At school, “fundamentals” aren’t everything: the aim is to learn to think.

“Why all these “accessories” that we value so highly, that we group around the fundamental and traditional teaching of “reading, writing and arithmetic”: object lessons, drawing lessons, natural history notions, school museums, gymnastics, school walks, manual labor, singing, choral music (…)? Because in our eyes, they are the main thing, because in them lies educational virtue. These were the words of Jules Ferry in 1880, a few months before the major laws establishing free, compulsory primary schooling for all French children, boys and girls alike, aged 6 to 13.

Thus, Jules Ferry never wished to focus primary education on the famous “fundamentals” – French and mathematics – contrary to what we often hear today. It was at this time that the physical and natural sciences entered the primary school curriculum, in perfect harmony with mathematics and French.

The aim was no longer, as it had been under the Ancien Régime, to give the children of the people the rudiments needed for work, but rather to “give children the habit of thinking early on”. These are fine intentions, but we shouldn’t forget that the reality of primary schooling in the Third Republic was very different. The school system was two-tiered: a tiny minority from privileged backgrounds benefited from a parallel elementary education (for which fees were charged), giving access to a secondary education that was essentially inaccessible to the majority of “communal” pupils. The mythical Certificat d’Etudes Primaires was not easy, and around a quarter of pupils passed it by 1900.

In 2023, it would be ridiculous to draw inspiration from the Ferry laws, many aspects of which would make no sense in today’s society. At the very least, we can retain the desire to avoid an excessive focus on fundamentals. However, this is what has been practiced for the past ten years, without any improvement in French or maths results.

Mathematics, a science among others

The result, on the other hand, is that access to culture (history, geography, science, languages, music, sport, etc.) is increasingly limited to children from privileged backgrounds, who have access to family dialogues and high-quality extracurricular activities. It is certainly difficult to approach physics without a minimum of practice in mathematics and French. But the reverse is also true: how can you understand the mathematical concept of volume, for example, without having decanted liquids from one container into another? Or that of the perimeter of a circle without having wrapped a string around a bottle? Reading, writing and counting” should be seen as a means to an end, but not as an end in itself, which is to think.

The French education system often forgets that mathematics is one science among others, and that the sciences should be studied as a whole, at least in elementary school. Many school teachers have understood the need for a global approach: they make sure that children write their science homework in good French, and don’t hesitate to offer dictations with a scientific content.

Will Le Monde readers be able to answer this question posed to the 1922 “certif”: “A paper casserole. For folding, the object must be exactly 8 centimeters high. Candidates will have to determine the dimensions of the square of paper to be used”? This example shows how mathematics, drawing and manual work could be combined in those days.