The Founder of Public Education: St. John Baptist de La Salle - Blog! - Two-Fisted History

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The Founder of Public Education:
St. John Baptist de La Salle

Last Monday (7 April) was the Church's feast day (Yeah, I know it's 15 May for Lasallian organizations) of St. John Baptist de La Salle, patron saint of teachers and one of my role models in Education.  I thought it might be a good idea to cobble together a short biography of the man that established the modern Public School system

In 17th Century France, only the nobility and middle classes received any resembling education.  Upper class children were tutored at home or attended grammar schools.  Less well-off kids attended ‘Little Schools’ run by the Schoolmasters’ Guild or learned the basics of reading, writing, and accounting at schools run by the Writers’ Guild.  Poor children were usually illiterate, like their parents, and usually often had to work to help feed their families.  Even if they went to the local charity school, their teacher was barely more educated than his pupils, had no education training, and took the job as a last resort.  Children in charity schools did not receive an education in a class like we know them, could expect to be beaten, and were expected to learn in Latin, not French.

John Baptist de La Salle was one of the upper-middle class types.  Born the son of a wealthy merchant, he could’ve had a pretty easy life.  When he was 19, he instead entered the Seminary.  While he was there, both of his parents died, leaving him to care for his ten brothers and sisters.  He was ordained in 1678 and his first post was spiritual director of the Sisters of the Holy Infant and the orphanage they ran.  With another man, Arien Nyel, he was induced to create a similar orphanage and school for boys.  Unfortunately, many of the teachers that were recruited had little education and no training.

St. John Baptist de La Salle

Father John invited these men to have meals with him at his home.  He gave them guidance, inspiration, and taught them manners, methodology and pedagogy.  In order to provide better guidance, he had them move into his home.  The teachers prayed together, kept regular schedules, and, living together, they could share experiences and learn from each other. 

A brotherhood of young men who were attracted to a life of service, was formed. The novice teachers took the three usual clerical vows, but not Holy Orders. Another vow, that they would dedicate their lives to teaching the poor, specializing as catechists, was added. A rule was drawn up stating that the Brothers should be laymen and that no priests could ever become members.

Father John Baptist soon resolved to devote his full attention to the establishment of schools and the training of teachers. The Brotherhood grew quickly, and soon there were so many applications from young men that a junior novitiate was formed. Also, from many parts of France, parish priests were sending their promising young men to be trained so they might return to serve as schoolmasters in their own villages. What may be considered the first Public School was now functioning, and this became the first novice house of the order.

Soon the Brothers spread throughout France.  When they established a school, they quickly brought order to the chaotic education system.  Schedules for the students were in place, students were grouped by age, and the schools thrived.  Fr. John also introduced teaching in the native language, French, instead of Latin. 

Fr. John met with no small opposition, however. The schools for poor boys in Paris were attacked by lay teachers and tutors, who felt their own livelihood was in danger, and by others who did not approve of education for the ‘lower orders,’ After a time it became evident that the schools had come to stay, and the persecutions gradually ceased.

John Baptist de La Salle died on 7 April 1719 and was canonized on 24 May 1900.  During his life, he authored numerous tracts and essays on Christian Education which should be required reading for those in the education field – especially those teaching in the successors of St. John’s schools: Public Schools (The collection I’m currently reading can be found here.  Lasallian schools continue to thrive throughout the world.   I graduated from a Lasallian school, and I had the opportunity to visit one while I was studying in Thailand.

St. John Baptist de La Salle, pray for us. . .

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Tags : History Biography Education Methodology PublicEducation Pedagogy

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