Three Centuries of Uninterrupted Educational Influence

April 12, 2019

Born in Reims on April 30, 1671, and dying in Rouen on April 7, 1719, St. John Baptist de la Salle is considered the founder of modern education, opening free schools for boys and girls and creating in Reims, in 1660, the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (the Christian Brothers or Lasallians), a lay male congregation of pontifical right.

While he was canon of Reims, de la Salle began to help a small group of schoolmasters desiring to carry out their mission as Christian educators.

Renouncing a privileged situation, de la Salle joined them. Thus was born the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, entirely devoted to the instruction of the “children of tradesmen and the poor.” The members make private religious vows, but the Institute does not include priests, which is why it is designated as “lay.” These religious, with their black cassock, white rabat and quatre-bras [four arms]—a coat with floating sleeves—would become known throughout the world.

St. John Baptist de la Salle was an innovator in pedagogy, having first grasped the importance of the integral character of instruction, which must be at the same time Christian, intellectual, practical, and moral. He stressed the importance of acquiring basic knowledge: reading, writing, arithmetic, the use of repetition, regular testing, active participation of the student, and instilling a sense of responsibility in the student.

In order to give his framework to his educational reform, our saint developed simultaneous teaching, the learning of reading in the mother tongue, the use of printed matter, and the continuous training of teachers.

There is nothing to be learned from contemporary champions of autonomy. Three centuries earlier, St. John Baptist de la Salle had already invented, but in a totally different spirit, the concept of giving each pupil duties, and creating tasks adapted to each one within the classes.

Examples include the keypad (key ring in the 17th century), which opens and closes the doors of the school; the almoner, who collects excess bread and fruit so as donate some to the poor; the bell ringer, who marks the beginning and end of classes; the first benchers, who identify who is absent and have the role as an elder for their “bench;” and the visitors of the absentees, who help sick schoolchildren.

At a time when national education is struggling to reform, the face of St. John Baptist de la Salle more than ever radiates the mission of the Church and a clergy who—despite the opprobrium with which social ingratitude overwhelms them—cares for the smallest and the weakest.