The Napoleon Series: FAQ

Napoleon and Education

By Robert Burnham

Napoleon has been given much credit for modernizing France's education system. Among the institutions he set up or expanded were:

  1. Primary schools in every commune under the general supervision of the prefects or sub-prefects.
  2. Secondary or grammar schools that were under the control of the central government.
  3. Lycees (high schools) in every important town, with teachers appointed by the central government.
  4. Technical Schools, civil service schools, and military schools were regulated by the State.
  5. Establishment of the University of France to maintain uniformity in the education system.
  6. Centralized recruitment and training of teachers. (Hayes; 539-540)

Napoleon's goals for improving education in France were not altruistic. After coming to power he discovered he did not have enough trained personnel to administer his empire. This included architects, engineers, and scientists. Additionally he viewed education as a means of indoctrinating the masses with the right principles. This meant removing education from the control of the church and placing it under state control. (This was something the Revolution had only partially achieved). That being said, "he expected two things from the schools. First was the training of middle-class boys to be civil and military leaders... Secondly, he wanted the educational system to be absolutely uniform. He wanted, he said, to be able to pull his watch out of his pocket at any time and tell what was going on at any school." (Holtman; 143).

How successful was he at achieving these goals is questionable. By 1812, it was estimated that only one child in eight was enrolled in a primary school. The institutes of higher learning had a large percentage of its students in professional studies, with almost 30% studying medicine or science. However, "the difficulty of finding subordinates with the technical training to execute his industrial and engineering projects, and the bent of his own genius, led Napoleon to emphasize the training of the scientist as equally important with the training of the scholar, and his efforts helped to make France the home of scientific thought in the early years of the nineteenth century." (Bruun 146-147) As an indoctrinating tool, it was more successful. In the latter years of the Empire, when manpower became scarce, French teenagers on the whole, enthusiastically responded to the call to arms even after almost twenty years of continual warfare.

For more information about this topic, read:

Markham, J. David. The Revolution, Napoleon, and Education

Bruun, Goffrey. The Rise of Modern Europe: Europe and the French Imperium 1799-1814. Harper Torchbooks: New York;1963.

Hayes, Carlton. Modern Europe to 1870. MacMillan: New York; 1953.

Holtman, Robert B. The Napoleonic Revolution. J.B. Lippincott: New York; 1967.

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