Preface to the English Edition

The document that follows is a translation of the complete text of the printed Circular Letter of 10 April 1786 addressed by Brother Agathon, Superior General of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, to the members of his Institute.1 Brother Agathon, the fifth Superior General, was elected in 1777 and proved himself to be an outstanding educator and leader. His Circular Letter of 1785, entitled The Twelve Virtues of a Good Teacher, has been, after The Conduct of the Christian Schools of John Baptist de La Salle, the most important educational book of his Institute. Brother Agathon defended his Institute in the National Assembly, in 1792, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when all religious congregations eventually were formally dissolved. He was incarcerated in three different prisons but was freed after eighteen months. He died alone in 1798.

My intention in offering this complete translation is that my recent rereading of the original text reminded me forcibly that the shortened version fails to convey some of the subtlety both of the content and of the argument of the original. I am also confident that the following comments and the footnotes in the text, by helping readers to see more clearly the situation that Brother Agathon found it necessary to address, will help them appreciate the different levels of appeal throughout the letter.

Some historical background:

The Brothers of the Christian Schools were founded to offer a gratuitous education to the children "of artisans and the poor." This foundation principle was jealously defended by them throughout their long history, especially before the French Revolution and for a good part of the nineteenth century. This meant, therefore, that the establishment and maintenance of any foundation depended on founders—individuals, corporations, or bishops—who were prepared to pay an agreed-upon sum of money annually for the support of the Brothers’ community, which had no other source of income.

It was natural that these "founders" gradually came to look for some public proof that the work they were supporting was successful. This resulted in some persons wishing to offer prizes to students who had distinguished themselves. Gradually, from the school’s viewpoint, it was important to have some public manifestation of the success of the school and, at the same time, to recognize its founders and benefactors, hence the growth of what are called throughout the following letter "Competitions" or "Contests," which gradually became more and more elaborate as the taste for such public showing-off developed. If at the beginning these public Competitions resembled "spelling bees" or arithmetical contests, not unlike modern quiz programs, they very quickly took on a life of their own, adding declamation, short scenes from plays, and so on and causing the problems that the Circular Letter addresses. As Brother Agathon had given a number of experienced Brothers the opportunity to do further studies in order to prepare them to teach in the boarding schools, this may have broadened their own cultural horizons.

Who were these students?

The modern reader has to allow for the fact that the students were often only a very short time in school, and it was essential that all receive what we would call today a basic education in literacy and in their religion. As there was no compulsory education, the age range could run from between seven and eight years of age in the majority of the schools (which were elementary schools) to fifteen and sixteen in the boarding schools. But it is highly likely that children of different ages sat in the same classrooms, depending on the age at which they first were sent to school by their parents. The reference late in the document to those who leave after First Communion needs to be understood according to the norms of the time, when the boys would probably be at least twelve years of age.

Teachers and Brothers?

Throughout the document that follows, the author speaks sometimes of the "Teachers" and at other times of the "Brothers." They were, of course, the same persons. One of the important things about this document is the way in which the author’s argument is sometimes pedagogical and at other times religious as he addresses the Brothers of his Institute. But the distinction made is very real and historically remarkable for the way in which Brother Agathon sees teaching as the professional duty of the Brothers, linked inseparably with their reason for existing for "the Christian education of the poor," their "state" in life. The Brothers were never full-time catechists, nor did their schools offer others forms of teaching simply to have the opportunity to catechize the students. Everything, all forms of teaching, had to be integrated. Whatever was not educationally sound, therefore, was to be opposed and denounced. These same "Teachers" were also members of the Institute, Brothers, and as such they were bound to a way of life and to a Rule that they had agreed to live by. Both these levels of appeal are to be found in the present work.

Some comments on the translation

Brother Agathon has a vigorous style of writing that is not always easy to bring into English. Some of his sentences are very long, as he makes a good deal of use of the French semi-colon when he is listing numbers of things. Sometimes it has been necessary to break these long sentences down to shorter English sentences so as not to lose the line of his argument, but I think the reader will find that the vigorous style is largely maintained.

The English terms "Contests" and "Competitions"—translations of the French word répétitions, which occurs frequently in Brother Agathon’s original text—highlight the competitive and public nature of these events.

Although there is no table of contents in the original text, I have offered one, because it enables the reader to see the development of the argument more clearly.

Brother Gerard Rummery
30 September 1999