What Were Little Girls and Boys Made Of?
Primary Education in Rural France, 1830-1880
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Primary School Books were vehicles by which authors in nineteenth-century France hoped to shape the future. These authors, members of the middle class, believed in reason and progress and in their own ability to ascertain what was reasonable and to enforce progress. Not surprisingly, they did not always get the cooperation of the people whom they were trying to lead to a civilized life. Peasants, who made up the largest population of those needing progress, in the view of the middle class, did not accept new ideas unquestionably. They worked out their own compromises, evasions, and selections from the portrait of the good life presented to them in the village primary schools.
The books of Zulma Carraud are particularly interesting because they were directed specifically to socializing rural children to modern gender roles. Annotated excerpts from her best-selling books, La Petite Jeanne ou le devior and Maurice ou le travail, highlight the growing difference between women's work, which is referred to as "duty" and is portrayed as an expansion of woman's nature, and men's work, which remains a duty to his family, country, and God, but more importantly, becomes a source of fulfillment, provides a sense of achievement and of self worth. In Carraud's books, men use their skills to tame nature, to create civilization, in an ever-expanding field of endeavors, while women's work remains confined to child nurture, house care, care of the sick and elderly.
The process of inculcating new values is traced with the aid of school inspectors' reports, the letters and diaries of teachers, and a collection of notebooks kept by rural pupils. These documents provide a rare view of the dialectic nature of historical change.
Laura S. Stumingher is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Women's Studies of the University of Cincinnati.