Experimental Education #1: Paul Robin and the Prévost Orphanage in Cempuis

(All show notes can be found here.)


  1. Pre-Introduction
  2. Project and Episode Clarifications and Explanations
  3. Introduction to Series and Episode
  4. Historical Background: Paul Robin
  5. Historical Background: Prévost Orphanage
  6. Introduction of Laïcité
  7. Coeducation
  8. The ‘Big Family’ Structure
  9. Integral Education
  10. The Scandal
  11. Additional Content Warning: Eugenics and Thomas Malthus
  12. Feminism, Contraception, and Neo-Malthusian Ideas
  13. The Influence of Prévost Orphanage
  14. Conclusion: What Could Be Useful to Consider

Among many anarchists, there is occasionally discussion on how to do this ‘school’ thing while simultaneously promoting education and learning; there is no one ‘correct’ view, but there are so many opinions and ideas about how we can build learning communities while potentially abolishing schools. Others, meanwhile, are trying to figure out how to work within the confines of a state that we can’t yet break free from, creating ‘schools’ that are often designed in direct response to values of their respective states. This can include many different elements of how schools are structured or how function, such as the control and influence by religious institutions; the lack of accommodations for disabled students; the frustration with institutions that act as gatekeepers and outright deny people access to them; and the utilisation of curricula filled with pro-capitalist and white supremacist propaganda.

None of these projects are perfect. They have all had their own issues because of how, when, and where they developed. But they do all point to the same truth: we can always work to make things far better than they currently are.

Before I get started, I’d like to make some clarifications for this episode:

In particular, I want to note that the language in quotations will be fairly binary and not at all reflective of the reality of gender because the authors only made reference to ‘women and men’ and ‘girls and boys’; this is largely a result of the time period in which everything was written.

Also, I’m relying on a lot of documents where I wasn’t able to find a previous English translation; they were primarily written in French and have not been formally translated, either at the time they were published or today. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of my time with my shoddy language skills and double-checking with French-speakers and Google Translate. A lot of it won’t be perfect and some of it will be paraphrased approximations, but I have tried to keep things as close as possible. If you happen to get curious and notice something I’ve gotten wrong, my sources are in the show notes, and I’m always happy for suggestions or corrections.

Similarly, I’d like to apologise for any mispronunciations of French and Belgian locations or names. I’m trying my best, and I will happily accept any hints for the future from those who know better.

All that said, let’s get on with the show.

In this series, we’re going to be looking at a range of educational projects and experiments that sought to bring more freedom to people while removing control of education (and minds) from the state. While I would love to focus entirely on anarchist projects, the reality is that few often describe themselves as specifically anarchist. However, anarchists are often found within other educational projects, including those that existed within the labour movement. We have frequently influenced their structures through attempts to create learning spaces that promote anti-hierarchical values.

Though many ‘on the left’ value the importance of education and pedagogy, it seems that we rarely discuss it in detail or even explicitly. We assume that, while other institutions should be abolished, schools should continue as normal. This is something that I do not and cannot agree with.

It really isn’t entirely intentional for many people to overlook the variety of ways that education plays a major role in how we develop and view our societies. This is especially true of anarchists, since we generally believe that education is the most important area to focus on because of its inherent connection to the many ways that societies develop. And though specific focus on education is often overlooked, a lot of anarchists actually do talk about education when they talk about how we can build a better society. But it’s just not the main focus of their discussions or work, and that often creates a void where there are more questions than possible answers. Perhaps it’s because education just seems so obvious and feels as if it’s embedded into everything, but this does cause a lot of problems for us when we’re asked how we can achieve an anarchist society.

So I want to explore a range of anarchist and socialist ideas, historical and contemporary, that focus solely on education.

In this episode, we’ll be looking at the French anarchist educator, Paul Robin, and the work that he contributed to the field of education through the initial development of the Prévost Orphanage in Cempuis. I’m starting with him for a few reasons:

First, he’s someone who genuinely wanted to be a teacher and had experience in schools before he started working on educational theory and worked to implement his educational experiment, and I find that kind of refreshing right now when there are so many capitalists taking air time to talk about how to “shake things up” or “disrupt” schools without ever having stepped foot in one since they were students, and they likely haven’t seen a public or state school without being criticised into standing next to one.

Second, he’s got a bit of a scandal attached to him as a result of collusion between the institutions of the church and state, which took place during the time that a lot of France’s laws about laïcité were being introduced. And honestly, who doesn’t like learning about scandals? They’re always a little interesting.

Lastly, he and the orphanage at Cempuis are continually referenced as the ‘inspiration’ for a variety of European educational experiments that had been done by later anarchists, including Francisco Ferrer’s more widely known Escuela Moderna. While he wasn’t the first name that I ran into when searching for anarchist educators, he was constantly referenced because of his position as director in the Prévost Orphanage and the work that he did there along with other teachers from Europe and both North and South America to develop a range of education-focused organisations and conferences in the late 19th century.

So with that, let’s get acquainted with this somewhat obscure figure and education project.

As a bit of historical background, Paul Robin was born in Toulon, France on 3 April 1837 into a bourgeois and Catholic family with a strong military tradition, as many of his family members belonged to the army or navy. Though he was expected to follow this same path, this was not something that Robin felt comfortable doing, and he entered l’École Normale Supérieure against the wishes of his family. It was here that he would study natural and physical sciences as the subjects that he would later teach. Graduating in 1861, he started teaching at the high schools in La Roche-sur-Yon and Brest, where he would be recognised by his colleagues for wanting to incorporate more elements of ‘popular education’ (which we also know as ‘mass schooling’) and trying to organise regular learning excursions for his students so they could apply their lessons to something more practical.

In 1865, he decided to resign his teaching post and start his voluntary exile in Belgium. The reasoning for this is conflicted among those who study him. Some sources claim that it’s largely because, as a young man, he was already exhibiting socialist beliefs and was frustrated by how often he was in conflict with the administration of his employer when trying to incorporate his burgeoning principles of integral education into his teaching practices. Other sources claim it was largely due to his feelings about the presidency of Napoleon III, who was the first president of France and known for being an extremely repressive authoritarian. In reality, it’s probably a combination of the two that led him to leave. There is one thing that most sources do agree on: His resignation, if anyone was paying attention to him before he gave it, wasn’t exactly surprising.

The first place he moved to during his exile was Brussels, Belgium. While he was there, he’d spend time working as a teacher and meet a number of other teachers who would remain colleagues even once he moved back to France. He’d also meet his common law wife, Anna-Louise Delesalle, and become an active member of the International Workingmen’s Association within the First International. He’d work closely with a lot of the labour movements that took place, including protesting alongside the striking miners in Borinage and Seraing. However, as a French national, this action would earn him a deportation that he and his friends were unable to overturn, which would see him flee to Geneva, Switzerland for a while.

Throughout his exile, Robin would essentially wander through parts of western Europe, becoming a more active member of the First International and mingling with a number of other socialist and anarchist thinkers of his time, like Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin. He’d also interact with Karl Marx, but that relationship would sour almost immediately both because of Robin’s abrasive and impulsive personality (which Marx really did not like) and the perceived relationship Robin had with Bakunin, as he often sided with Bakunin’s motions; for this, he would be expelled from the International alongside Bakunin and other anarchists in 1872 due to the growing conflict with the faction that Marx and Engels supported.

Robin eventually returned to France in 1869. He had intended to help prepare for the upcoming revolution but was unfortunately imprisoned between the months of July and September of 1870, only being released only after France’s defeat at the Battle of the Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War. He then fled to London where, disillusioned by the infighting and subsequent removal of the anarchist sections from the First International, he put most of his political activities to the side and taught French at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich.

During his time in London, he also wrote a series of articles about integral education for the French journal Philosophie positive. It was in these writings that he developed the initial outline for the structures that he would later put into practice at the orphanage, helping to generate the interest of his former colleagues and allies in Belgium who would later work with him to establish the Ligue de l’enseignement, or League of Teaching, in 1875.

It was during this time that, through his work with others, his initial outline of integral education really started to take shape and inform his own educational practices, even though he was unable to actually utilise most of them due to his position. But that all changed when Ferdinand Buisson offered him a position as director at the Prévost Orphanage in Cempuis.

In 1880, the management of the Prévost Orphanage in Cempuis fell under the control of the Department of Seine. Originally founded in the early 1860s, it was an asylum, hospice, retirement home, and agricultural community run by the Fourierist philanthropist Joseph-Gabriel Prévost. Upon his death, it was bequeathed to the Department of Seine, but it came with a few conditions that had to be met: the establishment at Cempuis had to be a secular institution for orphans of both genders and the director, sub-director, and teachers all had to be ‘lay people’ so that the children would be received as ‘equals’ and without being taught any sectarianism.

The Department of Seine assigned this responsibility to Ferdinand Buisson, a socialist and academic, who had been responsible for hiring the director for Cempuis due to his position as the head of primary education and the executor of Prévost’s will. Buisson offered the position of director to Paul Robin, but this was after a former comrade of Robin’s, James Guillaume, had requested that a position be found for him. Simultaneously, another former comrade of Robin’s, Aristide Rey, was also in a convenient position to help him become the director of the orphanage, as he was a municipal councillor in Paris and the rapporteur for the estate.

For Robin, this was a perfectly placed opportunity that he’d been given to finally implement the educational practices he’d been developing from his very first year as a teacher, creating one of Europe’s first anarchist educational experiments.

As stated earlier, the terms of Prévost’s will stated that the school in Cempuis would be entirely secular. This was something that would, in some ways, infuriate the local clergy because it was just one more example of removing them from spaces they had previously occupied. This wasn’t particular to Cempuis or Robin, though it was used against him at his dismissal (which I’ll be discussing later), but this was happening all over France. This was largely because, as the nation increasingly moved towards free public primary education for all, it became more obvious that the Catholic Church had access to some communities that were otherwise unserved by secular public schools. These communities existed in small and rural villages outside of city centers, much like Cempuis. For many families in these locations, the schools run by the Catholic Church were the only options they had.

To give more context, it was around this time that France had been undergoing a cultural shift with regards to the separation of church and state. Most of the laws with regards to laïcité, as well as the first recorded use of the word in 1871, would be developed around the time that this school was being established. A few months after Paul Robin took up his position in Cempuis, there were discussions during Chamber sessions about whether to include religion in the curriculum for compulsory primary school. There were arguments from different directions about how religion should be included; the more traditional and conservative politicians, many of whom were still monarchists, argued that morality could not be taught without religion, and the more ‘spiritualist freethinkers’ in the assembly argued that God didn’t necessarily belong to the right and that they were tired of hearing them constantly talk about him.

However, the outcome of this was that there would be no religious instruction in the curriculum of compulsory primary schools but that there would be a single day provided so that parents had the opportunity to give their children a religious education outside of school time and off the school grounds. This would be cemented in the Jules Ferry Laws of 1881 and 1882, named for the minister of education at the time. The first law focused on ensuring free and accessible schooling to both boys and girls, even though they made it the responsibility of the communes or departments to figure out how it would be funded. The second law was a set of articles that elaborated on the organisation of secular education, making primary schooling compulsory, developing a structure of regional school boards, and determining how they would be represented in the national government. This directly removed the church from many of these positions.

As part of the will’s instructions, an element of the schooling at Prévost Orphanage would be the support of co-education for boys and girls through the same programs. Across France, most schools were still segregated in some way; the formal curriculum for academic subjects for primary school was largely shared by both boys and girls, though the boys would be taught ‘use of common tools’ while girls would learn sewing. Despite this, the materials that were provided for each school, like textbooks, had significant differences in the content provided. Moreover, the more traditional and conservative politicians argued that many institutions were already coeducational because girls and boys were educated on the same premises, even though they would be taught in different classes with different teachers. They maintained traditional gender roles in certain subjects, and they were segregated during their recreational time and sports.

With regard to all of this, it’s worth noting the first ‘lay’ education law in France; in August 1879, every department in France was required to have a women’s teacher training college so that more women teachers were available to teach girls. This is also important to recognise with regards to the previous point about the secularisation of schools, as Jules Ferry openly posited that “women must belong to Science (and not) to the Church.” It’s not too far off to say that many conservative politicians and clergy members were opposed to these developments, even though they were implemented largely in response to the continued gender segregation that they supported in the majority of schools.

Coeducation at Prévost Orphanage was handled differently from that of most other French schools. Girls and boys participated in most of the same lessons and activities, including excursions and sports. From the ages of 4 to 16, boys and girls grew up, studied, and played together. Though the children had nearly all of their classes together and were encouraged to do whatever they found most interesting, there were still some workshops for older students that were sometimes segregated on the lines of traditional gender roles, though they may have been segregated through student choice due to the prior socialisation of students and staff before arriving at the Orphanage. Boys were more likely to participate in workshops that taught mechanics and manual skills such as iron- and woodworking, while girls would often participate in workshops about laundry, sewing, and cooking. It’s also interesting to note that there were workshops on lithography and book-binding that were available to all children.

Now, this isn’t to say that any of this completely broke down traditional gender roles among the children or staff at Cempuis or that girls and boys freely decided to spend their free time together. Often, they would split into groups of boys and groups of girls, but the school staff would frequently encourage them to all play and work together. But this very idea was promoted by Paul Robin and many others. It had been codified into the manifesto for integral education that was published in 1893 after a series of conferences which took place in Belgium and at Cempuis, where it was discussed as an element of moral education. It states:

“As an element of this ‘moralising education’, the coeducation of the two sexes in constant fraternal and familial association of the children, both boys and girls, gives all morals a particular serenity. Far from constituting a danger, it becomes the conditions in which it must be established and guaranteed preservation.”

Writing in an issue of L’Éducation intégral in 1892, Paul Robin had also stated that:

“The separation of the sexes in social life and throughout their childhood tends to make men brutal and despotic and make women weak and cunning… To have learned the same things on the same benches is to be able to get along. … [T]he bringing together of the children of both sexes at school, as they are together in the family, helps to soften the contrasts between them, harmonise them with each other, and correct them both by working together. The boys become less abrupt, less dry, more delicate, and more graceful; the girls become more frank in appearance and less light in spirit, less affected by silliness, and less lost in rags. Besides, there are not two sciences or two truths; there is not one for men and one for women. There is only one science and truth for all people.”

Though Robin clearly used the common stereotypes of the time for boys and girls as evidence for his position and how they should exist in the same spaces, he did seem to earnestly believe that it was detrimental for both school and society to continue the practice of segregating men and women into separate spaces or areas of society, never allowing them to learn to work together. Writing about creating mixed gender schools, he claimed:

“In the name of the best education, the school must become mixed at all levels with regards to pupils and educators… We want women everywhere to be by our side, but we also want to be by their side. We do not want to chase them out of everywhere, and they must not reject our collaboration. Our union is essential for the future of the school as well as that of society. Exclusion of one or the other is fatal everywhere.”

Unfortunately, this area of educational theory wasn’t really written about by Robin; in much of his writing, he clearly viewed it as being something that was just so obvious that there really wasn’t a reason for it to not automatically be included. He very clearly saw it as purely beneficial to society. In his work on education with the First International, he proclaimed:

“What we have said applies to both sexes. Men and women, being destined to live together in society, must get used to it by living, studying, and working together throughout their youth.”

It’s worth noting that some of the views that he outlined weren’t entirely uncommon for the time in the feminist movement in France, particularly as there were sections that had previously been focusing on showing why women were different from men and what they could offer to society as equals; though these ideas utilised that logic in order to discuss the supposed behavioural issues plaguing men and women, the ideas around coeducation were one of many areas that also helped to shift the direction of the feminist movement towards the idea that there were minimal, if any, differences between men and women and that they deserved equal opportunities and rights. However, in a resolution regarding the school, it was made clear that Robin wanted to see a mixed staff to go along with the mixed education of the students, stating:

“We cannot reasonably question the sex of the pupils or the children. Sciences, languages, drawing, and music do not change regardless of whether they are taught by men or women, boys or girls. It is a matter of brain only, teaching must be proportionate not to the sex or age of the student but to the capacity of the learners.

Still, there are a number of men who hold a prejudice against the so-called lack of energy that women possess, which they think must exclude them from certain functions. But we have all known energetic women and very soft men.

If statistics, which are difficult to establish, were still in favour of men, this would prove very little because the emancipation of women is hardly at its dawn.

Moreover, some of them fight for their rights with a vigour which sometimes even exceeds the goal.”

This was something that was particularly frustrating about Cempuis for the local clergy and the more conservative members of the government. They proposed numerous arguments that it could harm the health and morality of children, causing further problems in society; obviously, these problems were never really outlined just as the reactionaries today fail to explain how introducing children to queer fiction or history will ruin the world. It’s because coeducation didn’t actually hurt children in the past, just like how knowing about the stories of queer people is completely harmless today.

Refuting allegations that it was immoral and dangerous during Chamber Sessions in 1895, president of the General Council for the Seine, François Laurent-Cély, clearly stated his support for coeducation and Paul Robin to his colleagues, saying:

“At first glance, I understand that we can find the idea of raising boys and girls together to be bold. Yet this is exactly what we do within our families, and we’re happy with this. It is the same in the Orphanage, and we have only found advantages thus far.”

The idea that Prévost Orphanage was to be structured like a “big family” was another important aspect of the education provided there. Everyone had their own responsibilities and would work together on the maintenance and upkeep of the campus and its buildings, all of the on-site production work, and the daily cooking among many other tasks. Robin believed that the so-called ‘masters’ in the orphanage’s boarding school should act as though they were the parents of the children, either adding to or replacing their absent parents. As a policy, Robin refused to separate siblings, which led to situations of older children teaching and helping younger children, further helping to develop the ‘family’ feeling in Cempuis.

But this was also a way that helped to ‘subvert’ the traditional nuclear family structure by creating a community in which its members were to rely upon each other instead of individuals focusing solely on the few members that were related to them either biologically or through marriage. This was largely because Robin wasn’t really fond of the traditional family, and this was something that he would explore more later in his life; while many of his contemporaries viewed the family as the “basis of society,” Robin viewed the traditional family structure as the space where social inequality began.

By the way, when I say “adding to or replacing their absent parents,” it’s worth noting that orphanages were not only for parentless children. For many kids, and this still applies to some degree today, they were placed into orphanages by their parents because their family was struggling to survive, and they wanted the best possible chance to ensure the survival of their children. These orphanages sometimes acted more like boarding facilities, and parents could schedule times to visit with their children and maintain their familial connections as best as possible. Many orphanages, just as they are today, were run by the state or the church and came with a range of restrictions or requirements, and they often required parents to agree to them regardless of whether they wanted to or not. Again, it’s worth saying that this still happens today in some orphanages across the globe. And for as long as they’ve existed, orphanages have had their own sets of issues to contend with and have sometimes been seen as a ‘lucrative business’.

So when the staff at the Prévost Orphanage decided they would act as “one big family,” they were diverging quite a bit from the typical structure of other orphanages and their associated schools. Cempuis was clearly important to the Robin family; Paul and his common law wife Anna-Louise raised all of their living children among those residing in the orphanage. Gabriel Giroud, one of the ‘Cempuisien’ children and Robin’s son-in-law, published the resolution that was originally part of Cempuis’s development in 1900, which included:

“… [A]n effort must be made to bring together these elements of education as much as possible.

This truth has all the appearance of an axiom: the life of a group of educators who are collaborating in the same task must be that of brave people — those who are active, affectionate, good-humoured, and spirited — who are like a large family where educators, in varying degrees, play the role that the adult brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and grandparents all play in a natural family. To remove one of these elements is dismal in the ‘education’ family, just as it is in the natural family. Perhaps it is more so, since the suffering applies to a greater number of beings.”

This family aspect was built into both the development of relationships between all the people at Cempuis and the monitoring of the overall hygiene of the children in the orphanage. Robin recognised that, before any learning could take place, students had to feel happy and be healthy because they would not be able to focus on or acquire any of the skills and knowledge that they were being taught. Writing about this, Gabriel Giroud had quite harsh words for educators who were unwilling to take care of children’s needs, saying:

“In boarding schools, especially when they are populated with orphans, the role that educators must fill above all is that of loving mothers and fathers, replacing absent parents.

These ideas are far from being generally accepted and applied; there are still too many teachers with aristocratic tendencies who do not believe in the real, unseen, and superficial needs of the children who have been entrusted to them…

Those who find it repugnant to take care of this area of childhood education are unworthy of the beautiful name of educators and, in the interest of the children, it is desirable to not entrust it to them.”

As a result of these beliefs, which Robin agreed with, the policy of Cempuis was that all of the staff were to participate in the “common life” in order to support this ‘big family’ environment. They were very much encouraged to bring their own children to the orphanage and integrate them into the school, allowing them to study and play in Cempuis. Adding to the ‘family’ feeling, they made sure to hold celebrations for the people living in Cempuis, such as holding weddings and birthday parties; natural parents of the children were often invited to participate in events. The school developed their own traditions to continue fostering this feeling, such as having the children put on performances on Sundays.

‘Moral lessons’, as the school was secular and Robin was quite anticlerical, were largely handled through the modeling of how to treat other people; the most direct lessons would be teaching children how to treat each other, which was largely done through the aforementioned behaviour modeling and a system of collective punishments and rewards.

This required a lot of stability, which was something that Robin attempted to create, seeking teachers and staff who would stay at Cempuis despite its more rural location and lacking the security that teachers in Paris received, such as a pension, as teachers in Cempuis were not included under the same system until late 1894, only a few months after Robin had been dismissed from the school and the educational experiment that he had spent so much time on.

Though it was difficult to get teachers to stay in Cempuis, there were people who had spent years at the orphanage. He worked closely with a number of people, including Charles Delon and Paul Guilhot; there were also examples of Cempuisien students becoming teachers, much as Robin’s daughter Lucie and her husband Gabriel Giroud had done.

The core aspect of the curriculum that was implemented at Cempuis was what Robin would become most known for: integral education. As he had been attempting to implement it into his teaching practices in France, Belgium, and London and had been writing about the need for integral education for decades, this was where he focused most of his efforts. Nearly all of his writing from the late 19th century is about integral education. For Robin, integral education consisted of three components: intellectual education, physical education, and the aforementioned moral education.

‘Intellectual education’ took many forms and depended upon the subject that was being taught, as many subjects were also split into separate disciplines just as they are today. Most of the lessons in maths and sciences were planned and had specific and intended outcomes, but the school also engaged in lessons with observational and spontaneous learning. Observational lessons were quite important to the process of learning, as it enabled students to better understand the concepts that were being discussed because they could see examples of these concepts actually happening. Many of the observational lessons at Cempuis related to classes in sciences. This included courses like astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, meteorology, geology, and medicine.

Robin saw humanities in a slightly different light, which isn’t exactly surprising considering he was a rationalist and had more ‘faith’ in science. Lessons in sociology, modern languages, and history and geography were available and were taught in a style that embodied the “critical, pacifist, revolutionary, and often skeptical spirit.” Robin really wanted to shift the perspective of how these subjects were taught. In the manifesto for integral education, history was outlined as such:

“The only branch of knowledge on which there is reason to make reservations is history. What is generally understood by this word is a science of grown men, of mature intelligences, and does not suit children. Heard in another sense, presented from another perspective, it can be made accessible to them. History, therefore, should include the history of great human and social facts, of work, of the arts, of ideas, and of private life rather than political history; it should include the history of peoples rather than that of kings and the history of the evolution of humanity rather than that of dynasties and battles.”

Robin and his colleagues recognised that humanities were important and understood that teaching them as human history and focusing on cultures, societies, daily life, and arts was more beneficial than looking at history as a way of understanding ‘Great Men’ and the so-called positive aspects of creating empires and dynasties. It’s also here that you can see Robin’s relationship to certain areas of history, as he had unsuccessfully tried to protect one of his sons by attempting to ‘naturalise’ him in England in order to keep him from being conscripted into France’s military.

The structure of humanities at Cempuis also showed that Robin and his colleagues recognised that children learned in stages and that sometimes age made it easier or more difficult to understand concepts. Though I disagree that history is a ‘science of grown men’ and for ‘mature intelligences’, it is sometimes necessary to sit through certain historical concepts and events with children and help them understand and process them. (And from my experience, it’s definitely easier to start by working with broad and observable topics with younger kids before moving into highly specific topics.)

Music was also seen as incredibly important, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear students practicing instrument or vocal skills throughout the day, sometimes preparing for competitions. Paul Guilhot prepared most of the music courses. They introduced the use of the Galin-Paris-Chevé method to the orphanage, which was a system of sight-singing that helped students to gain an understanding of timing and notes. Music was also seen as being necessary because it brought so much to people because of its social and cultural purposes.

Robin, along with others who had been helping him to develop integral education, recognised that learning should not include pure memorisation; every lesson that students took at Cempuis supported students in acquiring a range of knowledge and learning how to learn, encouraging them to pursue further education and to genuinely become lifelong learners. Robin didn’t even believe in diplomas, believing that they signified the ‘end’ of learning when he saw it as a process that continued until death.

Another really important element of education under an integral education curriculum and particularly at Prévost Orphanage were excursions and learning trips, which Robin felt were absolutely necessary and would provide students with additional knowledge and understanding of the concepts they were learning. He would often organise for students to go on botanical outings, visit factories and agricultural spaces, and explore places that were relevant to their lessons. Excursions could be long-distance, such as when the students of Cempuis went to Brussels and Ghent to help give a demonstration to other schools, but they were mostly a day’s trip away. Walks to nearby locations were often scheduled, allowing children time to explore the surrounding area.

Perhaps one reason these excursions were so important to Robin is the belief that he had about the state and other pedagogues supporting the ‘locking up of young minds’, claiming:

“The official science of education finds nothing better to do with young adolescents than to lock them up: the privileged in college, the vulgar in workshops, and the outcasts in prisons.”

It’s likely that he felt that going on excursions was beneficial because it helped connect his students with the outside world, giving them the opportunities they may have needed in order to recognise how it impacted their lives and how they could impact the world in return rather than being artificially separated from it by daily lessons of meaningless memorisation. In many of the descriptions he and others wrote, it seems that this came from his desire to demand equality and justice in society in the face of class relations, believing that this was yet another way that he could improve the knowledge of his working class pupils.

This entire structure — the combined learning, the excursions, and the movement away from memorisation to learning skills — was something that he saw as being more useful to all people and was the contribution he was able to make, which was probably as a result of the interactions he had during his exile and working with the International and other organisations that brought him into contact with broader socialist and working-class circles.

Despite everything, Robin’s position in the orphanage would come to an abrupt end.

Throughout 1893 and 1894, a series of articles were published in conservative newspapers that started targeting Cempuis and, in particular, Paul Robin; this led to his dismissal from the position of director. The orphanage, especially because of his being an anarchist, was often referenced in association with other supposed ‘crimes’ that people claimed anarchists were guilty of; the conservative press was doing their best to insinuate that he was harbouring anarchist fugitives on the property, claiming that he sometimes passed them off as teachers.

A letter submitted to the municipality by councillor Aimé Lavy highlighted his belief that this campaign against Robin was politically motivated, stating:

“Mr Paul Lerolle employs, as a weapon against Mr Robin, the two terms ‘exaggerated’ and ‘excessive’, I used these to describe the turn of his mind. I meant and I said that Mr Robin has such a great rectitude, such sincerity, that he pushes expression and affirmation to the limit of what he believes to be right. At most, there is something wrong with the unnatural injustice from his enemies.”

One of the newspapers that targeted Robin and the orphanage was La Libre Parole. This newspaper was founded by Édouard Drumont, a Catholic convert who also co-founded the National Antisemitism League of France, and it played a huge role in increasing fear through propaganda, further utilising both xenophobia and anti-Semitism throughout the ongoing anarchist raids of the time and the Dreyfus Affair. Unsurprisingly, this paper featured a subtitle that looks pretty familiar to anyone who knows a lot of nationalist rhetoric from today; it read: “France for the French.”

On 9 January 1894, La Libre Parole linked the orphanage in a few lines of gossip to other supposed anarchist activities that were entirely irrelevant to anything happening there. In trying to spark fear and suspicion of Robin’s work in the orphanage, an unnamed author wrote:

“On the mandate of an investigating judge from the Seine prosecutor’s office, the Beauvais prosecutor’s office arrested a Mister Leleu, who was the secretary of Prévost Orphanage. This individual is accused of having membership in a criminal association.

The Prévost Orphanage is an establishment which depends upon the Department of Seine. Orphans from this area are taken in there, most of whom are brought up there until the age of sixteen.”

At the same time that this article came out, France’s government was doing its best to eradicate anarchism from their nation and restrict the freedom of the press. All through 1893 and 1894, police had been organising searches and raids against known and suspected members of anarchist movements; they detained known and suspected anarchists alike, claiming that they’d been finding quantities of explosive material in their homes.

An article, also published in La Libre Parole from 29 March 1894, shows a similar tactic being used against the same Leleu they’d previously written about. It says:

“The search began and continued until half past six in the evening [on 2 January]. Everything in his office was turned upside down, and he remained at liberty that day…

On 7 January, the people of the orphanage had taken advantage of the sun’s rays to go for a walk in the surrounding area. Leleu, his wife, and a friend had taken a path to Grandvilliers.

Upon arriving back at the orphanage, the three saw the police.”

The police had, according to the publication, received orders to search Leleu’s home and office again. However, in the typical fear-mongering style of similar papers, they finished by saying:

“What did we find at Leleu’s this time? We don’t know yet! Still, he was taken to Grandvilliers with a warrant and escorted to Paris.”

It’s worth noting that nothing had been found and that Leleu would eventually be released from police custody, later receiving a letter of recommendation from Robin in order to help him move on with his life.

Though the article focused on Leleu, its purpose was to draw suspicion to Robin. As a known anarchist and the director of the school at Cempuis, many highly conservative members of the government and press believed that he should be removed; ranking members of the Church also believed this, as they saw his school’s structure and principles as blasphemous. Again in La Libre Parole, Joseph Odelin, a staff writer who wrote pieces under the pseudonym of Valsenard, wrote:

“He implements an educational experiment on orphans without natural protectors, which is one of the most sadistic forms of moral and physical corruption.

He defiles their souls by teaching them the beauties of ‘mixing the sexes’ and their bodies, exposing them to the fatal consequences which result in the ‘confusion of boys and girls’.”

Odelin appears to have been conflicted about which direction he should attack Robin from, insulting him for being anti-religious and anti-clerical, for implementing coeducation, and for being a known anarchist. The latter seems to have been the most problematic for Robin’s critics. This can be seen in the comments of François Laurent-Cély in an 1895 Chamber session while he was refuting criticism of Robin, stating:

“Moreover, I wonder if [the gentleman], by using the word ‘explosive’ twice, did not mean to make an anarchist insinuation.”

The concerns that Odelin most likely pretended to have, like many of the conservative writers today, were easily shown to be false. During sessions of the Chamber of Deputies on 10 November 1894 while addressing Robin’s dismissal from his position, which happened only a few months earlier, Deputy Lavy read from multiple reports to help defend Robin from the slander and libel he had faced. To do this, he generously quoted from reports that he had prepared as evidence, including one by the Inspector General Guillaume Jost, who had been sent to Cempuis to investigate complaints after a similar press campaign in 1892. It stated:

“We were struck, my colleague Dr Napias and I, by the good looks, the natural and frank attitudes of the students, the freshness of their complexion, their open and smiling faces. They enjoy looking you in the face and are happy and content when you talk to them.”

Lavy continued his impassioned speech by quoting from another report that included comments by Dr Legroux who had been an associate of the Faculty of Medicine of Paris at the time:

“I will be permitted to express my admiration for the very special organisation of this orphanage where the mixing of the sexes, as is practiced in some American educational establishments, seemed to me to present no inconvenience. This is thanks to the good direction of Mr. Robin, where the professional instruction is given under the most remarkable of conditions and where the best understood hygiene ensures the good health of the boarders.”

Multiple reports from investigations found the same: The children had suffered no ill effects from anything done at the orphanage, especially being taught in a coeducational environment. They all seemed to be in good health, and those who had graduated from the school went on to be well-employed. The school was able to boast numbers of certificates that many other public schools couldn’t, and they participated most frequently in national and international competitions to show off their skills and knowledge. It’s likely that the participation in these areas was Robin trying to show that his methods worked and were more beneficial to students than the traditional methods used in most schools.

Speaking volumes of the trust Robin had developed with the children’s parents, only two students were removed from the orphanage out of the more than one-hundred kids in attendance at the time of the press campaign.

But the conservatives hadn’t quite finished with Robin and, having been denied the ability to remove him as a result of the treatment of children, found another strategy in the form of blaming Robin for a rotation of staff, many of whom were deemed unqualified. Addressing this concern while defending Robin in Chambers, Lavy provided his colleagues with a response by the Prefect of Seine that read:

“One could hardly meet, among the members of public education, men who would consent to willingly go into exile in a remote village and renounce the advantages which a regular administrative situation conferred on them… The director was, therefore, obliged to seek his staff on the right and on the left and very rarely found ‘masters’ offering all the desirable guarantees.”

Prior to his dismissal, Robin had continually pushed for the teachers in Cempuis to be considered under the same structure as those in Paris. He sent letters to the ministers and directors he worked under every year from 1884 to 1893, requesting the same thing: Help provide Cempuis with a delegation of qualified teachers, allow them to retain their positions, and reassure them that their jobs were secure. These constant requests, along with the assistance of his friend and Head of Primary Education Ferdinand Buisson, contributed to the development of a law that took years to implement that finally made it possible for teachers in Cempuis and other similar schools to be secure. This law stated that:

“Teachers practicing in primary schools annexed to charitable and public assistance establishments that are founded and maintained by the State, departments, or municipalities, provided they meet the conditions of capacity determined by school laws, are included in the number of public school teachers. A public administration regulation will determine the conditions in which these schools will be created, as well as the rights and advantages enjoyed by the aforementioned teachers.”

Addressing this concern, Laurent-Cély told his colleagues in a Chamber hearing regarding Robin’s ability to receive a pension in June 1895:

“If the teaching staff did not have all the required qualities, it was not Mr Robin’s fault; it was the consequence of the law. This law was amended at the instigation of the Supervisory and Administration Commission, and the decree did not appear until 4 November 1894…

And even if … the teachers of the orphanage would have been taken among the best teachers, you can be sure that they would not have given satisfaction to the clerics.”

These laws were overwhelmingly helpful to the teachers but were also presented as an excuse to remove Robin as an “irresponsible” director, hiring any person that he could despite the fact the law took effect after his dismissal. They also gave the state more control over institutions that they had previously denied the existence of and left alone to figure out their own funding and structure; it is largely believed that, aside from removing an anarchist from a prominent position as a school director, the State wanted to acquire more power over the institutions within it and promote the state-sanctioned curriculum. The press campaign helped serve these goals as well.

The hiring of staff who had fewer qualifications would be his undoing along with the ideas of coeducation and integral education that the conservative and religious members of government wrongly claimed were “unnatural” and “immoral,” and Paul Robin would be dismissed from Cempuis and forever banned from teaching in France during the final days of August 1894.

At this point, I want to give an additional content warning because this section will include mentions of eugenics with regards to disabled people. This is because I’ll be discussing neo-Malthusian views, which took their name from the demographer and economist Thomas Malthus. In 1798, he published An Essay on the Principle of Population, which outlined his beliefs about how society would continue to grow unchecked as resources became more abundant. He thought that this would lead to greater susceptibility to famine and disease among the poor and act as an obstacle towards creating a “utopian society.” As Malthus was against birth control, he suggested that people learn to “control themselves” and be chaste. In Robin’s time and for decades after, this essay remained popular across Europe and the Americas and was integrated into many of the ‘progressive’ movements of the early 20th century. These so-called “progressives” agreed with the majority of what Malthus proposed, though they believed that population control should be done through birth control while targeting the same vulnerable demographics.

All that said, back to Robin.

There was one more concern that some people had about Paul Robin that also played a role, though it was often discussed as a suspicion despite how obvious he made it: He was a neo-Malthusian. One of the major issues with the neo-Malthusians was that they often aimed their programs, which were billed as “progressive,”  at marginalised and vulnerable communities. This included women from the poor and working class, disabled people, and people from ethnic and racial minorities. However, this wasn’t the reason that most people took issue with Robin, but we’ll get to that soon enough.

For Robin, he saw the connections of neo-Malthusian ideas with regards to feminism. Initially, he engaged with the question of a woman’s place in both life and the socialist movement in 1867 at a meeting of the International Workingmen’s Association; in a debate, he wrote the minority response stating that men and women must work together and that women belonged in the socialist movement. This was at a time when people like César de Paepe were trying to keep women from being members in organisations like the First International, claiming that women working outside of the home was unnatural and that they were only destined to become wives and homemakers. As a reminder, this ran counter to Robin’s beliefs; many of his contemporaries, even within the anarchist movement, like James Guillaume, argued that the “family was the basis of society” and that women joining the movement would disrupt this. Robin viewed the ‘traditional family’ as a way to keep society from working together and as a means to concentrate money, wealth, and power among a few people, further enabling the existence of hierarchies, inequality, and injustice.

During his exile in 1870, Robin came into contact with and became a member of the Malthusian League, befriending its leader Charles Drysdale. After learning about Malthusian concepts, Robin attempted to win support of anarchists and socialists at the Saint-Imier Congress in 1877 and the Marseilles Congress in 1879. Overwhelmingly, the people he thought would be most supportive of these ideas dismissed him entirely. They believed his views about sex and contraception to be too radical. Then, when he was offered the position of director at Cempuis and provided an opportunity to move back to France in 1880, he had to rein in his enthusiasm for birth control and sex education in order to ‘fit in’ as the director.

During his time at Cempuis, he still did a lot of work to create propaganda promoting different aspects of neo-Malthusian beliefs. In one instance, he opened a Paris dispensary that provided women with contraceptives in 1889 where he also handed out handbills and pamphlets that he likely had printed at the orphanage. One of these handbills read:

“Mothers of families, young women who soon will be, learn all you wish to assure yourselves of a lasting happiness, what every woman should know by consulting Mrs L and Mrs Co, teachers of hygiene, whose wise opinions are based on the most certain data of the science of life and society. You will bless the day of your visit for the rest of your life.”

Another handbill targeted married people, reading:

“The greatest comfort that one can give to an anxious wife is to indicate to her safe, effective means of becoming a mother only when she has, after careful reflection, decided to do so. It is the first step, the essential point of the real emancipation of woman, and in turn of the entire race.”

While yet another discussed the right of women to control their fertility, reading:

“This depends on you, you are absolutely the mistresses of your destiny. It is necessary that you do not ignore the fact, neither you nor your companions in suffering, that science has emancipated you from the frightening fate of being mothers against your will.”

He focused his work largely on the working class, claiming that if they were given more access to birth control and contraceptives, it would provide them with another way to rise up and protest their conditions. Part of his reasoning for this was that he did not want to see more children be born only to grow up to become “cannon fodder” for foreign invasions or workers who were exploited by capitalists and industry. He saw women’s ability to withdraw their consent as a means to stop this. He also saw it as a means for women to control their lives and to participate in what was becoming known as “free love,” saying that it only worked if they had the knowledge and the means to control their fertility.

To continue working on these ideas, he founded the League of Human Regeneration in 1896 after his dismissal from Cempuis.

Interestingly, though some of these statements and beliefs would later be picked up by feminists and groups on the left, Robin’s views didn’t always match those of feminists and leftists of the time. According to historian Angus McLaren, much of the work that Robin was doing “shocked the Malthusian economists because of its radicalism while it offended socialists because it linked sex and politics.” With regards to the feminists, it’s probably more likely that he overlooked the full range of problems that women had at the time, assuming their only issues were primarily childbearing and rearing; he neglected to realise that following the dictates of men posed significant issues for women, too.

Though many of his views were social libertarian and focused on the individual rights of people, especially women, to control their own bodies and lives, Robin agreed with many ableist views. In contrast to his views about how birth control should be more freely available, he openly spoke about how it should be the “duty” that disabled people limit or prohibit their own fertility for the supposed benefit of society. This mostly came from a common belief that disabled parents were less capable of taking care of their own children and that they would pass along their so-called “defects” to their kids.

Unfortunately, it’s worth noting that these ableist beliefs still haven’t gone away, even among people who consider themselves “on the left,” especially in discussions about who should have children and how many. These conversations always target marginalised and vulnerable peoples, trying to take away their agency and interfere in their lives. There are still far too many people who claim that disabled people shouldn’t have children or that they’re incapable of caring for them, going so far as to invade the lives of disabled people and their families. Many disabled people still often suffer the consequences of living in an ableist society which can have them legally sterilised against their will, should a judge, medical professional, parent, or legal guardian deem it necessary. We live in a world where disabled people are frequently infantilised by people claiming that they “know best” about what we need while outright denying our own access to necessary services and accommodations.

For more conversations specific to disability, Alice Wong’s beautiful Disability Visibility podcast has an excellent episode about disability and parenting, and Kara Ayers did a talk about her experiences as a disabled parent. Both of these have been linked in the show notes and are highly recommended for further information.

Disabled people are not alone in some of these issues, as similar experiences have also been shared by queer people and people from racial and ethnic minorities. Many countries (even in Europe) still require that trans people undergo forced sterilisation (along with mandatory reassignment surgery) in order to be recognised. Millions of people from racial and ethnic minorities have also been (and some still continue to be) forcibly sterilised, including Black people, Latin Americans, Indigenous people, and Romani. There is an absurdly huge history of forced sterilisation, and only some of it has really been pieced together. It’s here that I want to recommend the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab, which is also linked in the show notes. I recommend that everyone checks out their publications.

Prévost Orphanage would serve as the inspiration for many of the other educational experiments and projects that were developed and instituted by a range of anarchists, communists, and socialists across Europe and the Americas. In London, the former Communard and teacher Louise Michel would start the International Socialist School, including the tenets of ‘integral education’. It would serve as the inspiration for Sébastien Faure’s La Ruche, Madeleine Vernet’s L’Avenir social, and Francisco Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna; the latter would serve as a major inspiration globally, further introducing more people to the educational ideas of Paul Robin.

Professors of teacher training colleges in Belgium who worked alongside Paul Robin, such as Alexis Sluys, repeatedly visited Cempuis when it was an anarchist school to both observe and further develop and propagate the principles of integral education. They continued trying to fit these principles into teacher training courses, hoping to spread them into the mainstream culture. People from all over Europe knew of the orphanage and many socialist and anarchist educators and philosophers paid visits to the school for conferences while it was open; they took the ideas with them, implementing them into a variety of educational and learning spaces.

For all the work he did, it’s difficult to say whether or not the project would’ve been a success. Though multiple reports came back that the children were happy and healthy, Robin often complained that he worked in such a deprived school with only poor and abandoned children who were generally denied access to resources, and he complained that many students entered the school mere years before they graduated. Frequently, he was openly frustrated by his poorly trained staff and the lack of resources on campus.

But mostly, he was convinced that there was no way possible that his true vision of a school could exist in a capitalist society.

As a teacher today, I feel like there are so many things that existed in Paul Robin’s integral education curriculum that I absolutely loved but not necessarily for the same reasons that he implemented them. In fact, the first thing that I really became attached to was the wide range of vocational skills. While some of his writing explained that he did so in order to give his students better opportunities upon leaving the orphanage, I actually like them because it means that a community could start to rely upon itself and bring its members together to perform a range of duties that help each other out. Giving children access to spaces to learn skills that are widely necessary for the survival of everyone around them is something that I think we don’t do enough of. For example, classes that teach skills such as sewing, woodwork, and cooking are massively beneficial to all people for a variety of reasons.

Using sewing as an example, more people being able to sew would allow us to cut down on the amount of clothing that is made, giving us more opportunities to alter and repair it as needed; by learning the basic skills of repair, people would be able to reuse and remake almost everything they have. Similarly, they could learn skills like embroidery, crochet, and knitting; not only would this provide people with an opportunity to learn to make and improve things, it would also give them the opportunity to find a style of art that they enjoy.

Within the community, it would give people the chance to work on sewing-related projects in communal settings, like how many people do quilting. People who know how to sew can help out their neighbours by completing simple tasks, like helping to repair clothes for those who cannot for whatever reason. In the broader sense, it would help people understand more of the processes that go into textiles, clothing, and cloth products, building a wider appreciation and recognition for the time and effort that go into these items.

Other subjects could also be wrapped up into a sewing or textiles class, too. It’s possible to integrate this subject within topics like art and design, social sciences and history, maths, and sciences. It’s completely interdisciplinary! Individuals who find that they love this area can specialise, learning far more advanced skills that help them to go farther and set up a larger scale organisation, like a collective of tailors.

Another area that I was drawn to was that he wanted children to be outside as much as possible, and he planned to do this through having lots of sports and recreational activities, planting gardens, excursions to local farms, long and short walks, swimming, and even relocating some classes outside when possible.

This is something that I would take even farther; students don’t have to go outside, but they should be able to have a lot of structured and unstructured recreational time during the day. Across the globe, the curricula that many of us have to teach requires that we get through so much material. Breaks in school have been minimised as much as possible to do that, removing time for children to just work with and talk to their peers; for other kids, there just isn’t enough alone time throughout the day because they always feel trapped in a classroom with other people and there isn’t an escape.

Another thing that stood out was that they had weekly performances, as seen in the reports from both government inspectors and visitors to the orphanage. This was something that was quite common among families of the time, and they were usually fairly simple and informal activities; children would put on plays, read stories and poetry, sing songs, or put on other kinds of performances for their parents. At the orphanage, they put this into practice in a slightly different manner.

I love this because of how collaborative it could be and how children can participate in a range of ways, just as students in drama clubs do; some prefer to be on the stage and performing for a crowd, others prefer to work behind the scenes, and more still like to go back and forth between the two. When I did drama and performance clubs with students, they loved the creativity of the space; they loved the elements of design that would go into costumes and sets, they loved writing their own plays or revamping already existing ones to be more relevant to them, and they loved the interaction with the audience. For many students, it gave them a chance to interact with people who they otherwise didn’t see; for families and the community, they were able to help work on all elements of the play and build something together. It was a lot of fun, and it built relationships in a way that typical classwork just couldn’t.

Though Robin was known for being a cantankerous person, especially as he aged, he sought to build a school and system of education that focused largely on community. This is something that, in many places, seems to have been lost from our own schools, being replaced with a range of testing and an excessive curriculum that doesn’t focus on the needs, desires, and cultures of our students.

Robin was definitely right about one thing: The kind of schools that our society needs in order to foster healthy community relationships and building connections between all people are not the ones that a capitalist society will allow the majority of the population to have. They will either be kept for the children of the wealthiest members to ensure that they do not have to participate in a curriculum or structure that discourages creativity or exploration, or they will be sabotaged in order to maintain the power of the capitalist class.

But it’s worth considering that our schools need to be more accountable to our communities now. They need to be spaces that address the needs of people in the community by being spaces that actively encourage everyone to genuinely participate in the local decision-making processes because they impact them, allowing them to explore what education really means beyond simply getting a job in a capitalist system.

Thanks for joining me in looking at Paul Robin and the Prévost Orphanage in Cempuis. If you enjoyed this, please share it as widely as you can and perhaps check out my writings over at nerdteacher.com; I post about a range of education and school related issues. If you have the ability to, you can help support my work over at Ko-Fi with a one time donation. All of my links are in the show notes.

Until next time, stay curious!