Publication Date

May 1, 1990

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • Europe

As I sat down to write this essay, a letter appeared in the Indianapolis Star lamenting the infantile world view of modern liberalism, the origins of which the writer traced to the teaching of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Kirk S. Freeman, “About the nature of Liberalism,” letter to Indianapolis Star, November 22, 1989). The lamentable impact of Rousseau’s thought is poorly understood, the writer argued, because nobody studies the French Revolution today, or even cares about it! Now I would probably disagree with everything about this letter except its implied conclusion: more of our students should be studying the French Revolution and reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In the following pages I propose to deal with three major issues. First, why should we be teaching the French Revolution in general education courses, given the many important events or periods in world history vying for our attention? Second, how should we teach the Revolution to our students, given the difficulty of doing justice to so complex and controversial an event in the space of three to four weeks of the semester? Third, moving from general argument to specific example, I will describe how we at Butler University structure our four-week unit on the Revolution in our sophomore interdisciplinary world cultures course, “Change and Tradition.”

Why should we teach the French Revolution to our college students, or indeed to our high school students? The trend in recent years in college curricula has been away from Western civilization and toward world history courses, or toward interdisciplinary courses with a substantial non-Western focus. Given this impetus to introduce our students more fully to the Asian and African past, is there still room for the French Revolution in our general education courses? Obviously I believe there is.

The French Revolution has historical significance down to the present day. This is obvious for nineteenth-century Europe, whether one is speaking of the Congress of Vienna, the revolutions of 1848, British electoral reform, or the patterns of unification in Italy or Germany. But it is equally true if we extend our gaze beyond the realm of European history narrowly defined. The Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 cannot be properly understood without some reference to 1789 and 1793, and the Bolsheviks arguably amplified the resonance of the French Revolution for other twentieth-century revolutionary movements.

Anyone who teaches modern Chinese history, as I do occasionally, emphasizes the influence of 1917 on the Chinese revolutionary movement, but we should also note that many, if not most, of the early Chinese communist leaders studied in Paris in the teens and twenties, and nearly all studied Enlightenment thought and the history of the French Revolution. In a most timely and poignant paper delivered at the May 1989 Bicentennial Congress in Washington, Professor Zhang Zhilian, Beijing University spoke of the delayed impact of the French Revolution on Chinese society, delayed until the last decades of the nineteenth century. Professor Zhang’s father sat for the very last imperial examination in 1905. Professor Zhang has kept his father’s eight-legged essay, at great risk to himself, and in it one finds references not only to Confucius, as one would expect, but to Montesquieu and Rousseau as well. Professor Zhang closed his comments, in those heady days of early May, with the hopeful statement that at last, in 1989, the students in Tiananmen Square were making a French revolution in China. That they failed in their effort renders the allusion no less significant.

If we look closer to home, we would see that the rising sun above Lake Managua on the Nicaraguan flag undeniably resembles a phrygian cap. The symbols of the French Revolution have obviously endured. Finally, while the attention of most of us in 1989 was focused on the Champs Elysées and the flurry of scholarly books and articles that appeared, it seems to me not too farfetched to suggest that the inspiration of 1789 played some small part in the events that swept across Eastern Europe in 1989-90.

A second reason I would offer for teaching the French Revolution to our students has to do with what I see as one of the goals of general education. In a very fine and provocative essay in the Atlantic Monthly, November 1988, Paul Gagnon posed the general question, “Why study history?” His main answer was that only through the study of history will our students gain the perspective and critical judgment necessary to be responsible citizens. This is a very important lesson for a time at which most Americans seem all too willing to abdicate their responsibility as citizens. The critical study of our own history is crucial in this regard, as Professor Gagnon argued, but it seems to me that the study of the French Revolution can also make an important contribution in this age of political apathy. One lesson to be drawn from 1789, certainly, is that ordinary people can make a difference, that political activism can have an impact.

Henry Giroux has taken this argument a step further, onto more controversial ground certainly, in his writing on pedagogy for “citizenship education,” as he calls it. “If citizenship education is to be emancipatory, it must begin with the assumption that its major aim is not ‘to fit’ students into the existing society; instead, its primary purpose must be to stimulate their passions, imaginations, and intellects so that they will be moved to challenge the social, political, and economic forces that weigh so heavily upon their lives. In other words, students should be educated to display civic courage, i.e., the willingness to act as if they were living in a democratic society.” (Henry A. Giroux, Theory and Resistance in Education: A Pedagogy for the Opposition, 1983.)

Many would challenge the last part of Giroux’s statement, but few of us would disagree with the first two points of his prescription on how to achieve this sort of citizenship education. First he stresses that students must actively participate in the learning process, and second that they “must be taught to think critically.” These points have implications not only for why we should study the French Revolution, but for how we study it.

How should we introduce our students in general education courses, or European history surveys, to the twists and turns of the French Revolution? What should we be trying to teach them? These are not easy questions. So much happened, in such a short period of time, involving so many people, that it is easy to get lost in the detail. And today there is so much controversy about why the Revolution occurred, who really led it, and to what consequence, that it is difficult for us to interpret the Revolution for our students. I would argue that, at least in introductory courses, we should do our best to avoid the first dilemma (what to do with the complicated sequence of events), and make a virtue out of the second (the lack of a clear and neat interpretation).

In teaching the French Revolution in introductory courses I think we must downplay chronology. We simply cannot tell the story of the Revolution to our students, or give it to them in a text, and hope for them to make any sense of it. We must not be dismayed that they cannot remember when the King fled to Varennes or when Robespierre went to the guillotine. I am willing to admit that it was at least graduate school, if not, to be more honest, my second teaching job, before I really began to master the complicated chronology of the Revolution. To demand more from our students would be counterproductive.

If we emphasize events and chronology, then our students will lose sight of themes and issues, and it is these that are more important for us to teach. Give the students a crutch to help them find key dates and names—a timeline and a brief glossary are easy to produce—but organize your unit on the Revolution around themes and issues. Let me turn now to explore what some of those themes might be, and to suggest ways to teach them that will introduce our students both to the nuances of historical interpretation and to the value of civic courage.

There is a host of themes and issues from the Revolution that might merit attention in an introductory course, some of which I will note only in passing. They include the nature of corporate society under the Old Regime, the causes of the Revolution, the debate over the abolition of slavery, church/state relations, the place of women in the Revolution, the failure of revolutionary politics, and the rise of Napoleon to power. All would be legitimate themes in a general education course, but I would like to concentrate on three others: revolutionary politics, revolutionary ideas and ideology, and revolutionary symbolism.

Whether or not one accepts the revisionist argument that revolutionary politics failed to have social underpinnings (and I number myself among the skeptics), I would argue that an introductory course should unabashedly emphasize the vitality and importance of revolutionary politics in and of themselves. Whether the French Revolution was essentially political, not social, no one can deny that 1789 witnessed an explosion of political activity at all levels and of all kinds. People got involved, whether by going to Versailles as a delegate, drafting a cahier, attacking seigneurial dues, joining a club, rioting against grain prices, or storming the Bastille. Robert Darnton has suggested in “What was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?” New York Review of Books, January 19, 1989, the word “possibilism” to characterize the mentality prevailing among the French during this extraordinary period, the notion that anything was possible, that society could be made better, that “ordinary people can make history instead of suffering it.”

This is an important lesson for our “ordinary” students at a time of great political disillusionment. Most people who do not vote in American elections abstain because of their conviction that their vote would not make a difference, that indeed very little is possible for the ordinary citizen in the American political system. But if common artisans could go to their section meetings, night after night, convinced of their ability to make a difference, then surely we should be able to rekindle that spirit among would-be yuppies in late-twentieth-century America.

As Henry Giroux suggests, the best way for students to learn is to participate, rather than simply hearing us tell them that there was a lot of political activism in revolutionary France. Perhaps the high point of political participation in France came early in the Revolution, during the drafting of grievance lists in winter/spring 1789. This is something our students can experience. Give them a sample of the grievance lists, which are readily available in translation. Have them prepare their own grievance lists, and then divide them into “estates” and let them struggle to come up with a common list. This exercise can have the salutary effect of loosening their tongues for subsequent discussions and allowing them to sense how politics began during the French Revolution.

The theme of revolutionary ideas and ideology presents a wide range of options to the professor, and I shall not try to catalog them here. The argument that Enlightenment thought triggered the revolutionary outburst of 1789 has long ago been laid to rest, but there can be little doubt that Enlightenment writers—from Voltaire and Montesquieu to Rousseau and Mably to Diderot and the Grub Street hacks—shaped the intellectual and political world view of the revolutionaries. The question is, how do we help our students to get at the Enlightenment in a meaningful way and in an economical fashion? The answer, a standard one in general education courses, is to oversimplify, to be arbitrary, and to focus on a central issue. The issue I would propose is kingship. Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, the backstreet scandalmongers of Paris, and of course the revolutionary deputies themselves were all concerned with the nature of kingship, the limitations upon kingly power, and ultimately the abolition of monarchy. In this topic, too, lies a wonderful opportunity to get students involved in the history of the Revolution. The trial of Louis XVI can still be great drama, and speeches from the trial are readily available. Have students read a few of those speeches and then let them try the king themselves in class. It will force them to confront the complicated circumstances and perilous consequences of each possible verdict, and it will impress upon them the gravity with which the deputies approached their task.

Revolutionary symbolism is the third theme I have suggested for inclusion in an introductory course, both for what it reveals about revolutionary ideals and their application and because of the ability of symbols to engage students in the material, just as they engaged the French in the 1790s. The recent work of Lynn Hunt, Maurice Agulhon, Mona Ozouf, and James Leith has made clear to us the importance of revolutionary symbols and their power to express, mold, and manipulate revolutionary values (Lynn A. Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, 1984; Maurice Agulhom, Marianne into Battle, 1981; Mona Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution, 1988; James A. Leith, The Idea of Art as Propaganda in France, 1750–1790, 1965). These symbols are accessible to our students in the classroom. The words “liberty, equality, and fraternity” were certainly symbols, and a discussion of their meaning, or meanings, will draw students back to the realm of ideas and ideology. Symbols can be tangible, too—pass around revolutionary playing cards or the new calendar as examples of the ways in which the radical republic tried to remake every facet of ordinary life. The phrygian cap can suggest to students the degree to which the French, even commoners, had a sense of history. Have students compare an assignat from the Year Two to a one dollar bill, or the “Marseillaise” to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” A discussion of symbols can help bring the Revolution alive for students and prompt them to think about the symbols they encounter in their own lives. Ask if they can remember the last time they attended a civic festival!

Let me return for a moment to the issue of historical interpretation. Much is said these days about the fact that the “classical interpretation” has been debunked and that nothing has yet merged to take its place. I suggested earlier that we make a virtue out of this, not by overwhelming our students with the historiographical debate in all of its glory and confusion, but simply by introducing it. Choose a single event—the storming of the Bastille, the Champs de Mars massacre, or the execution of the king—and offer them short accounts from different perspectives: a contemporary version, Michelet’s history, Taine’s account, or Rudés description. There are many events, and many accounts, from which to choose. The exercise will scarcely be exhaustive, or definitive, but it will show some students that history is not truth, that there are different ways of seeing history and writing it.

These are the themes I try to stress with my students. As for reading, in addition to a brief secondary text, we require a number of primary texts and documents, two of them substantial and the rest quite short. The first is Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro, which presents an amusing picture of Old Regime corporate society and has a few things to say about kingship as well. Our second substantial text is Rousseau’s Second Discourse, despite its contribution to infantile liberalism! It is a difficult text, but it raises some crucial issues: the origins of inequality, of course; the right to private property; the nature of civil society; the legitimacy of monarchy; and it concludes with Rousseau’s biting indictment of eighteenth-century French hypocrisy. There is much here into which students can sink their teeth. Furthermore, one finds echoes of Rousseau in many of the documents from the revolutionary period beginning, for us, with Sieyés’ “What is the Third Estate?” My colleague Keith Baker describes Sieyés’ pamphlet as a document that makes the transition from the abstract thought of the Enlightenment to the practical politics of the Revolution, and it is thus an ideal piece for students to read, even if only excerpts. It translates the social utility emphasized in Diderot’s Encyclopedia into a political program, and it turns on its head the corporate hierarchy so ably described, and lampooned, by Beaumarchais. Finally, Sieyés’ pamphlet is a rhetorical masterpiece, a model of clarity and organization that our students would do well to emulate.

We also require the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” an obvious selection where one again finds echoes of Rousseau, and excerpts from the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” and from Olympe de Gouges’ “Declaration of the Rights of Woman,” each of which raises issues I have not dwelled upon in this essay. We then turn to excerpts from a few of the speeches at the trial of the king, to which I have already alluded, and two very brief pieces I particularly enjoy: “Definition of a Moderate” and “What is a Sans-culotte?” each of which appeared in Paris newspapers in 1793. I find them useful not only because of what they say about street politics in Paris, but also because one can find the origins of their ideological position in the writings of Sieyés and Rousseau. We conclude our unit on the Revolution with excerpts from two of Robespierre’s most famous speeches. Here again, particularly in his speech “On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy,” students will find clear parallels to the ideas in Rousseau’s Second Discourse.

In his Bastille Day editorial in July 1989, George Will wrote that we should celebrate July 4 but decry July 14. Obviously I think there is a good deal to celebrate in the French Revolution, in particular the political vitality that it unleashed, even though it did bring violence in its wake. It is an illusion to think our own revolution was somehow peaceful and harmonious, but it is similarly foolish to believe other more violent revolutions produced nothing of enduring value. Good things are often born out of contention and conflict.

If taught well, the history of the Revolution still offers important lessons: that civic courage is a virtue, that ideas do make a difference, and that, as for the men, and women, of 1789, all things can be possible in the lives, and education, of our students today.

Paul Hanson is associate professor of history at Butler University in Indianapolis.