disciplining yourself. Magistral authority is at the heart of this ambition and this system.

The “mutual mode” of the Society for Elementary Instruction is perceived and explicitly described by the protagonists as the pedagogical expression of liberalism and constitutional monarchy. There, the classes bring together pupils of different ages and levels, and the most advanced pupils assist the teacher, playing the role of tutors and transmitting their knowledge to small groups of their comrades. As early as 1816, the Bulletin of the Society for Elementary Instruction stated as follows:

“one would look in vain elsewhere for a more faithful image of a constitutional monarchy; the rule, like the law, extends to everything there, dominates everything, and would protect the pupil if necessary against the monitor and against the master himself. The teacher represents the monarch. He has his general monitors (pupils) who, like his ministers, govern under him; these in turn are assisted by particular monitors. In the shadow of this truly governmental organization, the mass of students have their rights as well as the nation.

The “mutual mode” takes its name from the place it gives to “monitors”, students leading the instruction of other students. “Merit” is rewarded by access to the various monitor positions; which also opens up the possibility of participating in a few children’s juries. In fact, when there is serious misconduct, the master sets up a jury (composed of the most distinguished students among the instructors) responsible for investigating the trial and pronouncing the sentence.

This is also what cannot be admitted by ultra-royalists, by the partisans of absolute monarchy by divine right. Lamennais protests: “It distorts the very notion of power by handing over command to childhood […] Isn’t the old education transforming each school into a republic? »

School civic experience

The paradox is that the republican school will obviously function with a power of the teachers closer to the “absolute monarchy” of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (or to the “enlightened despotism” dear to the dominant current of Enlightenment philosophy), than to the “constitutional monarchy” and the liberalism of the Society for Elementary Instruction.

It is nevertheless quite significant that the question resurfaces in the movement of “new education”. For example, when at the beginning of the 20th  century one of its most outstanding initiators (namely Adolphe Ferrière ) tried to bring to light a “conscious and thoughtful” conception of a new education “until now poorly defined and incompletely specified” by pointing out about thirty characteristics, it is remarkable that we find in point 21 the evocation of the “system of the school Republic when it is possible” and in point 22 “in the absence of the integral democratic system”, the ” constitutional monarchy “.

The famous Langevin-Wallon Plan of 1947, which outlines a global reform of education at the liberation, begins the chapter devoted to this question with a very characteristic quotation from Paul Langevin:
“School makes the child learn about social life and, particularly, about democratic life. Thus emerges the notion of the school group with a democratic structure in which the child participates as a future citizen and where the fundamental civic virtues can be formed in him, not through lessons and speeches, but through life and experience: of responsibility, accepted discipline, sacrifice to the general interest, concerted activities and where the various experiences of “self-government” in school life will be used”.
And the text of the Langevin-Wallon Plan explains that moral and civic education must be accompanied by practice in the school setting, the school offering students “a society made to measure” where they can experience respect for others, a sense of responsibility or a taste for initiative. “Each citizen, in a democratic regime, is placed in professional life, facing a double responsibility: responsibility of the leader, responsibility of the executor. It will therefore be necessary for school activities to be organized in such a way that everyone alternately has responsibilities for direction and execution. »

Well, it must be said, seventy-five years later, these issues appear (more than ever?) on the agenda. Should we put an end to the organization of the Fifth Republic, which is essentially more Bonapartist than Republican, and have for that an ad hoc organization of the Republican school where everyone is effectively trained to be a “co-sovereign”?

Author Bio: Claude Lelievre is a Teacher-researcher in the history of education, honorary professor at Paris-Descartes at Paris Cité University