Saint Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (1651-1719).
Saint Jean Baptiste de La Salle was a priest in Reims and founded the Brotherhood of Christian Schools. He was acutely aware of the human and spiritual distress of the children of the poor that prevailed in the 17th century and decided to dedicate himself to training schoolmasters who he gathered into a community and named “Brothers”.
Today, 90 000 educationalists and lay teachers work with the Brothers in almost 80 countries around the world giving complete human and spiritual education to children, adolescents and young people from all walks of life
“ They should take the greatest care to instruct the all pupils in their charge, none should be neglected, giving equal attention to all and even greater attention for the most ignorant and neglectful. ”
Saint Jean-Baptiste de La Salle
SPRING 1679, REIMS
At this time, in the Parish of Saint-Maurice, two or three schoolmasters from Rouen opened a charitable school for abandoned boys. Marked by the great lack of instruction for the majority of the children of his home town, Jean Baptiste de La Salle helped set up the schools and accompanied the schoolmasters. He very quickly discovered another difficulty: the good will of the teachers could not compensate for their lack of preparation. “The new schools are not bearing the fruits we hoped for as each Master is following his own personal inspiration.” For the Reims charitable schools to be a success, an educational and then evangelical community had to be established for the Masters.
The initial core of Masters began to change and grow. In May 1686, they changed their name from “Masters” to the “Brotherhood” of Christian Schools. This change of name clearly showed they had understood that their educational approach had evolved: “The name “Brotherhood of Christian Schools” showed that rather than see themselves as the elder brothers of the young pupils, they must exercise their Mission of Charity with a charitable heart.”
21st NOVEMBER 1691, PARIS
In November 1691, Jean-Baptiste de La Salle along with two Brothers, made a vow of association in order to promote the establishment of a “Society of Christian Schools”. This was at a time of crisis in the Lasallian organization. In 1690, Jean-Baptiste found himself in “the same position as ten years before, with few Brothers, having made little progress in his work and in fear of seeing it fail.”
He could not give up as his cause was that of the poor: “having taken responsibility for instructing the young in their ignorance and misery, he could not allow them to return to their initial ignorance and inadequate education”4. The inherent hope that had already driven him to change the situation of the young and the conditions of their Masters, gave him the courage to transform this debacle into a new departure. On the 6th June 1694, the mission of Jean-Baptiste de La Salle and of twelve Brothers became a reality thanks to the lasting vow they pronounced to hold “together and by association” the charitable schools.
« TOGETHER AND BY ASSOCIATION »
In Lasallian language neither of the two terms in the expression “together and by association” are redundant nor can they be dissociated. Together does not only apply to the local communities of three, four or five Brothers who were responsible for running the schools. These men lived and prayed together. They shared what they discovered and what they invented in the practice of their daily teaching activities as well as their efforts to give an evangelical style to their teachings. The term “association” still applies to our “society”, to the Institute, in other words to what we would call today a “network” of multiple educational communities united by one spirit and one will, to adapt the school to the young people who attend it.
The new style of relationship between the teachers and the taught, based on simple familiarity and “gentleness and friendliness” lead the Brothers to significant pedagogical changes in their schools. These changes were not made based on theory but on the practical needs of the young identified thanks to their direct contact with the Brothers. Each week, in each community, the Brothers shared their findings and looked together at how to improve their school. The Founder regularly gathered all his disciples together. Each Brother, each community shared the fruits of their findings, questionings or even their modest but always realistic innovations. The widened sharing at these meetings of the association strengthened and spread the local actions throughout the whole, spiritually unified community.
THE « CONDUCT OF THE SCHOOLS » OR THE ORIGINS OF THE EDUCATIONAL PROJECT
In 1705, the “Conduct of the Schools” document was the result of these exchanges between the Brothers. Lasallian educational projects today are close to this original work born from sharing real experience and are the inspiration for a multitude of educational communities. It shows that the children became the true centre of interest for the teachers. From the careful attention given to them, Jean Baptiste and his companions were able together to reform schooling in many different ways.
- In order for children just to have access to elementary instruction, the schools had to be completely free. Everywhere, at one time or another, there was violent opposition to free schooling. The association was able to transmit to each community, the clarity and strength to survive against this opposition.
- In a world where elementary schooling was unchanging and uninteresting for the children from ordinary families, they were able to make the teaching more rational, active and lively. The “Conduct” insisted upon the analysis of the concrete causes of school absenteeism as well as on the means to remedy it. The will to make schooling effective lead the Brothers to be quietly daring in the way they taught the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.
- Jean Baptiste de la Salle often said that the Brothers had replaced the inhuman, feared school system, seen as a prison based on harshness and punishment, with a human community inspired by love and even tenderness. The schools looked at the child as a whole person, took into account their family and social backgrounds, their specific abilities and their development. They treated the children as people. The Lasallian teachings also tried to ensure that the pupils took an active part in the successful running of their class thereby educating each other through solidarity.
- The original Lasallian School transformed itself from the inside in order to better prepare the children for life. The teaching of the core disciplines was made more practical but these poor, abandoned children had to be prepared for life as a whole. The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility is witness to the openness and extent of the Lasallian educational concern.
- Through the changes that the Brothers were able to introduce into the schooling, the transformative power of the Gospel showed itself in the young peoples’ lives. Like the Good Shepherd, the Brothers sought out these abandoned children. They moved among them and were available for them. Thanks to these envoys from God, the children were able to feel the freeing, vitalizing power of the Gospel in their lives. Having experienced the presence and strength of the message of God in their lives, the explicit message of the Gospels could be gradually introduced at school.
Lasallian schools today find themselves in a very different context from that of Jean-Baptiste de La Salle and his first disciples. However, it is from this founding history that they take their inspiration so that they can meet the needs of the children and young people of today.