Sunday, May 20, 2012

Baron Pierre De Coubertin


By Albert A Shaw.

Baron Pierre De Coubertin
Although still a young man, M. de Cou­bertin has acquired a broad point of view through wide travel and deep study. He is peculiarly qualified, therefore, to interpret the institutions of his own country for the benefit of Americans or Englishmen. No foreigner could have written certain chapters in his book with the insight that the author displays. On the other hand, no Frenchman not exceptionally familiar with the history, politics, and social life of America and England could, in the writing of a book like this, have rendered a direct service to English-speaking readers while primarily ad­dressing his own countrymen. The internation­al and comparative cast of mind has come to be second nature with M. de Coubertin - a thing that can be said of very few Frenchmen. In that regard he is the De Tocqueville of our day. Quite as De Tocqueville, now more than sixty years ago, visited the United States and England in order to write books which should interpret American democracy and English life to the Frenchmen of the 30s who had just placed Louis Philippe on a throne surrounded by republican institutions," even so M. de Coubertin has for many years past been busily studying and interpreting to the young men of the Third Re­public certain phases of English and American life which he has believed might well be incorporated into the French scheme of existence. M. de Coubertin is a philosophical observer and a constructive reformer; and he is one of the really notable and remarkable young men of our day.

Our author's study of the political history of his own country during the past quarter century would seem to me to show a rare talent for politi­cal and institutional history. For the very rea son that he belongs to the new generation, and did not therefore participate in the events that followed the catastrophe of 1870, he finds it the easier to render even-handed justice to all the men and parties that were active at that time. I have not read any book which shows with such convincing logic as M. de Coubertin's the relation of one movement in French politics to another. His characterization of men is remarkably just and felicitous. Thiers, MacMahon, Gambetta, Jules Ferry, Grevy, De Freycinet, Jules Simon, Carnot, Boulanger, Clemenceau - these and many others stand out in clear relief, and one feels that with a few skillful touches the author has given us true and trustworthy portraiture. Further­more, his study of constitutional modes and par­liamentary methods shows a remarkable power of analysis and discrimination.

Nothing could be better in its way than his argument for parliamentary government as tend­ing by virtue of its very instability and fickleness to give the republic a real security. With min­isterial rigidity there might in France be danger of revolution; but where it is so easy to make and unmake ministries, the popular emotions ex­pend themselves harmlessly, and the great mech­anism of government goes on undisturbed. M. de Coubertin, of course, lays due stress upon the value of the permanent organization of govern­mental business under chiefs who do not change and who owe their loyalty to their bureaus or departments and to the country itself, rather than to parties or ministries. Our author would certainly not be so optimistic and easily satisfied as to extol the constant changing of cabinets as the ideal arrangement; for he could not fail to admit that better results would be secured from a higher degree of ministerial stability.

One's confidence, indeed, in M. de Coubertin's competency as historian of the Third Republic in­creases from page to page as one notes the evi­dences of fairness and sees how calm and object­ive is his discernment. It is so rare a thing to find the sympathetic faculty and the constructive imagination conjoined with the trained and alert employment of the critical habit of mind. It is this combination of gifts - sympathy to in­terpret, imagination to unify and correlate, ana­lytical insight to make just distinctions, together with industry in research, accuracy in detail, and the sense of form, proportion, and style - that has given me a high regard for the work of this author and a belief that it is entitled to interna­tional recognition.

The Baron Pierre de Coubertin is the scion of a family now old in France, where it has been domiciled more than four hundred years. It came originally from Italy, by favor of Louis XI., who conferred honors and titles upon the head of the house. The family came to be known by the name of Coubertin sometime after 1650, by virtue of the fact that its principal seigneurie was situated at Coubertin, near Versailles, in the renowned valley of Chevreuse. The Baron Pierre de Coubertin, with whom we have to do, was born on January 1, 1863. His life and career have thus far been noteworthy chiefly on the educational side. He was educated in Paris, first at the Jesuits' day-school in the Rue de Marat, known as the Ecole Saint Ignace, and afterward in the University of Paris, where he obtained successively the degrees of bachelor of arts, bachelor of sciences, and bachelor of law. He also took a post-graduate course in political science at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques.

It was in 1884, when only twenty-one years of age, that M. de Coubertin began his visits to England, with the prime object of acquainting himself intimately with the life of the great pub­lic schools - Rugby, Eton, Harrow, and the others of that type. He had become strongly convinced that there was an element in English education that was sadly lacking in the French schools. Obviously and conspicuously, the English training in athletics and the English devotion to outdoor sports and exercises were almost totally unknown in French lyceums and collegiate insti­tutes. But Coubertin clearly perceived that some­thing even more serious was concerned than the mere question of physical culture. He understood that in the rowing, football, and cricket of the English schools, and all their other games, contests, and field-day exercises, there was involved an element of moral discipline and strength that supplied in some sense a key to the secret of England's power. Not merely a manliness expressed in muscular force and physical bearing was developed in the English arena of school sports or neighborhood contests and pastimes, but also a fine spirit of fair play, a hatred of mean­ness, lying, and all forms of deceit, and that fundamental kind of honor and integrity of character that cause Englishmen to be trusted and re­spected, even if not greatly beloved, by all races, in all lands. Furthermore, this love of hardy games and contests seemed to Coubertin the beat sort of protection to the young men of our times from the temptation to unworthy indulgences that tend to undermine personal vigor and thereby to diminish the vitality of the nation.

The drift in France among young men of edu­cation was toward softness and over-refinement and the vices that are somewhat dangerously akin to certain phases of aesthetic development. The ideals of youth in England seemed, as compared with those of France, to make for the clear eye, the steady hand, the firm will - in short, for self-control and the conservation of energy. It was, therefore, with no mere boyish fondness for the excitement of athletic contest, considered as a thing desirable in itself, that M. de Coubertin devoted himself to the development of the revival of a high type of manhood among French stu­dents. Older men than he had perceived, after the disastrous war with Germany, that French education was lamentably behind the age, and that German military superiority was due in large part to the high intellectual training to which the whole nation had been subjected as a part of a far-sighted national policy. The ministers of education could improve the school system by securing better laws and spending more money. But there was also needed the personal devotion of men who could, by giving their best effort and enthusiasm, work a change in the spirit of student life.

Happily, M. de Coubertin has not been obliged to do this work in isolation and without help and sympathy; but he has been the most active spirit in it, and has worked with such assiduity, as well as tact, intelligence, and fine spirit, that already great results are evident. M. de Coubertin was not content with any merely casual study of Eng­lish school life, nor did he jump at quick conclu­sions or attempt to propagate theories of French educational reform until he had tested his views and impressions by repeated comparative inspec­tions of the educational life of the two countries. Thus for four years he went back and forth be­tween England and France, making two or three sojourns a year on the English side of the chan­nel. In 1887 he began to publish articles in French magazines and journals, dealing with the reform of French education and the rule that sort should play in school life. Some of these, also, were interpretative studies of the characteristics of contemporary social and educational life in England, with particular reference to the schools and universities.

He was ready at length in 1888, at the age of twenty-five, to publish his book, L'Education en Angleterre," an account of school life in England, which, while valuable on any account, was of particular use in the advancement of the cause to which all his efforts were really devoted. The book attracted very favorable attention in France, and its success gave the young author and re­former prestige enough for the public launching of his practical movement, this taking the form of a committee for the propagation of sports and physical exercises in education," with that eminent statesman, scholar, and educational au­thority, Jules Simon, as president of the com­mittee.

In the following year occurred the Paris Ex­position of 1889, with its congresses and its various opportunities for the exemplification of progressive ideas and methods. M. de Coubertin was alive to the value of the occasion, and he was in­structed by the authorities of the exhibition, in connection with the displays and exhibits show­ing educational methods in foreign countries, to organize an international congress on physical education. The congress was not only successful in itself, but especially valuable for the influence it was able to exert upon French public opinion.

At this time M. de Coubertin published a book on L'Education Anglaise en France; and before the exhibition season had ended in the autumn he had the satisfaction of receiving a commission from the National Department of Public Instruc­tion to visit the United States and prepare a re­port for the benefit of France upon the organiza­tion, work, and life of American colleges. He accepted the commission and came promptly to this country, and his visit is remembered pleas­antly by numerous Americans who met him at one institution or another. He visited many colleges and universities in New England, in New York and the other Middle States, in the far South, and in the Mississippi Valley and the Northwest, and extended his tour to Canada. His observations were embodied in a book pub­lished at Paris the following year, entitled Uni­versites Transatlantique." He also founded, upon his return to Paris, a monthly magazine, the Revue Athletique, which he conducted for two or three years as the organ particularly of the ath­letic interests of French schools and universities!

Meanwhile all this work for the encourage­ment of the athletic spirit in the French institu­tions had begun to tell strongly; and in the season of 1891-92 it was possible, under M. de Couber­tin's leadership, to organize what is now the well-known Union des Societes des Sports Athletiques. This central body is a Confederation of about two hundred French athletic clubs and societies, half of which are in the universities and colleges. With a view to keeping the French student's in­terest from flagging, M. de Coubertin endeavored to make some plans for English and American competitions. Thus, in 1892, international foot­ball matches were begun between French and English teams, Lord Dufferin himself presiding over the first one held at Paris. M. de Couber­tin also succeeded in securing the recognition of the French Union by the Henley Regatta Com­mittee and the admission of the French rowing crews to the university contests on the Thames. Again, in that same season, he secured the visit to Paris of a team of American university ath­letes, as the result of the efforts of an American committee which he had organized and in which his friend Professor Sloane, then of Princeton University, was especially active. The practical aspects of M. de Coubertin's work for that sea­son of 1892 should be further illustrated by men­tion of the seven days' athletic and intercollegiate tournament in and about Paris, participated in principally by the athletes of the various French universities and schools, under the honorary presidency of the Grand Duke Vladimir of Russia.

To crown the work of the year, M. de Couber­tin, at the end of November, gave a lecture in the amphitheater of the Sorbonne, in which he disclosed his plan for the reestablishment of the Olympic Games. The enlistment of American interest in this ambitious project for a modern quadrennial tournament of games and sports that should be open to amateurs - particularly those of the student class - from all nations was much facilitated by M. de Coubertin's second visit to the United States, which occurred in 1893. He had the honor to come again with a commission from his government, for he had been ap­pointed one of the organizing committee of the French section at the World's Fair, while also designated by the World's Fair authorities at Chicago as one of the honorary heads of the Congress on Higher Education.

He improved this opportunity to visit the Pacific coast, where he inspected the University of California at Berkeley, the Leland Stanford University, and other institutions. In each of these two California universities, as well as at Princeton and in Tulane at New Orleans, M. de Coubertin founded a debating prize that will make his name familiar to many future genera­tions of American students. This prize takes the form of an annual medal awarded to the best student debater on some subject relating to French politics or political history. M. de Coubertin's object in founding these very interesting contests in forensics was to promote among the educated young men of the United States a better ac­quaintance with France through a discussion of French politics every year in several universities. Before leaving this country in the autumn of 1893 he had aroused a very general interest, especially in the college world, in his plan for the Olympic Games.

A little later, in the early weeks of 1894, he was actively at work in England holding confer­ences and forming his committee for the promo­tion of the idea of the quadrennial athletic tourna­ment. In June of the year the subject was taken up by a, great conference or congress held at the Sorbonne in Paris, a dozen or more nations being represented: King George of the Hellenes sent his best wishes, and the eight-day conference, with its accompanying flies and sports in the Bois du Bologne, was fairly successful, resulting in the formation of an international committee to carry the Olympic plan into effect. It was de­cided that the first games should be held in Greece in 1896, with the further understanding by common consent that the competitions of 1900 would be held at Paris as a feature of the pro­posed international exhibition, while somewhat more vaguely it was anticipated that the games of 1904 would be held in the United States. M. de Coubertin then betook himself to Athens, with the result of forming an enthusiastic Greek com­mittee and perfecting plans for the first games, with the Crown Prince of Greece as presiding officer for the occasion. The games as they ac­tually occurred at Athens in 1896 attracted a. world-wide attention; and the illustrated articles in which they were described in the periodical press of every part of the civilized world would fill a number of volumes.

Meanwhile M. de Coubertin had been married to Mademoiselle de Rothan, daughter of the late M. de Rothan, who was a distinguished ambassador and well-known author. In the past two years his pen has been unusually busy; for, besides the-present work on France under the Third Repub­lic, he has completed a volume on his recent travels, entitled “Souvenirs d' Amgrique et de Gree." Furthermore, he has contributed a num­ber of important articles to the leading French journals and reviews, besides his valuable papers written for this REVIEW, and still other literary work. As illustrating M. de Coubertin's thorough­ness as a student and worker, I may be per­mitted to remark that at my suggestion he has written some of his articles in English. To have acquired English after attaining manhood and to be able not merely to read and speak the lan­guage, but to write it for publication with full command of vocabulary and with an excellent use of idioms, is an unusual thing, particularly for a Frenchman. M. de Coubertin's mastery of English is simply an indication of his earnestness and persistence in all things to which he may have set his hand.

M. de Coubertin has been appointed to im­portant positions in the creation and management of the great French Exposition of the year 1900, and will have charge of certain educational and athletic exhibits. He is to make another visit to the United States in the early future, in promotion of his departments of the exposition.


Originally published in The American Review of Reviews in April of 1898.
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