School sanctions: about the rehabilitation of “lines”


“You’ll copy me a hundred times:” I do not have to wear a cap in class “”. If this response to the incivility of a student looks outdated, could it still resonate in classes today? In any case, this modality of punishment was indeed recommended by Jean-Michel Blanquer, during the presentation on October 31, 2018 of its action plan for the protection of the school .

Referring to the need for proportionate sanctions and measures of “empowerment” of students, in line with community service, the Minister added that it was “not retrograde” to ask a student to “make lines “. It is piquant to note that the representative of the National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer and fits benignly in a tradition of “pensums” which continues in all ignorance of their formal prohibition.

Punishment proscribed as early as 1890

Renewed by the circular of 11 July 2000 , this proscription originally dates from the decree of 5 July 1890. It is very clear:

“Punishments will always have a moral and restorative character; picket, pensums (“lines”), deprivations of recreation, restraint of walk are strictly forbidden.

In reality, these prescriptions were not really respected, far from it … And in the year 2000, when the punitive sanctions and penalties that were made at the time were put back to the plate, the circular of July 11 indicates again that “the lines must be proscribed”.

This regulatory provision (which was by no means new) immediately aroused fierce controversy and irreducible oppositions. Some teachers defended the idea that a punishment must be “unpleasant” by nature, and that the tediousness of the “lines” was appropriate, even if it was not very instructive. And they argued that a punishment that falls directly into school duties and is meant to be “smart” – an exercise in the book, for example – could have the effect of lowering routine school work to the level of punishment.

Victor Hugo against the “pensums”

It should be noted, however, that the “pensums” had in their time provoked the resolute hostility of the commission instituted by the decree of 12 July 1888 to prepare the decision-making work of the Higher Council of Public Instruction in order to define a “liberal discipline “. This commission is chaired by Senator Jules Simon, philosopher and former Minister of Education.

There are almost all those who counted for the institution of the Republican School, a sign of the importance they gave to this question: Michel Bréal (professor of grammar at the College de France), Ferdinand Buisson (director of the ” Elementary Education for Seventeen Years, appointed to this post by Jules Ferry), Gabriel Compayré (the teacher of the Normal Schools), the historian Ernest Lavisse (the author of the famous ‘little Lavisses’, history textbooks of the communal), Louis Liard (Director of Higher Education), Henri Marion (philosopher, holder of the first chair of science education at the Sorbonne, and author in 1892 of Education in the university , based on the notion of “liberal discipline”).

They condemn “the penalties which aim at mater and do not ameliorate”, demanding and obtaining “the prohibition of the picket and the pensums, true forced works where the spirit has no part”.

Not to mention Victor Hugo who, in About Horace (1835), had dreamed of their abolition:

Homer will carry away in his vast ebb 
The dazzled schoolboy; the child will no longer be 
a beast of burden harnessed to Virgil; 
And one will not see that quick, agile spirit 
Become under the whip of a priest or an abbot, 
The heavy, sluggish horse of the bogged pensum.

And he rebels violently:

Sunday in detention and five hundred verses from Horace! 
I looked at the nails black monster of dirt 
And I stammered: Sir … – No reasons! 
Twenty times the ode to Plancus and the Epistle to the Finches! 
Eunuchs, tormentors, morons be cursed! 
Because you are old, black, numb!

As a high school teacher pointed out at that time, it is indeed important not to underestimate their effects: “the system of school punishments is for many in this repulsion, close to hatred, that some minds conceive for beautiful letters . Virgil and our tender Racine are a sort of literary knout whose punishments are punished by schoolchildren. “

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