Jean-Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719) is one of the most important figures in the history of education.
As the founder of the Institute for the Brothers of the Christian Schools – not to be confused with the Irish Christian Brothers – he showed a revolutionary fervour for the education of the poor. In teaching techniques, too, he was an innovator, developing the “simultaneous method”, under which pupils of equal ability are grouped together into classes.
Born into a well-off family in Reims, and brought up by a devout mother, Jean-Baptiste at first seemed destined for a conventionally successful career in the Church. When he was 16 a cousin resigned a lucrative canonry in his favour. Subsequently he pursued his studies at St Sulpice, in Paris, before being ordained in 1678. The next year, however, he met Adrien Nyel, who wanted to start a school for the poor in Reims.
Jean-Baptiste at first encouraged, then helped, and eventually found himself entirely devoted to the project. Determined that the work should grow from its own strength, rather than from his private income, he gave up his canonry.
Four schools were soon opened, and it was in order to staff them that de la Salle gradually built up the Institute for the Brothers of Christian Schools. Soon parish priests were sending young men from far beyond Reims to be trained as teachers. De la Salle founded colleges for them at Reims (1687), Paris (1699) and Saint-Denis (1709). In 1688 he took on a school at St Sulpice, and soon opened another in the same parish.
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