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Anatole France: Education and War

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

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Anatole France: Selections on war

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Anatole France
Education and War
From a speech delivered before a congress of teachers’ associations in 1919
Translated by J. Lewis May

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In forming the child, you shall be preparing the future. What a task this means to-day, in this great overthrow of things during which the ancient societies are crumbling beneath the weight of their faults, when conquerors and conquered fall side by side into the abyss of a common misery, exchanging looks of hatred as they descend! In the social disorder created by the war and consecrated by the peace which follows it, you have everything to do; everything to rebuild. Let your courage and your spirit be high. It is your task to create a new humanity, to waken new intelligences, if you do not wish to see Europe fall back into folly and barbarism.

They will say to you, “Of what use are your efforts? Man does not change.” Yes! He has changed! He has changed since the age of the caverns, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad; he changes with his environment, and it is education which moulds him as much, perhaps, as air and nourishment. Yes, we must not allow to exist an instant longer the kind of education which rendered possible, which favored even (for it was of much the same variety in all so-called civilized nations), this fearful catastrophe under which we lie half buried. First of all, everything which can make a child love war and its crimes must be banished from the school, a task, this, which will require your long and constant effort, if it is not some day accomplished by the whirlwind of universal revolution. Among our bourgeois, greater and less, among our proletariat as well, the destructive instincts, with whose possession we reproach the Germans, are carefully cultivated.

A few days ago M. La Fouchardière went to a bookshop and asked for some books for a little girl. They could give him only tales and pictures of killings, throat-cuttings, massacres, and exterminations. On next Mid-Lent day, you will see at Paris, on the Champ Elysees, thousands and thousands of youngsters dressed as generals and marshals. The cinematograph will show them the beauties of war; the children will be thus prepared for a military career, and as long as there are soldiers there will be wars. Our diplomats have even left some to the Germans. From childhood on, they will thus be busy preparing soldiers.

My friends: let us break with these dangerous practices. It is the teacher’s task to lead the child to love peace and its works and to detest war. He must banish from education everything that leads to hatred of the stranger, even to the hatred of yesterday’s enemy, not because one should be easy with crime or ready to absolve the guilty, but because a people, no matter what it may be, is composed more of victims than of criminals, and because the punishment of the guilty ought not to be extended to innocent generations, and generally, because all peoples have much to pardon and be pardoned for.

In a fine book which has just appeared, a book which I counsel you to read, Clean Hands, an essay on education without dogma, Michel Corday has pronounced these words which I use to reinforce my own: “I hate those who debase man to the brute level by hurling him upon all who are not exactly like him.”

My friends, cause hate to be hated! This is the most necessary and the simplest part of your task. The state of things into which a devastating war has plunged France and an entire world imposes on you duties of an extreme complexity which are difficult to fulfil. Pardon me for having returned to this, but it is the main point from which all depends. You must, without hope of finding either comfort or aid or even consent, be prepared to change education from roof tree to foundation stone in order to form constructive lives. Only workers have a place in modern society; the rest will be carried away in the whirlwind. Form intelligent workers, learned in the arts they practise, knowing what they owe to both the national community and the human community. Burn! burn all the books which teach hatred. Exalt toil and love. Form for us men who are reasonable, men capable of trampling upon the empty splendors of barbaric glories, capable of resisting the sanguinary desires of those nationalisms and imperialisms which crushed their fathers.

Let there be no more industrial rivalries; no more wars; let us have work and peace. Whether we will it or not, an hour is at hand in which we must choose between being citizens of the world or spectators at the death of civilization.

My friends, permit me to express an earnest wish which I must put before you incompletely and all too rapidly, a wish whose master idea, however, seems to me to be of a kind able to find root in all generous minds. With all my heart I look forward to a day when a delegation of teachers of all nations shall ally itself with the Workingmen’s International, to prepare in concert with that organization a programme of universal education which shall sow in young minds the ideas from which the peace of the world and the union of peoples shall spring.

Reason, wisdom, intelligence, forces of the intellect and the heart, you whom I have always piously invoked, come to my side, help me, sustain my feeble voice, carry it whither it will go, to all the peoples of the world; let it be heard wherever there are men of good will to hear beneficent truth.

A new order of things is born. The powers of evil are dying, poisoned by their own crimes. The avaricious and the cruel, the devourers of peoples perish of an indigestion of blood. Nevertheless, sorely stricken by the fault of their blind or guilty masters, mutilated, decimated, the people stand erect; they will unite to form one universal people, and we shall see the accomplishment of the great Socialist prophecy — “The union of the workers will bring peace to the world.”‘

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