Popular education may be defined as an educational technique designed to raise the consciousness of its participants and allow them to become more aware of how an individual's personal experiences are connected to larger societal problems. Participants are empowered to act to effect change on the problems that affect them.
One of the roots of popular education was the Condorcet report during the 1789 French Revolution. These ideas became an important component of the Republican and Socialist movement. Following the split of the First International at the 1872 Hague Congress between the "anti-authoritarian socialists" (anarchists) and the Marxists, popular education remained an important part of the workers' movement, in particular in the anarcho-syndicalist movement, strong in France, Spain and Italy. It was one of the important theme treated during the 1907 International Anarchist Congress of Amsterdam.
During the Second Empire, Jean Macé founded the Ligue de l'enseignement (Teaching League) in 1866; during the Lille Congress in 1885, Macé reaffirmed the masonic inspiration of this league devoted to popular instruction. Following the 1872 Hague Congress and the split between Marxists and anarchists, Fernand Pelloutier set up in France various Bourses du travail centres, where workers gathered and discussed politics and sciences.
The Jules Ferry laws in the 1880s, establishing free, laic, mandatory and public education, were one of the founding stones of the Third Republic (1871-1940), set up in the aftermaths of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune.
Furthermore, most of the teachers, who were throughout one of the main support of the Third Republic, so much that it has been called the République des instituteurs ("Republic of Teachers"), while the teachers themselves were called, because of their Republican anti-clericalism, the hussards noirs de la République, supported Alfred Dreyfus against the conservatives during the Dreyfus Affair. One of its consequences was for them to set up free educational lectures of humanist topics for adults in order to struggle against the spread of anti-semitism, which was not limited to the far-right but also affected the workers' movement.
Paul Robin's work at the orphanage in Cempuis was the model for Francisco Ferrer's Modern School in Spain. Robin taught atheism and internationalism, and broke new ground with co-ed schooling, and teaching orphans with the same respect given to other children. He taught that the individual should develop in harmony with the world, on the physical, moral, and intellectual planes.
Popular education continued to be an important field of socialist politics, reemerging in particular during the Popular Front in 1936-38, while autogestion (self-management), a main tenet of the anarcho-syndicalist movement, became a popular slogan following the May '68 revolt.
The Escuela Moderna (Modern School) was founded in 1901 in Barcelona by free-thinker Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, and became a leading inspiration of many various movements. The school's stated goal was to "educate the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting". In practice, high tuition fees restricted attendance at the school to wealthier middle class students. It was privately hoped that when the time was ripe for revolutionary action, these students would be motivated to lead the working classes. It closed in 1906. The Escuela Moderna, and Ferrer's ideas generally, formed the inspiration for a series of Modern Schools in the United States, Cuba, South America and London. The first of these was started in New York City in 1911. It also inspired the Italian newspaper Università popolare, founded in 1901.
Following the 1981 presidential election which brought to power the Socialist Party (PS)'s candidate, François Mitterrand, his Minister of Education, Alain Savary, supported Jean Lévi's initiative to create a public high school, delivering the baccalauréat, but organized on the principles of autogestion (or self-management): this high school took the name of Lycée autogéré de Paris (LAP). The LAP explicitly inspired itself by the Oslo Experimental High School, opened in 1967 in Norway, as well as the Saint-Nazaire Experimental High School, opened six months before the LAP. Furthermore, the secondary school Vitruve was another source of inspiration (it opened in 1962 in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, and is still active). Theoretical references include Célestin Freinet and his comrades from the I.C.E.M., as well as Raymond Fonvieille, Fernand Oury,and others theoreticians of "institutional pedagogy," as well as those coming from the institutional analysis movement, in particular René Lourau, as well as members of the institutional psychotherapeutic movement, which were a main component in the 1970s of the anti-psychiatric movement (of which Félix Guattari was an important member). Since 2005, the LAP has created contact with others self-managed firms, in the REPAS network (Réseau d'échanges et de pratiques alternatives et solidaires, Network of Exchange of Solidarity and Alternative Practices").
A second generation for such folk high school meant to educate the people and the masses spread in the society (mainly for workers) just before the French Front populaire experience, as a reaction among teachers and intellectuals following the February 6, 1934 riots organized by far-right leagues. Issues devoted to free-thinking such as workers' self-management were thought and taught during that time, since the majority of attendants were proletarians interested in politics. Hence, some received the name of Université prolétarienne (Proletarian University) instead of Université populaire (Popular University) in some cities around the country. The reactionary Vichy regime put an end to such tentatives during World War II. That tendency continued in the post-war period, yet topical lectures turned to be more practical and focused on daily life matters. Nowadays, the largest remnant is located in Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin départements (see external links).
Following World War II, popular teaching attempts were initiated mainly by the anarchist movement. Already in 1943, Joffre Dumazedier, Bénigno Cacérès, Paul Lengrand, Joseph Rovan and others founded the Peuple et Culture (People and Culture) network, aimed at democratization of culture. Joffre Dumazedier conceptualized, at the Liberation, the concept of "cultural development" to oppose the concept of "economic development", thus foreshading the current Human Development Index. Historian Jean Maitron, for example, was director of the Apremont school in Vendée from 1950 to 1955.
Such popular educations were also a major feature of May '68 and of the following decenie, leading in particular to the establishment of the University of Paris VIII - Vincennes in Paris, in 1969. The Vincennes University (today located in Saint-Denis) was first a "Experimental University Center," with an interest in reshaping relations between students and teachers (so-called "mandarins", in reference to the bureaucrats of Imperial China, for their authority and classic, Third Republic pedagogy) as well as between the University itself and society. Thus, Vincennes was largely opened to those who did not have their baccalauréat diploma, as well as to foreigners. Its courses were focused on Freudo-Marxism, psychoanalysis, Marxist theory, cinema, theater, urbanism or artificial intelligence. Famous intellectuals such as Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and others held seminars there, in full classrooms where no seats could be found. The assistance was very heterogeneous. For instance, musicians such as Richard Pinhas assisted at Deleuze's courses, and after having written the Anti-Oedipus (1972) with Félix Guattari, Deleuze used to say that non-specialists had best understood their work. Furthermore, Vincennes had no amphitheatres, representatives of the mandarin teacher facing and dominating by his position several hundreds students silenciously taking notes. It also enforced a strict equality between professors and teaching assistants. The Student Revolt continued through-out the 1970s in both Vincennes and the University of Paris X: Nanterre, created in 1964. In 1980, the Minister of Education Alice Saunier-Seité imposed the transfer of Vincennes' University to Saint-Denis. Although education has been normalized in the 1980s, during the Mitterrand era, in both Saint-Denis and Vincennes, these universities have retained a less traditional outlook than the classic Sorbonne, where courses tend to be more conservative and sociological composition more middle-upper class.
Another attempt in popular education, specifically targeted towards the question of philosophy (France being one of the rare country where this discipline is taught in terminale, the last year of high school which culminate in the baccalauréat degree) was the creation, in 1983, of the open university named Collège international de philosophie (International Philosophy College, or Ciph), by Jacques Derrida, François Châtelet, Jean-Pierre Faye and Dominique Lecourt, in an attempt to re-think the teaching of philosophy in France, and to liberate it from any institutional authority (most of all from the University). As the ancient Collège de France, created by Francis I, it is free and open to everyone. The Ciph was first directed by Derrida, then by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and has had as teaching members Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Sidi Mohamed Barkat, Geoffrey Bennington, François Châtelet, José Gil, Olivier LeCour Grandmaison, Antonio Negri, etc. The Ciph is still active.
In 2002, philosopher Michel Onfray initiated Université populaire de Caen in his hometown and starting a long seminar dealing with hedonistic philosophy from ancient times to May'68 events in French society, for a four-year duration at least. His very topical subject in this seminar keeps going with a free-thinking spirit, since people are invited on the whole to rethink History of ideas to get rid of any Christian influence. Despite the same name of Université populaire, it is not linked to the European federation of associations inherited from the second generation. In 2004, Michel Onfray expanded the experience to other cities such as Arras, Lyon, Narbonne, Avignon, and Mons (in Belgium); each with various lectures and teachers joining his idea. Last but not least of those Universités populaires is the one that opened in Argentan: Its focus is meant to deliver a culture of culinary tastes to homeless people, through lectures and practises of famous chefs.