The reading of the “Letter to teachers” will be, with the minute’s silence, one of the highlights of the tribute that will be paid in all establishments in France, Monday, November 2, to Samuel Paty, the teacher. of history-geography assassinated on the eve of the All Saints holidays in a terrorist act that shook the entire educational community.
This text, signed by Jean Jaurès, had already been incorporated into the poignant ceremony held at the Sorbonne a few days after the tragedy, to honor the memory of this teacher who died for having had his students study caricatures representing the prophet Mohammed.
Written in the context of unprecedented reforms for schools
It is first in the columns of the Toulouse daily The Dispatch that Jean Jaurès published, in 1888, this letter, which he would take up a year later in his work Socialist action. Agrégé in philosophy and normalien, the child of Albi taught for a time at the Normal School of Teacher, before being a lecturer at the faculty of Toulouse, then becoming the youngest member of France, in 1885 .
At the time, the French school had just undergone unprecedented reforms under the leadership of Jules Ferry, to whom we owe in particular the law of 1882 on compulsory primary education, clarified by a circular devoted to ” moral and civic education ”.
Conflans attack: “Show children that, despite the pain, we have the means to act”
In this context, Jean Jaurès, admiring Ferry, and grateful for this school to which he owed so much, wrote this text passed down to posterity. ” You hold the intelligence and soul of children in your hands; you are responsible for the homeland », He urges.
Jaurès, become a consensual figure
This text is now an integral part of the republican heritage and refers to the idea of a school full of promise, synonymous with light and elevation, with citizenship. It is, moreover, the work of a major political figure in history, herald of socialism who fell on the altar of peace on the eve of the First World War. A figure that right-wing men and women no longer hesitate to cite as an example (Nicolas Sarkozy himself had ventured to write a “Letter to teachers” shortly after his arrival at the Elysee Palace in 2007).
Here is the full text:
The letter to teachers, published in The Dispatch of Toulouse of January 15, 1888
“You hold the intelligence and soul of children in your hands; you are responsible for the homeland. The children in your care will not only have to write, decipher a letter, read a sign on a street corner, add and multiply. They are French and they must know France, its geography and its history: its body and its soul. They will be citizens and they must know what a free democracy is, what rights confers on them, what duties the sovereignty of the nation imposes on them.
Finally they will be men, and they must have an idea of man, they must know what is the root of our miseries: selfishness in multiple forms; what is the principle of our greatness: firmness united with tenderness.
They must be able to picture to themselves in broad outline the human species taming little by little the brutalities of nature and the brutalities of instinct, and that they disentangle the main elements of this extraordinary work which is called civilization. . We must show them the greatness of thought; we must teach them respect and worship of the soul by awakening in them the feeling of the infinite which is our joy, and also our strength, because it is through it that we will triumph over evil, darkness and of death.
“May all our ideas be imbued with childhood”
Hey! What? All this to children! Yes, all of that, if you don’t want to just make spelling machines… I hear people say, “What’s the point of asking so much from school? Isn’t life itself a great teacher? For example, when in contact with an ardent democracy, will the child who has become an adult not understand for himself the ideas of work, equality, justice, human dignity which are democracy itself? even ? “
I agree, although there are still in our society, which is said to be agitated, many dormant layers where spirits languish. But it is another thing to do, first of all, friendship with democracy by intelligence or by passion. Life can mingle, in the soul of man, with the idea of late awakening justice, a bitter flavor of hurt pride or suffering, resentment or suffering. Why not offer justice to our brand new hearts?
All our ideas must be imbued with childhood, that is to say with pure generosity and serenity. How will you give the primary school the high education I have indicated? There are two ways. First of all, that you teach children to read with absolute ease, so that they can never forget about it in life, and that in any book their eye does not stop at any obstacle. Knowing how to read without hesitation, as we read you and I, is the key to everything …
Knowing how to read well, the schoolboy, who is very curious, would very quickly, with seven or eight books chosen, have a very high idea of the history of the human species, of the structure of the world, of the history proper to land in the world, France’s own role in humanity.
“Make the child feel the incredible effort of human thought”
The master must intervene to help this first work of the mind; it is not necessary for him to say a lot, to take long lessons; it suffices that all the details which he will give them clearly contribute to an overall picture. From what we know from primitive man to man today, what a prodigious transformation!
And how easy it is for the teacher, in a few lines, to make the child feel the incredible effort of human thought! Only, for that, it is necessary that the teacher himself be completely imbued with what he teaches. He must not recite in the evening what he has learned in the morning; it is necessary, for example, that it is made in silence a clear idea of the sky, of the movement of the stars; he must have marveled in a whisper at the human spirit which, deceived by the eyes, first took the sky for a solid and low vault, then guessed the infinity of space and followed in this infinity the precise route of the planets and the suns; then, and only then, when, through solitary reading and meditation, he is full of a great idea and fully enlightened inwardly, he will easily communicate to children, at the first opportunity, the light and the emotion of his mind. . Ah! Without doubt, with the crushing fatigue of school, it is difficult to get hold of yourself; but it only takes half an hour a day to keep thought at its height and not to get into the rut of the profession.
“You can slowly take them to the end of the world”
You will be more than paid for your trouble, for you will feel the life of intelligence awakening around you. We must not believe that it is to proportion education to children to reduce it. Children have unlimited curiosity, and you can slowly take them to the ends of the earth.
There is a fact that philosophers explain differently depending on the system, but which is undeniable: “Children have in them the seeds of the beginnings of ideas. See how easily they distinguish good from evil, thus touching the two poles of the world; their soul conceals treasures on the surface of the earth; just scratch a little to update them. We should not therefore be afraid to speak to them with seriousness, simplicity and grandeur.
So I say to the teachers to summarize myself: when on the one hand you have taught children to read thoroughly, and when, on the other hand, in a few familiar and serious talks, you will have spoken to them about the great things that interest thought and human conscience, you will have done without difficulty in a few years the complete work of educators.
In every intelligence there will be a peak, and much will change on that day. “