Popular education as an ideal of the Helvetic Republic
The Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) replaced the older Swiss confederation at the end of the 18th century. The new state placed great emphasis on the education system, and schools were brought under the control of the government following the model of the French Revolution. Universal education was introduced and cantonal boards of education were established.
However, the predominantly rural population resisted these revolutionary reforms in education, and people were even more suspicious of higher education.
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On 12th April 1798, the ‘one and indivisible Helvetic Republic’ saw the light of day in Aarau and thereby became the successor to the former Confederation. This new community was inspired by the Enlightenment, which is why school became the socio-political focus from the very beginning. All children were to receive compulsory education free of charge, education necessary to shape their own lives, to feed themselves and to participate as responsible citizens in the building of the state. A democratic society of equals as well as social prosperity depended on citizens who at least all understood reading, writing and arithmetic. This was the only possible way to shape the world according to the principles of reason and to free the individual from traditional domination.
The structures of the new state immediately made visible the high value ascribed to education and schools. In the Helvetic Central Government there was a Ministry of Arts and Sciences, that was headed by the Bernese professor Philipp Albert Stapfer. After half a year, Stapfer was replaced by the former canon of Lucerne, Johann Melchior Mohr. The cantons established education councils. These councils had comprehensive powers for all matters concerning schools and promoted their development. For eight months, starting in October 1798, the Helvetic Government had its seat in the city of Lucerne in the former Ursuli monastery on Musegg. Here, in 1676, the Sisters of the monestary had established a high school for girls as the counterpart to the Jesuit College. The Mariahilf Church, which was part of the same monestary, was rebuilt and used by the parliament as a meeting room.
Introducing and then enforcing compulsory education proved to be a Herculean task. In the 18th century, the only firmly established schools in the canton of Lucerne were in Sursee, Sempach, Willisau, Beromünster and in the city of Lucerne itself. In the villages, lessons were usually only held for a few months in ‘winter schools’. Perhaps 50 to 70 percent of the population could read simple texts, but only about five to ten percent could write. Because children played an important role in the rural world as workers, reorganising the educational system presented many obstacles. Reservation and open rejection were also contingent on ideology: the compulsory school was considered an innovation, brought to the country by the revolution and by ‘the French’. This alone made it appear to some as a risk to peace and a danger to religion. Many were convinced that it was enough if children had simple reading skills and were instructed in faith. Skills in arithmetic, geometry, history or geography were considered to be a nice bonus but without any practical use.
Reservations towards higher education were even more pronounced. In the Ancien Régime, grammar schools and especially universities were only open to the sons of the elite estates. The only access to classical education for those from modest backgrounds was to follow a religious career or enter a monastery. In the bourgeois era of industrialisation, technical progress became a decisive factor to achieve prosperity. New engineering professions were created, giving the natural sciences a high status. When the young Swiss state founded its own university in 1855, it was geared towards these new branches of science. This university, then known as the ‘Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum’ (the Federal Polytech) was given a home in Zurich. Today, under the name ‘Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule’ (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich), it is one of the world's leading universities.