The traditional view of Napoleon Bonaparte shows him as a power-hungry megalomaniac who made himself Emperor, warring throughout a large part of the world from Russia to Egypt. The English called him “Boney” and caricatured the man with his hand in his vest, attempting to degrade a powerful warrior. The intelligentsia of Europe praised his spreading of the concepts of the French Revolution, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity throughout Europe, bringing to many areas the downfall of long despised feudalism. Beethoven planned to dedicate a symphony to Napoleon, until Boney crowned himself Emperor. At this stage of his career Napoleon lost the following of the Liberal intelligentsia.
When I began my studies in France, one evening we went to the local cinema to see the film War and Peace. I realized that the majority of the French still greatly admire Napoleon: during intermission, right after a scene in which the French were routed in a battle against the Russians, in the lobby the French were complaining loudly and bitterly that Napoleon or the French never retreated.
One can find many varying aspects to Napoleon’s persona, but here we are to look at his outstanding effect on and contributions to the educational system of France. France was already a country with excellent Universities—Sorbonne and Montpellier to name two—but this privilege was basically dedicated to the education of the children of the aristocrats and elites. Napoleon, while creating the Code Napoleon, or Civil Code, which recharged and codified many of the laws and institutions of France, was faced with a series of existing laws that varied in each French province. He set out to replace the tangled mess with a standard code for all French people. He also brought powerful changes to the education of all citizens’ children. He established the pan-French system of lycees (secondary schools) which educated and prepared students for the universities. This had been a long standing desire of the revolutionaries.
Napoleon saw to it that education was available to all. If the student could not afford tuition, he offered scholarships to students—including those who could not afford to pay the fees.
Of course, church officials complained—they felt the church no longer held power over the educational system. However, Napoleon’s goal was to produce government officials and citizens who were loyal to the country as well as the principals of its revolution. He also introduced a great deal of new material to the curriculum that brought together the people of France and created a patriotic citizenship working for the good of the nation.
To this day, the educational system has much of the same strength that Napoleon Bonaparte instilled. At the 82 universities of France that give an equal education to the 1.5 million students who attend, there are charged no kinds of tuition fees whatsoever. There are undergraduate enrollment charges which were in effect when I attended the Universite d’Montpellier. At the time, the fee was in French francs, and was equal to 35 dollars, a very small amount. Today it is just 165 Euro, still a relatively small amount. In addition, there is no difference in tuition fees for French citizens or foreign students.
However, before you go running off to French universities, be warned that they are very tough schools. The amount of hours required term-wise and the amount of hours in homework are phenomenal. One of the reasons that they remain cost free is that you are allowed to attend and stay in school so long as you maintain the required grade-point—otherwise, you are asked to vacate the premises. Many French classes are taught by the lecturer standing in front of the room, then promptly walking out of the room; questions are not often deemed necessary or accepted. Exams I remember as a particular nightmare, though nowadays classes are available in English and exams can be taken in English as well.
In discussing the condition of the universities of the United States in comparison to those in France, I am compelled to say that it is time we investigated in-depth the availability of free education for all students, not students loaned funds by the Government and then released with degrees and a massive load of personal debt. The concept of putting this debt off until graduation only postpones the same issue. Recently, marching with fellow students and faculty to demonstrate against the priorities in the funding process of Portland State University, I was astonished by speakers addressing the obviously askew funding priorities of the institution, and the necessity as seen by the administration for thus raising tuition substantially and regularly, all the while not raising salaries of those in positions to educate and form the opinions of the students who will inherit tomorrow.
Looking back at the advances of education under Napoleon Bonaparte, it is time that we decide education is no longer a privilege enjoyed by those in Ivy-covered halls donated by their families. It is a tool that must be given to the entirety of a nation’s students, from Kindergarten until they walk out under mortarboard with a degree or a doctorate, thus arming our citizens with the power to move forward in an ever-changing and ever-diversifying world.
I went to the University in France with the traditional American concept of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte as a tyrannical funny little man. I came away with much revealed to me in praise of his hard work and dedication as he burned the midnight oil developing and establishing, in his rooms at Fontainebleau, lasting principles for France, desiring to improve the lot of the French people.