The Bachelor is it a Napoleonic inheritance?


Theology, law, medicine, mathematical and physical sciences, letters: in these five fields which structured the university at the beginning of the XIX E century, the degrees “conferred by the Faculties following examinations and public acts […] there will be three: the baccalaureate, the license and the doctorate ”, indicates the decree of March 17, 1808 signed by Napoleon.

This text lays the foundations of the modern baccalaureate . However, this examination is not an ex nihilo creation and its title already existed under the Ancien Régime. To what extent does the date of 1808 mark a turning point in the history of education? What traces did the Napoleonic period leave on secondary education as we know it?

The new 1808 ferry

From the Middle Ages until the French Revolution, the university organization was based fundamentally on four types of faculties: the “Faculties of the Arts” whose cycle of studies formed a whole in itself and a prerequisite for entry into the faculties. specialized in “Theology”, “Law” or “Medicine”. The previous bachelor to that established by Napoleon I er was one of the grades awarded by the Arts Faculties.

The decree of March 17, 1808 borrows the division into faculties from the old organization of universities. It will be in fact a difference in nature between faculties “professional” (law, medicine, and also theology) and the other two faculties (Arts and Humanities) who had little other official function in the XIX th century that to issue ranks. These two faculties come from the partition of the former Faculty of Arts operated by the decree of 1808.

This revised baccalaureate was indeed, in substance and in form, an effective entrance examination to the University. Article 22 of the decree of March 17, 1808 stipulates that “to be admitted to the baccalaureate examination, it will be necessary to be at least sixteen years old and to answer on all that one teaches in the upper classes of the high schools”.

Originally, the baccalaureate examination jury was therefore composed almost exclusively of academics. This logically follows from the fact that the baccalaureate is the first university degree and a passport for entry into the University. Early in the baccalaureate, a circular of April 5, 1810 prescribed that university exams were due to start on 1 st  August.

Doctoral candidates were the first to undergo the tests. Then came the candidates for the degree of the license. Candidates for the baccalaureate were examined last. University professors could not go on vacation until all exams were completed.

The creation of high schools

This overhaul of the bachelor by Napoleon st in 1808 is not unconnected with the foundation of the “High School” in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul (the first of three consuls who ran the government). It is also a triumvirate which is placed at the head of the newly created high school: a principal, a censor, a managing prosecutor (this last name being replaced by that of bursar in 1809).

The high school curriculum is completely focused on the baccalaureate as marked by the “countdown” of the class titles: from sixth to first (also called “rhetoric class”) then final, without any intermediate exam.

According to the decree of March 17, 1808, high school teachers for the “upper classes” had to be doctors; professors of the last two years, dismissed; teachers of the first four years of high school with a high school diploma.

Napoleon personally spoke out in favor of classical studies predominating, as Louis Madelin explained in The Nation under the Emperor and his History of the Consultate and the Empire:

“The teaching must above all be judicious and classic […]. Above all, let’s put the youth on a diet of healthy and strong readings. Corneille, Bossuet, these are the masters they need. It is great, sublime, and at the same time regular, peaceful, subordinate […]. We need councilors of state, prefects, officers, professors […]. These were the ideas of the master. “

Three general inspectors supervise all high schools. A large part of their students are to be chosen at the discretion of the government “from among the sons of soldiers and civil servants who have served well.” It is above all a question of training administrative and military executives.

What place for girls?

We suspect that this high school / baccalaureate device does not concern girls at all. Some, rare and isolated, will however pass the baccalaureate, not without difficulty. The first baccalaureate was a teacher from the Vosges region – Julie Daubié – who obtained the baccalaureate at the age of 37, in 1861, after several unsuccessful attempts to present herself. A second baccalaureate was issued to a woman in 1863 by the Sorbonne:

“It was still, in 1887, an extraordinary phenomenon for a young girl to sit for this examination. In the written tests, out of a hundred candidates, we noticed two dresses. Even the second was a cassock. So that the candidate was not mingled with the crowd, a special place had been reserved for her at the edge of the examiners’ own table ”(quoted by Michèle Tournier, 3 ° Cycle thesis, 1972, Access for women to studies universities in France and Germany ).

And yet the Camille Sée law of December 21, 1880 had created secondary education for young girls, with the resolute support of Jules Ferry. But the high schools for young girls did not lead to the baccalaureate: a “high school diploma” was the only outcome of a course that was not marked by a countdown of the title of the classes. And you could take an intermediate exam in the “third year” of this course.

But, from the beginning of the XX E century (sign of the times and in particular of the pressure of the requests of certain pupils), the “competition” gets involved and goes in the direction of the change. The Sévigné college, a famous private secular establishment, instituted in 1905 a preparation for the baccalaureate, accompanied by an accelerated learning of Latin in two years. Other establishments follow.

Finally, the administration of public education must admit in 1908 that public establishments can prepare young girls for the baccalaureate .

The cape of the 1920s

In 1912, 430 candidates (out of 693) were admitted to the first part of the baccalaureate; 289 (out of 410) in the second part. In February 1913, the Superior Council of Public Instruction officially authorized Latin lessons from the third year of the female secondary education course.

However, we passed another course a few years after the First World War, when the decree of March 25, 1924 signed by Minister Léon Bérard admittedly claimed to maintain female secondary education with its specificity instituted in the 1880s, but very officially provided for a preparation at the “baccalaureate” presented as an optional section (and aligned entirely with male secondary education).

The classes in this optional section receive the same names as those in the male secondary; its programs and timetables became identical by the decree of July 10, 1925. On the other hand, in fact, the preparation section for the “secondary school diploma” was very quickly marginalized. It is even almost aligned with the other by the decree of March 15, 1928.

What is left of it in our XXI th  century? Not much. The names of high schools and their classes still exist, and their leadership quasi-triumvirate too (roughly). But high schools have become mixed. They lost their first cycle to colleges. The baccalaureate in classical letters is practically marginalized in secondary education which has become more widespread. And academics have long been chairing baccalaureate juries.

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