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Title: College [abridged]
Original Title: Collège [abridged]
Volume and Page: Vol. 3 (1753), pp. 634–637
Authors : Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert, Edme-François Mallet
Translator: Nelly S. Hoyt; Thomas Cassirer
Subject terms:
Original Version (ARTFL): Link
Source: Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer, trans., The Encyclopedia: Selections: Diderot, d'Alembert and a Society of Men of Letters (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965).

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America.

Citation (MLA): d'Alembert, Jean-Baptiste le Rond, and Edme-François Mallet. "College [abridged]." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Collège [abridged]," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 3. Paris, 1753.
Citation (Chicago): d'Alembert, Jean-Baptiste le Rond, and Edme-François Mallet. "College [abridged]." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Collège [abridged]," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 3:634–637 (Paris, 1753).

This article, classified under "Term of Architecture," begins with a brief statement about the architecture as well as the history of colleges in general, which is signed by the initial of the Abbé Mallet (G). The main body of the article, however, is the long project of reform written by d'Alembert.

The collèges were secondary schools and were under the supervision of the Sorbonne, which usually furnished their directors or regents. Until their expulsion from France in 1764 most of these colleges were staffed by the Jesuits. Among the best known were the Collège Louis le Grand, where Voltaire studied, the Collège d'Harcourt, Diderot's school, and the Collège des Quatre-Nations, where d'Alembert received his education. The last-named was known in the eighteenth century for its Jansenist sympathies.

In spite of the careful language used by d'Alembert, his article involved him in a controversy with the Jesuits. For a recent treatment of this see R. Grimsley, Jean d'Alembert, 1717–83 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), chap. II, pp. 34ff. [Translator note]

College. We shall not discuss here the historical details of the foundation of the different colleges of Paris. These details are not the aim of our work and, besides, would interest the public very little. There exists a far more important subject which we want to make our concern, and that is the type of education given to the young in these colleges.

Quintilian, who among the writers of antiquity is one of those with the best sense of taste, discusses in his Institutio oratoria whether public education is to be preferred to private education, and he favors the former. Almost all modern authors who have dealt with the subject since the time of this great man have shared his opinion. I shall not examine whether the majority among them were favorably disposed to this opinion because of their profession or whether they were determined to follow it because of a blind admiration for the thought of the ancients. The question here is one of reason, not of authority, and it is well worth examining it on its own merits.

I note, first of all, that we have rather limited knowledge of the way in which instruction, public or private, was carried out in antiquity. Thus, as we are unable to compare the method of the ancients with our own, the opinion of Quintilian, though perhaps fully justified for his period, cannot be of much importance here. Therefore, one should examine what is taught in our colleges, then compare it with education as carried out in the home, and arrive at a decision after that.

But before I deal with so important a subject, I must warn the impartial reader that this article might shock some, though such is not my intention. I have no more reason to hate those of whom I shall speak than to be afraid of them; there are even many among them whom I regard highly, and some whom I love and respect. My quarrel is not with men, it is with abuses, abuses that offend and distress not only me but the majority of those who help perpetrate them because they are afraid of going against the tide. My subject matter should be the concern of government and church and it should be possible to speak of it freely without offending anybody. Having taken this precaution I shall begin.

Public education can be reduced to five headings: humanities, rhetoric, philosophy, morals, religion.

Humanities . This is the name applied to the span of time devoted to learning the rules of Latin. This time is approximately six years. Toward the end, a very superficial acquaintance with Greek is added to it. Those ancient authors who can be most easily understood are explained more or less successfully; and Latin composition is taught after a fashion. I am not aware of anything else that might be taught there. Still one has to admit that at the University of Paris, where each professor is in charge of a particular class, the humanities are stronger than in the monastic colleges where the professors progress from class to class and acquire knowledge with their students, learning with them what they should teach. Once again it is not the fault of the teachers, it is the fault of custom.

Rhetoric . When one knows or thinks one knows Latin, one goes on to rhetoric. At this moment one becomes creative, for until then there has only been translation either from Latin into French or from French into Latin. In rhetoric one learns first to develop an idea, to amplify and lengthen periodic sentences, and little by little one arrives at formal orations, always or almost always in Latin. These speeches are called "amplifications"; a most apt name since usually these discourses consist in flooding two pages with verbiage that could and should have been contained in two lines. I am not speaking of the figures of rhetoric so dear to some modern pedants, whose names have become so ridiculous that their writings have been entirely banished from the lessons of those professors who have some common sense. Still, some people continue to value these figures of rhetoric highly and it is common for students who aspire to the degree of master of arts to be questioned on this important subject.

Philosophy . After having spent seven or eight years learning words or talking without saying anything, finally one begins or believes one begins the study of ideas. For this is the true definition of philosophy. But the philosophy of the colleges is far from deserving the name. The course of study usually begins with a "compendium," which is, if one may say so, the meeting place of an infinite number of useless questions about the existence of philosophy, the philosophy of Adam, etc. From these the student goes on to logic. The logic that is taught, at least in a great number of colleges, is precisely the logic the philosophy teacher was going to teach to the would-be gentlemen. [1] The student is taught to comprehend by means of the universals, to judge by means of categories, to construct a syllogism by means of figures, barbara, celarent, darii, fesio, baralipton , etc. He is asked whether logic is an art or a science, whether the conclusion is the essence of syllogism, etc., etc., etc. All these questions are not to be found in the Art de penser , [2] an excellent book, which one can reproach with some justification in that it has made too fat a volume out of the rules of logic. Metaphysics is more or less of the same order; the most important truth and the most useless discussions are jumbled together. Before and after the discussion of the proofs of the existence of God, the same meticulous treatment is accorded to the important questions of formal or virtual distinctions, of a universal from the point of view signified, and an infinite number of other topics. [3] Is it not in a way blasphemous to insult the greatest of truths by juxtaposing it with such ridiculous and miserable minutiae? Finally in physics the student builds a world system at his whim; everything or almost everything finds an explanation; Aristotle, Descartes, Newton are accepted or refuted without rhyme or reason. This course, which lasts two years, is brought to a close with a few pages on ethics, which is commonly left to the end, probably because it is treated as the least important topic.

Customs, Morals and Religion . In the case of the first of these topics we must do justice to the efforts of most of the masters, but we shall willingly defer to their judgment and bewail with them the corruption of the youth in the colleges, a corruption for which they are not responsible. As for religion, we find that in the colleges two excesses are to be equally feared: the first and most frequent is to reduce everything to outward observance and assign to these gestures virtues they surely do not possess; the second is to force children to concentrate on this subject and make them neglect, for its sake, all those other studies that some day would make them useful to their country. Under the pretext that Jesus Christ said that one must always pray, some teachers, and especially those who are very rigid in their principles, would like to see most time destined for study spent in meditations and catechisms; as if work performed conscientiously and with precision were not the best prayer before God! Those students who either by temperament or because of laziness or indolence comply with their master in this respect usually leave the colleges with a higher degree of ignorance and foolishness.

All this means is that a young man, if he has spent his time wisely, leaves the college after ten years—among the most precious years of his life—with a very imperfect knowledge of a dead language and with precepts of rhetoric and principles of philosophy which he should endeavor to forget; often with impaired health, which is the least of the effects of the corruption of morals; sometimes with principles of misunderstood worship; but more frequently with such a superficial knowledge of religion that he succumbs to the first blasphemous conversation, the first dangerous reading. See Class. [4]

I know that the most intelligent masters deplore these abuses even more strongly than we do here. Almost all of them passionately hope for a different kind of education in the colleges. We merely present here what they are thinking and what none of them dare to write. The established tradition has them in its grip and they find it hard to liberate themselves. In the matter of customs, men of good sense follow the law of fools. In these reflections on public education I have no intention of ridiculing those who teach. Such feelings would be far removed from the gratitude I have for my masters. I recognize with them that only the high authority of the government can stop the progress of such great evil. I even have to admit that some professors of the University of Paris resist as much as they can and even dare to depart from the routine at the risk of being condemned by the great majority. If they would dare even more, if their example were followed, perhaps at long last we would see the state of education change. But this is a benefit only time can bring, and maybe not even time. It is in vain that true philosophy is spreading through France day by day. It is far harder for true philosophers to influence established organizations than it is to influence individuals. Here philosophy has only one head to break through, if I may use such terms; there she has to deal with a thousand. The University of Paris is made up of individuals who form neither a regular nor an ecclesiastical body and will have less trouble to shake the yoke of prejudice which still grips our schools.

Among the many useless things taught to our children in the colleges, I have not mentioned tragedies, because it seems to me that the University of Paris is beginning to condemn them almost altogether. We owe this to the late M. Rollin, [5] one of the men whose work has been most beneficial to the education of the young. He replaced declamations with exercises that are much more useful and could be even more so. Today there is widespread agreement that tragedies are a waste of time for students and masters. It is worse still when several are performed every year and even more ridiculous supplements are added, like riddles, ballets, and depressing comedies. We have before us a work of such nature, entitled The Defeat of Solecism by Despautère, [6] presented several times by a school in Paris: the Chevalier Preterit, the Chevalier Supine, the Marquess of Conjugation, and other personages of the same ilk are the lieutenants of General Despautère, against whom the two great princes, Solecism and Barbarism, have declared war to the finish. We shall spare our readers further details. We have no doubt that those who direct this school today, if they are free to act, have done away with such childishness, which is pedantic as well as in bad taste. They are too enlightened not to feel that the precious days of youth should be spent in such foolishness. I shall not mention here the ballets involving religion. I know that this is rare thanks to the vigilance of the superiors, but I also know that in spite of their vigilance, such ballets are still apt to occur. See in the Journal de Trévoux , [7] Nouvelles littéraires (September 1750) the very edifying criticism of one of these ballets. I conclude from this that there is nothing to be gained and much to be feared from this type of exercise.

It seems to me that it is not impossible to provide a different kind of education in our colleges. Why spend six years learning a dead tongue? I am far from disapproving the study of the language in which writers like Horace and Tacitus wrote; this study is absolutely essential for a knowledge of their admirable works; but I believe that it is sufficient to arrive at understanding them and that the time spent on Latin composition is time wasted. This same time would be better spent in learning the principles of one's own language, which students still do not know when they leave college and which they speak very badly. A good French grammar would furnish at one and the same time excellent logic, excellent metaphysics, and would be equal to all the rhapsodies given in its stead. Besides, what kind of Latin is it that is taught in some of the colleges! We appeal to the judgment of experts.

A modern rhetorist, Father Porée, [8] very admirable in his personal qualities, but of whom we must speak only the truth since he is no more, was the first who dared create a jargon very different from the language spoken by men like Hersan, Marin, Grenan, Commire, Cossarts, Jouvency [9]—a language still spoken by some famous professors of the university. The successors of the rhetoricians could not get far enough away from his example. See Latinity, [10] Eloquence, and Rhetoric.

I know that since Latin is a dead language and almost all its finer points escape us, those who are reputed to write most proficiently in that language today perhaps write it very badly. At least the defects of their pronunciation equally escape us. And how ridiculous must their pronunciation be when their written Latin makes even us laugh. A foreigner knowing very little French would easily recognize that the pronunciation of Montagne [ sic ], that is of the sixteenth century, is closer to the pronunciation of the good writers of the time of Louis XIV than to that of Geoffroy de Villehardouin who wrote in the thirteenth century.

Besides, no matter how much respect I have for some of our modern humanists, I pity them for having to make such an effort to speak elegantly a language other than their own. They are wrong if they see in this the value of a difficulty overcome. It is more difficult to speak and write well in one's own tongue than in a dead language: the proof is striking. I see that the Greeks and the Romans, when their languages were alive, had no more good writers than we have; I see that they, like us, had a very small number of good poets, and that this is true for all nations. I see on the other hand that the rebirth of letters has produced a huge quantity of Latin poets whom we are good enough to admire. What can have given rise to this difference? And if Virgil or Horace were to return to earth to judge these modern heroes of the Latin Parnassus, should we not be apprehensive of their judgment? Why is it, as a modern author has noted, that this most respectable company, which has produced a host of Latin versifiers, cannot claim a single readable French poet? Why is it that the collections of French poems, which unhappily sometimes are the products of our colleges, are so unsuccessful, whereas several men of letters respect the Latin poems produced in these same colleges? I have to admit, by the way, that the University of Paris is very careful and reserved on the subject of French poetry and I cannot blame it. We shall speak of this further in the article Latinity. Let us conclude from these remarks that Latin compositions have great drawbacks and that it would be far better if French compositions were substituted. This is beginning to be done now at the University of Paris; Latin is still preferred, but at least French is being taught.

I have sometimes heard regrets voiced that theses were no longer defended in Greek. I am far more sorry that they are not being defended in French. Then one would have to speak rationally or be silent.

Foreign languages like English, Italian, and perhaps German and Spanish, in which there are a great number of good authors, should also become part of the curriculum of the schools. Most of them would be more useful than dead languages, which are only tools for scholars.

I say the same of history and all the sciences related to it, like chronology and geography. In spite of the low esteem in which the study of history seems to be held in the colleges, childhood is perhaps the time when it should be taught. History, rather useless for men in general, is of greatest value for children. It presents them with examples, it gives them living lessons in virtue at a time when they as yet have no well-defined principles, either good or bad. It is not at the age of thirty that one should begin the study of history, unless simply for reasons of curiosity. At the age of thirty the mind and the heart are what they will be for the rest of one's life. An intelligent acquaintance of mine, by the way, would like to see history taught in reverse. That is, begin with our own time and go back to the centuries past. This idea seems to me very apt and very philosophical: Why bore a child with the history of Pharamond, Clovis, Charlemagne, Caesar, Alexander, and leave him in ignorance of his own period? For this is what usually happens because of the dislike created by the beginnings.

As far as rhetoric is concerned, one would prefer to see it exist in examples rather than precepts; reading should not be confined to ancient authors who are sometimes wrongly admired. One should have the courage to criticize them often, to compare them to modern authors, and to show in what way we are better or worse than the Romans or the Greeks. Perhaps philosophy should even precede rhetoric, for one should learn to think before one learns to write.

In philosophy, a few lines are all that is needed for logic; metaphysics can be limited to a summary of Locke, moral philosophy to the works of Seneca and Epictetus, Christian ethics to the Sermon on the Mount. Physics can be restricted to experiments and to geometry, which is the best of all logic and all physics.

Finally, to all these studies one would like to see added the study of the fine arts, above all, music, which is a study well designed to educate taste and to smooth manners and of which it can be said with Cicero: Haec studia adolescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, jucundas res ornant, adversis perfugium et solatium praebent . [11] I admit that such a course of study would increase the number of teachers and prolong the time of study. But (1) it seems to me that it would be to the advantage of young people to leave school later, for they would leave it better educated. (2) Children are far more capable of intelligent and sustained effort than is commonly believed. I appeal to experience. If, for instance, they were taught geometry earlier, I have no doubt that precocious talent and prodigies in this subject would be far more fre- quent than they are at present. With order and system there is not a science that cannot be taught, even to a limited mind; but system is precisely what is lacking. (3) It is not necessary to make children study all these subjects at one and the same time. They could be exposed to them progressively. Some of them could limit themselves to a few subjects only, and in all that vast quantity it would be difficult for a young man not to find one that suited his particular inclination. It is really the government, as I have said, that should change the routine and the usage. The government has only to speak and there will be enough good citizens who will propose a plan of study. But in the expectation of such a reform, which perhaps our nephews will be fortunate enough to enjoy, I have no hesitation in asserting that the education in a college as it exists is subject to far greater drawbacks than private education, through which one can much more easily acquire the various types of knowledge I have discussed in detail. I note that much is made of the two great advantages offered by education in the colleges: society and emulation. It seems to me that it would not be impossible to provide these in private education by bringing together several children of the same age and the same potential. Furthermore, and here I appeal to the teachers: emulation in the colleges is very rare and it is not without great drawbacks. I have already mentioned those concerning morality, but I want to speak here of another, all too frequent, especially in the schools that educate many young nobles; they are constantly told a great deal about their birth, about their exalted station, and in this way they are unwittingly inspired with pride in their relations to others. We beg those who teach the young to indulge in some soul-searching on this crucial point.

Another drawback of education in the colleges is that the teacher frequently has to adapt himself to the majority of his students, that is, to mediocre minds, which means a great loss of time for those who are really intelligent.

I cannot help pointing out here the difficulties of free education, and I have the support of all the most enlightened and most famous professors: if this institution has brought some advantages for the students, it has brought far greater disadvantage to the masters.

If the education of the young is being neglected we have only ourselves to blame, and the lack of consideration we give to those who are entrusted with it. This is the result of the frivolous spirit that rules our nation and overshadows, so to speak, everything else. In France one does not admire someone who fulfills his duties: one prefers to see him dabble in trifles. See Education.

This is what love of the commonweal has prompted me to say about education, public and private. What it means is that only those children whose parents cannot give them an education at home should have recourse to public education. I cannot help but remember with regret the time I lost in my youth. It is custom and not my teachers that I blame for this irreparable loss. I wish my country could profit from my experience. Exoriare aliquis . [12]


1. [Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme .]

2. [Arnauld and Nicole, La Logique ou l'Art de Penser (Paris, 1662). The authors were well-known members of the Jansenist congregation of Port-Royal.]

3. [Virtual, formal, and universalia ex parte rei (l'universel de la part de la chose )—terms of scholastic philosophy.]

4. [The article Classe , by Du Marsais, is mostly a paraphrase of Quintilian with long Latin quotations from the Institutio oratoria . It concludes with a rather laudatory remark about colleges and refers the reader to the article Collège .]

5. [Charles Rollin, the famous rector of the University of Paris, did much to improve both discipline and curriculum. In 1726 he published his Traité des études , in which he developed some of his ideas on the teaching of languages and history.]

6. [Jean Despautéres, or Van Pauteren, was a grammarian born in 1460 whose works were published in the early sixteenth century.]

7. [The full title of this publication is Mémoires pour l'histoire des sciences et des beaux arts , known simply as Journal de Trévoux , or more frequently as Mémoires de Trévoux . This journal was published by the Jesuits and printed in the town of Trévoux.]

8. [Charles Porée, S. J. (1675–1741). He taught at the Collège Louis le Grand and had been Voltaire's teacher.]

9. [Writers of the seventeenth century.]

10. [There is no article Latinité; instead there is the article Langue Latine , which ends with the statement that French might well become the language to replace Latin as the common idiom of Europe.]

11. ["... this study gives strength to our youth and diversion to our old age; it adds a charm to success and offers a consolation to failure (Cicero, Pro Archia VII. 16).]

12. [The entire quotation is: Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor ("Arise from my ashes, unknown avenger!") (Virgil, Aeneid IV. 625).]