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Anciennes et nouvelles aristocraties

Didier Lancien
Monique de Saint-Martin

IV. L'aristocratie dans tous ses états

Aristocratic Values and Elite Education in Britain and France

Robert Anderson

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1This paper looks at the elite educational systems of Britain and France, in their formative period in the nineteenth century, and in relation to the theme of aristocracy. The nature of social development in nineteenth-century Europe has been much debated in recent years, and it is widely agreed that all the major countries saw the emergence of a composite elite in which significant aristocratic elements survived (Kocka, Mitchell 1993). But if the (classic marxist) view of the era of a triumphant bourgeoisie is now seen as too simple, few would go as far as the (neo-marxist) Arno J. Mayer, who has argued that the traditional elites remained in control down to 1914, when they led Europe into war rather than surrender their privileges; Mayer sees privileged educational institutions and classical culture as bulwarks of this “persistence of the old regime” (Mayer 1981: 253-273). Mayer’s interpretation is really a generalization of the theory of the feudalization of the bourgeoisie originally proposed for Germany, and if it has some plausibility for Britain, where the aristocracy retained much social and political influence well into the twentieth century, it seems difficult to apply to France. It would be more realistic to see both societies as bourgeois ones, in which the timing and nature of educational change contributed to a different balance between new and old elites.

2The nature of the British composite elite remains a contested issue. On the one hand, Mayer’s position was anticipated by theorists like Perry Anderson (1992), who argued that the industrial revolution failed to lead to a political and social revolution, that the British bourgeois were unable to challenge the power of the aristocracy or to establish hegemonic institutions reflecting their own values, and that in the resulting compromise the old governing class succeeded in retaining its leading role. Similar views have been put forward, though from a different political standpoint, by Martin Wiener (1981), arguing that the predominance of gentlemanly values undermined the English entrepreneurial spirit. But the weight of historical opinion is on the other side of the argument: E.J. Hobsbawm, Francis M. L. Thompson (1988), David Cannadine (1990) and François Bédarida (1991) are among those who favour a classic “bourgeois” interpretation of British developments, in which the aristocracy retained some of the trappings of power, but were increasingly the junior partners in a society which was industrial, modern, and set on the road to democracy. The decline of the aristocracy, in this view, came slowly but no less surely than in France. The purpose of this paper is to explore some of the contrasts and parallels between the two countries.


3When nineteenth-century observers compared British and French education, it was a commonplace to claim that the French revolution had created a meritocratic, egalitarian society, while in Britain political continuity had preserved the power of the traditional governing class. From 1830 onwards, it was a commonplace to say that in France merit or talent had taken their place alongside birth and wealth as claims to power, and successive ministers of Education–Cousin and Villemain in the 1840s, Duruy in the 1860s–boasted that in the open society created since 1789 education was the basis of a new aristocracy of intellect. In Villemain’s words, the state had a duty to maintain elite education:

“Plus l’instruction élémentaire est aujourd’hui distribuée dans les classes les plus pauvres, plus il est besoin de maintenir et d’accroître, par le travail et la science, une aristocratie d’intelligence, qui s’élève en même temps que la nation s’éclaire, aristocratie toujours ouverte et renouvelée de toutes parts.” (Rapport au Roi 1843: 55.)

4In 1861, the scientist and educational administrator J.-Β. Dumas expounded the notion of cultural capital in a very literal sense:

“À côté de ces richesses que la propriété territoriale et les valeurs mobilières représentent, une autre richesse s’est constituée et développée: celle dont le capital consiste en une instruction solide et pratique, qui a pour symboles ou titres ces diplômes et ces grades qui en sont la consécration et la récompense. [...| Le savoir devient donc à tous les degrés [...] une richesse, une propriété dont la valeur est certaine.” (Anderson, R. 1975: 11.)

5If Orleanist liberals and Bonapartist officials could use the rhetoric of intellectual aristocracy, it came into its own under the Third Republic, a régime whose legitimating ideology posited a democracy freely accepting the leadership of the educated classes. After the political upheavals and traumatic military defeat of 1870-1871, the formation of an integrated national elite to guide democracy and restore the strength and self-confidence of the nation was discussed much more explicitly than in Britain. It inspired the movement to reform higher education led by Louis Liard, culminating in the restoration of full universities in 1896, and George Weisz (1983) has shown how the republicans looked to science and progress to provide the new elite with its faith. The concept surfaced again, as Suzanne Citron (1976) and Fritz Ringer (1992) have shown, during the debate surrounding the reform of the secondary curriculum in 1902. Alfred Fouillée referred in 1898 to “cette aristocratie intellectuelle, qui est ouverte à tous, qui se renouvelle et se rajeunit sans cesse par l’afflux des éléments ouvriers et ruraux que la démocratie lui apporte...” (Citron 1976: 86-87); and in the twentieth century a new stress was put on the state positively selecting individuals who could profit from advanced education.

6Few would today endorse the favourable view of French society taken by these liberal ideologists. Whether or not a consolidated property-owning elite was already emerging before 1789, as some revisionist interpretations of the Revolution would claim, that was certainly the outcome of the revolutionary and Napoleonic experience. Recent historians have stressed the conservative character of the French bourgeoisie once it was past its formative period, and argued that its official and professional elements turned themselves into a kind of hereditary caste or new aristocracy. The work of Pierre Bourdieu and Christophe Charle is especially important here, and has underlined the centrality of education to social reproduction.

7Nineteenth-century French analysts of British institutions tended to be liberals of an elitist kind. They usually only visited the public schools and ancient universities, which they admired for promoting the qualities of independence and “self-government” (Anderson, R. 1973). For aristocratic liberals like Montalembert in the 1850s, these survivals of the old order were to be envied. For Hippolyte Taine, English education could be used as a yardstick for condemning the centralized, uniform, deadening system installed by Napoleon. After 1870, while the more progressive republican reformers were influenced mainly by Germany, the English model took on a new significance for those-including Renan and Fustel de Coulanges (Hartog 1988: 262) as well as Taine-who thought the future of France depended on the formation of a new leadership class, fusing old and new elites, to temper mass democracy and protect it from despotism and socialism alike. The practical result was the foundation of the École libre des sciences politiques in 1872, with Taine’s disciple Emile Boutmy as director; this private school was highly successful in preserving the access of the wealthy bourgeoisie to state service (Osborne 1983). Admiration for English aristocratic values was revived at the end of the century by upper-class conservatives like Edmond Demolins, author of A quoi tient la supériorité des Anglo-Saxons (1897) and founder of the English-inspired École des Roches in Normandy, or Pierre de Coubertin, French advocate of the athletic ideal. These men were impressed by Britain’s industrial and imperial strength, and saw its secret in English individualism. The public schools, the argument went, produced a dynamic ruling class by their emphasis on independence, initiative, and the cultivation of public spirit (Anderson, R. 1973). In the 1890s, Max Leclerc was sent on a mission from Sciences-Po to study English education, and produced two volumes in which these arguments were expounded at length (Leclerc 1894a-b).


8In Britain itself, political continuity made the constitution of a new elite less urgent, but there are obvious parallels with France. The mid-Victorian educational and public service reforms–the extension of competitive examinations following the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853, the expansion of the new-model public schools, the modernization of Oxford and Cambridge between 1850 and the 1870s–were linked with Prussia’s victories in 1866 and 1870, the extension of the franchise to urban workers in 1867, and the universalization of primary education in 1870. If one of their functions was to create a new gentlemanly class in order to absorb middle-class pressures for a share in power, another was to provide stability and firm direction in a changing world. By the 1900s, the concepts of national efficiency and equality of opportunity had moved the debate into a new and more radical phase, and thinkers and educational reformers like R. B. Haldane, Sidney Webb and H. G. Wells were as concerned as their French counterparts with using scientific selection to seek out and nurture intellectual ability. The French debate over the secondary curriculum had a close counterpart in the controversies over the shaping of state secondary education after 1899 by the Board of Education and its secretary Robert Morant. And influences came full circle with the foundation in 1895 of the London School of Economics and Political Science, inspired partly by its Parisian namesake.

9One key difference was timing. Both France and Britain, one may suggest, had an “age of the notables” in the early nineteenth century, in which pre-industrial values based on landed property were still strong. The roots of the post-revolutionary French elite still lay in property, especially land, in the patrimonial family, and in political power based on local influence; the Napoleonic consolidation entrenched it in the professions, the bureaucracy, and the financial oligarchy. These notables might be classified as a grande bourgeoisie, but also included those of the old nobility who were prepared to accept their values. Their influence was at its height between 1830 and around 1880, but under the Third Republic notable dominance gave way to a broader-based bourgeois hegemony based on more diverse sources of wealth and influence. In Christophe Charle’s formula (1987: 27-72; cf. Charle 1991), this was a transition from a classe dirigeante to a classe dominante; for H.-G. Haupt (1993) from a society of notables to a class society proper.

10The destruction of the colleges and universities of the ancien régime allowed a new system to be created from scratch, tailored to the needs and cultural values of the new elite. It was centralized, secular, uniform, and run by the state. The lycées gave a general education culminating in the baccalauréat, the common stamp of bourgeois status, but higher education was vocational and specialized, whether in the grandes écoles or the faculties of law and medicine. On the face of it, there was little room for aristocratic values in such a system, but precocious political development meant that the key reforms took place before 1815, orienting education strongly towards the official and professional bourgeoisie; the character of the system was fixed before industrialization had made its impact, and a second wave of reform was needed under the Third Republic to adapt it to changing conditions.

  • 1 The complications caused by the existence of a distinctive elite education in Scotland are ignored (...)

11But since Britain did not have a “1789,” its governing class was transformed by a gradual process of assimilation, and new wealth had to establish its claims within a society in which the aristocracy remained powerful, and by remodelling existing institutions rather than founding new ones. Landed property was still closely identified with aristocratic values, the notables still included the landed class, and the assertion of bourgeois values was initially weaker. When reform happened, it was part of the delayed bourgeois challenge, and of the general overhaul of British institutions by the Victorian state, which may have been less radical than the work of Napoleon, but laid the same sort of long-term foundations. The timing of these reforms reflected the priorities of an industrialized country, so there is a prima facie case for expecting elite education to be more bourgeois and more deeply marked by the industrial spirit in Britain than in France. The existing institutions were made attractive to the middle classes, rescued from the Anglican monopoly, restored to a national role, and confirmed in their unchallengeable social prestige. It was a triumph of metropolitan over provincial values; early nineteenth-century initiatives which had expressed bourgeois values more directly were eclipsed, and both the state grammar schools established in 1902 and the “civic” universities which developed after 1870 were condemned to second rank in the hierarchy, as local rather than national institutions (Lowe 1983; Anderson, R. 1992).1


12If the reformed system may be seen as a middle-class achievement, British historians would agree that it was deeply marked by a spirit which may fairly be called aristocratic. The ideal of liberal, literary, gentlemanly culture developed by J. H. Newman and Matthew Arnold had a profound influence, and the public schools and ancient universities became key institutions for the fusion of elites, for the emergence of a uniform gentry/rentier/upper middle class, and for the development of a new professional and public service ethos. Whether this is interpreted as aristocratic values capturing bourgeois education, or as the bourgeoisie capturing national institutions from the aristocracy, is perhaps a matter of taste. But it is worth remembering that the Victorian reforms, with their emphasis on impartial examinations and on merit rather than patronage or birth, were consciously based on the French model. Jacques Demogeot and Henry Montucci, educational officials of the Second Empire who reported on British education at the end of the 1860s, noted that the state had determined to “substituer partout la capacité au privilège,” and that more and more posts “sont accessibles aux plus capables, désignés par des concours. L’aristocratie britannique se transforme pour se maintenir: elle ouvre ses rangs à ses légitimes continuateurs” (Demogeot, Montucci 1868: 37, 287). Matthew Arnold himself admired the positive cultural role of the state in France and Germany, and called on the British state to create schools on the model of the lycées, to give the middle classes a sound cultural foundation (Arnold 1964: 308-309; Marandon 1967: 436). The Arnoldian ideal was designed to produce the leadership of an urban, industrial, democratic country by fusing new and old elites, and was not at all inspired by reactionary nostalgia or the rejection of modernity.

13The new service class was national and British by definition, and to attend a public school or Oxbridge meant cutting provincial roots, and assimilating to a delocalized standard (of speech, among other things). In the twentieth century, as Cain and Hopkins (1993) and Rubinstein (1986) have emphasized, wealth and social power became more concentrated than ever in London and the south-east. While the centralization of French intellectual life and its institutions in Paris remains a phenomenon unmatched in any other country, there is certainly a British parallel with that overrepresentation of the Parisian bourgeoisie which is a familiar feature of French elite studies. Nor should one underestimate how in the university world Oxford, Cambridge and London formed an axis intimately connected with the centres of power. In Our age, his study of Britain’s recent intellectual and political life, Noel Annan (1990) hardly finds it necessary to look beyond this golden triangle.

14The English system stressed social values and the formation of character, and a place in the elite was earned by assimilation to a gentlemanly lifestyle, and socialization through institutional life and the pastoral relationship between teachers and students. Life in the public schools and ancient universities had the prestige of association with the old governing class, and was led in a characteristically aristocratic mix of architectural beauty and physical discomfort. In France the educated elite also formed a national and homogeneous group, but their education stressed intellectual values, and membership of the elite was conferred by participation in a national literary and cultural tradition. Culture was the symbolic mark of bourgeois status, and the traditional role of the classics as a social barrier and a status marker was explored by Edmond Goblot in 1925. More recently, Pierre Bourdieu’s use of the concepts of reproduction and cultural capital has linked the content of education with its social function (Bourdieu, Passeron 1964 and 1977; Bourdieu 1989). For Bourdieu, inequalities of cultural capital explain how even formally meritocratic systems (of which modern France provided the prototype) favour the héritiers, who share the traditional cultural values with which education is imbued, against the boursiers coming from below, and serve to reproduce the bourgeois social structure over the generations. Education and the use of cultural capital form one mode of social reproduction, alongside others such as inherited privilege and the transmission of wealth. The different types of capital become different modes of social ascension, with varying importance in family strategies for passing power from one generation to the next.

  • 2 Religion was also a major factor in determining the different educational patterns of elite women, (...)

15The suggestion here is that the reproduction of elites in the two countries, and their use of cultural capital, had more similarities than is often thought. The differences between them can be related to the segmentation (to use Fritz Ringer’s term) within the educational system and within the elite itself (Ringer 1979). The position of the true aristocracy, the traditional landed class, was one example of this. In France the creation of an integrated national elite after 1789 was problematic because of the religious and ideological divisions which were the revolution’s lasting legacy. The “natural” governing elite was split down the middle, and bourgeois landownership meant that the economic line between the two groups was blurred. Much more than in Britain, to be “aristocratic” or “bourgeois” was a deliberate choice for wealthy families, expressed in ideological or lifestyle terms: the life of the château, marriage into the old nobility, Catholic piety rather than Voltairean scepticism. Rejection of the secular values of the state University in favour of a Catholic schooling became one of these symbolic choices, which could be made by bourgeois families with bien pensant views or social ambitions as well as by those with longer aristocratic traditions. By making this choice they were consciously turning their backs on modernity, distancing themselves from the state, and rejecting one of the instruments of social power (Anderson, R. 1970; Bush 1975-1976; Harrigan 1976).2

16In helping to sanitize new wealth, the Catholic colleges had an affinity with the public schools, and often resembled them in their rural situation and emphasis on character formation. But whereas the English public schools were at the heart of the “establishment” and had direct connections with the state and the professions, in France it was state education which enjoyed this advantage, even for traditionally aristocratic careers like the army. If the nobility wished to exploit the educational system, they were well placed to do so, given their wealth and their resources of social and cultural capital. But they had to play the game on the terms of competition and merit laid down by the bourgeoisie, and this also involved accepting distasteful political regimes after 1830, the ideals of laïcité after 1870. A Catholic education was likely in any case to lead to discrimination within the public service (Larkin 1995), so that the nobility developed closer links with private business, where they found more ideological sympathy (Bourdieu 1989: 401-402). The army was another refuge for aristocratic values in France, even though the officer corps as a whole remained more bourgeois and meritocratic than in Britain, where it had much the same social profile–a mingling of aristocrats and upper middle class, stamped in the public school mould–as the rest of the service class (Cannadine 1990: 264-280).

17For in Britain internal segmentation was weak. There was no serious political or religious obstacle to the fusion of old and new elites. The British landed class, however much their influence declined over the years, were never alienated from the state or ejected from the centre of power; they retained that sens de l’Etat and identification with national traditions which is one of the defining characteristics of an aristocracy, and could regard the older public schools and universities as national institutions which in some sense remained their own territory. This was one of the points made by Arnold when he compared France and England: in England the glamour of antiquity and public status belonged to Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge. In France, it was the bourgeois lycées (Toulouse was the example which he visited in 1859) which could offer that “sense of belonging to a great and honourable public institution, which Eton and our three or four great public schools give to our upper class only, and to a small fragment broken off from the top of our middle class” (Arnold 1962: 264-271, 294-295).

18Within the bourgeois elite itself, there was deeper segmentation in France than in Britain, encouraged by the specialized structure of higher education. For if the term “new aristocracy” is at all valid, it certainly applies to the attachment of the haute bourgeoisie, often over several generations, to particular grandes écoles and to the bureaucratic corps to which they led. It is this traditional mentality, recalling in some cases the office-holders of the ancien régime, which has led Bourdieu to speak of a noblesse d’Etat, with its distinctive habitus and mentalities. Education was not their only mode of reproduction, but it was central to the family strategies of those who identified with state service and the professions. The grandes écoles, the competitive examination system of which they are the apex, the classes préparatoires in the top lycées which feed into them, and the “old boy” networks which secure their graduates’ place in the establishment continue to form one of the most striking institutional differences between French and British education.

19In Britain, one can certainly see strong family traditions in some services and professions. But the predominating feature is that a common pattern of education encouraged uniformity within the elite. Once the level of wealth needed to use the public schools was reached, the British middle class seem to have adopted a homogenized mode of thinking, and when families made plans for their sons they looked to the whole range of professional and business careers, not giving any privileged role to state service. The result was that the topmost elites in Britain–in politics, the civil service, law, medicine, the Church, the City, the armed services–shared a remarkably similar system of values, absorbed through education and reinforced in later life by the masculine culture of club and regiment. Alumnus networks were significant, but tied to secondary schools, not to specific occupations. In certain respects, therefore, the British elite was even more powerful, unified, and metropolitan than the French, and the fact that the newly wealthy had immediate access to the most prestigious forms of education meant that there were close links between political and economic power (Ringer 1978: 169).


20The divisions within the French elite and their differential reliance on cultural capital have been emphasized by Christophe Charle (1987) in his major study of the elites of the Third Republic between 1880 and 1900, based on a sample of 1,093 office-holders. Charle’s starting-point in 1880 corresponds to a shift in the importance of education. In the age of the notables–as indeed for the bourgeoisie of the ancien régime–education was already essential as a prerequisite for professional or bureaucratic posts. But analysts of the pre-1880 period like Jean Lhomme (1960) and André-Jean Tudesq (1964) see education not as an element of reproduction in its own right, but rather as part of a system of cultural hegemony which endorsed economic and social power. But with the end of the notables, cultural capital came into its own. So did the growing academic profession, whose values conformed closely to those of the Third Republic. While research on the sociology of academics and intellectuals in Britain remains limited, in France the centralization of the system and the records created by the state as an employer have allowed Charle and others like Paul Gerbod to give a full portrait of their origins, career conditions and mentalities (Gerbod 1965; Charle, Ferré 1985; Charle 1994). In his general study of elites, Charle divides his sample into three main groups-businessmen, officials, and academics-and posits a self-contained world of cultural capital built on the state educational system, with the Ecole normale supérieure at its apex. Families went into teaching from generation to generation, often moving up from the elementary to the secondary and higher sectors.

  • 3 As used by these authors, the term intellectual aristocracy stressed heredity rather than the meri (...)

21There was a British parallel in the “intellectual aristocracy” described by Noel Annan in a celebrated essay of 1955: the network of families which emerged in the nineteenth century to occupy the heights of intellectual and scientific life, closely tied by kinship both to each other and to the broader service class. Leonard Woolf, describing the Strachey and Stephen families which were at the heart of the Bloomsbury phenomenon, said that “both belonged to a social class or caste of a remarkable and peculiar kind which established itself as a powerful section of the ruling class in Britain in the nineteenth century. It was an intellectual aristocracy of the middle class, the nearest equivalent in other countries being the French eighteenth century noblesse de robe. The male members of the British aristocracy of intellect went automatically to the best public schools, to Oxford and Cambridge, and then into all the most powerful and respectable professions”–and he listed civil servants, generals and admirals, editors, judges, Oxbridge fellows and public school headmasters (Woolf 1980: 119).3 He might have added the clergy, for in Protestant Britain a married clergy was integrated into the general pattern of family strategies and trans-generational reproduction. He did include the Indian and colonial civil services, important outlets for the service class: the British Empire was central to their ideological identification with the nation-state, whereas in France colonial service never won a place of prestige.

22Integration into a broader elite helps to explain the absence, or at least muted presence, of a dissident or alienated intelligentsia, in a country where even the rebels and critics have often come from within the establishment. Academic intellectuals became professionalized, were drawn from the same kind of families as the rest of the service class, and absorbed the same gentrified values. Writers and artists too were increasingly drawn from this limited social milieu, a phenomenon which perhaps reached its peak in the inter-war years (du Sorbier 1991). But the integrated character of British higher education precluded the development of a hothouse like the École normale; teaching did not enjoy as much prestige as in France, and tended to be a transitional profession, a first-generation springboard from which families could move on to membership of the true elite.

23The closest British parallel to Charle’s study is the use of a sample of 3277 elite members between 1880 and 1970 compiled by Harold Perkin and W. D. Rubinstein (Perkin 1978-1979; Rubinstein 1986). Their attention focused particularly on the relation between the business world on one hand, and the land, the civil service and the professions on the other. Perkin’s complex theory of British social development gives a particularly important place to education. He argues that the aristocracy, always highly permeable from below, lost the battle for supremacy in the nineteenth century, but that in the long run the “professional” bourgeois ideal, based on “trained expertise and selection by merit,” and hence on educational qualifications, triumphed over the entrepreneurial ideal which had originally seemed the main challenge to the aristocracy (Perkin 1989). Rubinstein, linking the analysis of elites with his studies of the distribution of wealth, has argued that the rise of industry in northern England failed to shake the long-term dominance of land, finance and the south-east (Rubinstein 1986, 1993). Similarly, Cain and Hopkins (1993) have interpreted the development of the British Empire through “gentlemanly capitalism” as a means by which the landed-financial oligarchy maintained its dominance in the state and relegated the industrial middle class to the sidelines.


24In France, the industrial and technological elite tended to conform to the general bourgeois pattern, making use of grandes écoles such as Polytechnique and the École centrale (founded in 1830), and of a whole range of engineering and business schools founded in later years, while the British business world remained faithful to apprenticeship and learning on the job. How far either of these patterns may have undermined the entrepreneurial spirit remains an open question. The argument about the decline of the English industrial spirit relies heavily on the alleged persistence of aristocratic values in education, and on the “haemorrhage of talent” from industry towards the professions and public services. One of the chief arguments against the thesis has always been the existence of similar value-systems in countries with more successful economies, notably Germany. Without entering at length into this now rather tired controversy, it is worth noting that contemporary French observers of the Taine school turned the comparison on its head, arguing that Britain gained its economic and political dynamism from the persistence of aristocratic traits in its education, while France was held back by the egalitarian, bureaucratic values inherent in the Napoleonic tradition. Max Leclerc saw Britain’s commercial and imperial success as built on an alliance of the aristocratic and practical spirits, each expressing the virtues of individualism in a different way.

“La société anglaise comprend, au premier rang, deux élites: celle des self-made men et celle des university men; l’une s’est faite seule à la dure école de la vie, l’autre est le produit d’institutions très anciennes et très puissantes.” (Leclerc 1894a: 23.)

25The latter, imbued in those institutions with the aristocratic values of service and public spirit, looked after politics, administration and intellectual affairs while the former created wealth. And Leclerc anticipated the Wiener thesis to refute it:

“Le commerce et l’industrie sont les occupations nationales par excellence, respectées, glorifiées; l’usine et le comptoir sont les colonnes de l’Empire. [...] On ne fait pas en Angleterre deux parts, l’une pour les professions qui doivent fatalement attirer l’élite de chaque génération, l’autre pour les affaires, qui sont le lot des médiocres. A quelque classe sociale qu’il appartienne, le jeune Anglais n’entendra jamais dire dans sa famille ni à l’école que le commerce ou l’industrie entraîne une sorte de déchéance. Si le commerce anglais est vivace, audacieux et puissant, c’est que [...] il attire à lui les intelligences au-dessus de la moyenne et les caractères d’une trempe rare. Rien de semblable en France où, grâce à une conspiration de l’État et de l’opinion, les écoles du gouvernement, les fonctions publiques et les carrières dites libérales opèrent un drainage artificiel de toutes les forces vives de la nation, et ne laisseraient, s’il était possible, au commerce et à l’industrie que les débris et le rebut.” (Leclerc 1894a: 23, Leclerc 1894b: 3-4.)

26Leclerc approached Britain with strong preconceptions, which were probably outdated in the 1890s: he admired the independent spirit of the public schools when contemporaries were criticizing them for conformism, and glorified self-made businessmen and their anti-intellectual bias when the British themselves were beginning to see the need for trained experts and technical education.

27The view that the French entrepreneurial spirit was crippled by an aristocratic inheritance also surfaced in the 1940s and 1950s, especially among American economic historians, when France under the Fourth Republic appeared as the sick man of Europe. According to this theory, put most strongly by David Landes (1949) and Jesse Pitts (1963), the bourgeoisie took over from the ancien régime the aristocratic trait of “prowess”, which rejected money-making, gave a social preference to public and professional service, and encouraged malthusian attitudes towards industrial production. This attribution of France’s economic retardation to deep structural factors looked less convincing once the trente glorieuses took off. But when Britain was wheeled into the sick man of Europe ward in France’s place, the arguments found a new use.


28A final question raised by Rubinstein’s work is how far the elites were permeable from below. The theory of cultural capital and reproduction implies that stasis set in once the fundamental structure of an educational system was established, and Bourdieu’s ideas have been applied to make such an argument for Britain (Müller, Ringer, Simon 1987). There is no doubt that both systems continued to be deeply marked by their origins, but they both had to adjust to a significant expansion of student numbers between 1870 and 1914. The structure of French secondary education changed least, and numbers in traditional secondary education hardly rose between the 1860s and 1914. But in Britain a new system of state secondary schools was created virtually from nothing, and in higher education student numbers rose four or five-fold, as they did in France (Anderson, R. 1992: 22-23; Weisz 1983: 236; Ringer 1979: 335). In both countries, elite and elementary education were separate sectors virtually sealed from each other, but this did not preclude some social mobility within the elite system. In France, there was a narrow but real path by which talented individuals, usually from white-collar or artisan backgrounds rather than the peasantry or the working class, could reach the top. In Britain, there was a high financial threshold for entry to the privileged sector, and cultural capital was less valuable than capital of a more classic kind. But once the threshold was passed, the public schools opened a very wide field of opportunity to middle-class families, and Rubinstein’s figures show a very real broadening of the recruitment to elite groups between the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries (Rubinstein 1986; Anderson, R. 1992: 52). Frugal investment in a “good” education could bring great social dividends, and the strength of the British system was that ascent from provincial obscurity to the heights of power could be achieved in one generation. The public schools, most of which were nineteenth-century creations, can be seen as in effect the English lycées, the nationally standardized educational system of the middle class. In Hobsbawm’s view, they “should not be seen as attempts to absorb a new bourgeoisie into an ancien régime, but as devices to form a new bourgeoisie into a coherent class” (Kocka, Mitchell 1993: 136). Only the handful of older schools really gave contact with the aristocracy. For by 1914 there were over 100 public schools with 30,000 boys: fewer than the 69,000 in the French lycées and state colleges (Prost 1968: 346), but hardly an exclusive elite. Moreover, in the twentieth century the new state grammar schools gave direct access to Oxford and Cambridge, and the opportunities for working-class children to join the elite may well have been significantly greater in Britain than in France.

29In France, traditions of social mobility through education especially favoured the urban middling and lower middle class, and by 1914 they were beginning to establish their presence in elite institutions. By 1880-1914, at Polytechnique, the most prestigious of the grandes écoles, 29% of the student body were the sons of minor officials, artisans, shopkeepers or the classes populaires, compared with 7% in 1830-1847, while the sons of landowners, rentiers, professional men and high officials had fallen from 56% to 31% (Shinn 1980: 185). The expansion of the faculties, with open entry and state scholarships, had similar social effects; at Toulouse, John Burney notes “un changement spectaculaire” in the origins of law students by 1910, though one which benefited the broader middle class rather than the groups below them (Burney 1988: 170). Underlying this was the new self-confidence and centrality of the lycées-their entry into the promised land, in the words of Paul Gerbod (1965: 565)–now that the secular, meritocratic ideology of the teachers was in harmony with that of the state and of Gambetta’s nouvelles couches sociales. In the conservative Mayenne department, for example, the lycée of Laval began to pump out a stream of bourgeois cadres who undermined the former intellectual and cultural supremacy of the aristocracy; “c’est l’éveil spectaculaire des classes moyennes” (Denis 1977: 460).

30In both countries, therefore, although the systems may have been designed originally to shore up the interests of the notables, or to effect a conservative bourgeois-aristocratic fusion, they proved penetrable by the broader middle class as this class achieved greater political and social power. Any idea that education was permanently fixed in an “aristocratic” form seems untenable, and by 1914 the service class was essentially bourgeois; one can distinguish this class, depending on cultural capital and on its own earnings rather than inherited property, from the fusion of aristocracy and plutocracy into a super-rich elite which was also characteristic of the Edwardian and Belle Époque period.


31To conclude in the nineteenth century both countries saw the emergence of a service class whose position was dependent on education. In Britain it may be considered a new aristocracy because of its takeover of gentlemanly values and its identification with a metropolitan culture and public life in which the old aristocracy itself still played a significant part; while in France segmented professional groups tied to specific formative institutions formed a new aristocracy in a different sense through their strong sense of esprit de corps, their semi-hereditary status, and their close association with the post-revolutionary state. But is the use of the aristocratic label more than a mode of speaking? In the case of Britain, the concept has been especially invoked to justify theories about economic decline, but these arguments involve the assumption that only a business class can be truly “bourgeois,” and that professional men are half way on the road to being aristocrats. The example of France reminds us, however, that a bourgeoisie based on the professions, land and public service was a normal phenomenon, and no less bourgeois than one based on commerce and industry.

  • 4 As in this revealing comment on the burial-place of the politician H. H. Asquith: “He had started (...)

32In Britain there is a tendency to lump together as “aristocratic” anything associated with political power, the professions, the classics, liberal culture, the Anglican faith, southern England,4 rural ways of life, the British Empire, the cult of games, and so on. But one could argue that many of these phenomena were predominantly bourgeois: that the professional and public- service spirit was a quintessential expression of bourgeois moral and religious seriousness; that the British Empire was a capitalist rather than a neo-feudal enterprise; that the cult of team games had more to do with new patterns of recreation among the urban and suburban bourgeoisie than with the field sports of the aristocracy; and so on. And an alternative reading of the history of British education can present it as a triumph of the middle classes: having secured their provincial base, they moved on to the national stage, took over and transformed the national educational institutions, devised the gentleman ideal as a way of legitimising their new power, and delegated to the aristocracy those political, military and imperial functions for which their traditions and training best fitted them.

33In the nineteenth century, observers liked to contrast aristocratic England and democratic France. Historians today are sympathetic to the idea of aristocratic survival in Britain, but sceptical about the openness of bourgeois society in France. Perhaps the best solution, suggested by Harris and Thane (1984: 229), is to accept that aristocracy and bourgeoisie should be seen as ideal types rather than rigid social formations, and that the nineteenth century saw the development of hybrid groups of a new sort. Beliefs in culture, tradition, service, and patriotism expressed rather than contradicted the specific functions of a service class in a modern, democratic, economically expanding society. Whatever might be the case further east, in the two great liberal states of nineteenth-century Europe this class may be seen as a product of capitalist civilization rather than a symptom of the persistence of the old regime.



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1 The complications caused by the existence of a distinctive elite education in Scotland are ignored here: see Robert Anderson (1983, 1985).

2 Religion was also a major factor in determining the different educational patterns of elite women, but that subject is not dealt with here.

3 As used by these authors, the term intellectual aristocracy stressed heredity rather than the meritocratic implications which it carried in France.

4 As in this revealing comment on the burial-place of the politician H. H. Asquith: “He had started on a bleak Yorkshire hillside, and in politics he had been mostly sustained by Scotland and the North. But a South of England resting-place, within ten miles of Carfax Tower [Oxford], was nevertheless wholly appropriate. He had always been faithful to liberal, humane ideas, and to civilised, even fastidious, standards of political behaviour. [...] he was essentially a man of Government, a great servant of the State, rather than a tribune of the people” (Jenkins 1964: 519).


University of Edinburgh

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