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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 753-754

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Book Review

Educating the Faithful: Religion, Schooling, and Society in Nineteenth-Century France

Educating the Faithful: Religion, Schooling, and Society in Nineteenth-Century France. By Sarah A. Curtis. (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press. 2000. Pp. xii, 255. $38.00.)

The current historiography of nineteenth-century French education, Sarah Curtis informs us, includes more myth than reality. In her study of congregational schools in the diocese (it should be archdiocese) of Lyon from 1801 to 1905, Curtis claims to correct the mythology by showing that congregational schools were dynamic agents of social, cultural, and religious change that helped spawn a modernized France.

Curtis' book is divided into two parts, the first of which explains how and why a congregational school system worked. She argues that congregational education [End Page 753] largely succeeded because of three factors: personnel was plentiful, they taught for next to nothing, and the schools themselves derived much of their funding from affluent Catholics instead of a fiscally beleaguered state. The author also describes Catholic pedagogy in this part, showing that perhaps the most valuable congregational contribution was instilling the mental discipline and physical control so necessary in a modern society.

The second part discusses "Catholic schooling on the defensive," meaning the struggles of congregational schools during the Third Republic. Curtis explains that congregations often met the new challenges that republican politicians imposed upon them, above all the requirement that instructors possess a brevet de capacité. However, she also contends that the laws forced Catholic schooling to become more centralized, thus shifting power over them away from congregations and toward the church hierarchy and prominent lay people. The author adds that while many members of teaching congregations left the country or the orders themselves after passage of the associations laws in 1901 and 1904, many other religious discarded their habits, continued their teaching in Catholic schools, and lived out their vows clandestinely.

Curtis deserves to be both commended and criticized on several levels. Her findings are based on skillful research and copious records found at an impressive number of archives, and she uses these well to provide a more "bottom up" appraisal of Catholic education. Her argument about the vital role of religious congregations in the development of a nineteenth-century French educational system, moreover, is quite convincing, thus offering a new angle on the subject. But at the same time Curtis delivers less than she alleges. Although she holds that congregational schools were key to the feminization of Catholicism, the book shows little as to how this was done in the schools. Most importantly, Curtis fails to present a more poised account of the guerre scolaire during the 1880's and 1890's. Indeed, one gets the impression from the book that the expulsion of religious from public schools consisted of a few doctrinaire politicians imposing their unpopular will upon a people all but in love with religious congregations. Contrary to claims, such a depiction adds to the polemics of this subject rather than diminishes it.

Curtis concludes that her study "has sought to add perspective to a contentious subject and to return Catholic primary schools and their teachers to the historical agenda." In this she both succeeds and fails. To be sure, any study of Catholic education in nineteenth-century France is a welcomed contribution to what we currently have, especially a well written and researched one like this. But sometimes the perspective provided here makes for only more contention, not less. The fault, however, is not so much an unbalanced treatment of the subject as it is the author's naïveté that historians--herself included--are capable of transcending the interminable guerre scolaire.


Edward J. Woell
Marist College



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