Whitefield Academy Blog
The Reformation of Education
This was originally published on October 31st, 2017.
Today marks the quincentennial—that’s the five-hundredth anniversary—of Martin Luther’s protest against the Roman Catholic Church which started the Protestant Reformation. We usually think of Martin Luther’s reforming work as having to do with theology and worship, but Luther had a lot to say about the education of children as well. In fact, Luther saw the proper education of children as essential to the spread of the gospel, and so he sought to reform the schools as well as the church. Luther wrote that “If I had to give up preaching and my other duties, there is no office I would rather have than that of a school-teacher.”
School as Christian Duty
During Luther’s day, schooling was reserved for the sons of wealthy people and even for them the quality of instruction was often poor. Most middle and working-class parents sent their children to work at an early age rather than educating them. Luther believed that parents had a responsibility to ensure that their children were educated, whether they were to grow up to be priests, laborers, or housewives. He based his appeal on texts like Psalm 78:5–7, where fathers are exhorted to teach God’s laws to their children. Without the ability to read and reason well, how could people read and understand God’s word?
The Cost of Education
Today we often lament the deterioration of standards of education, but Luther probably had it harder. He wrote, “Germany has sunk so low that her wretched people, like poor dumb cattle, can neither read nor write good German, and have well nigh lost the sense of their natural reason.” School was not free, but Luther wanted the poor to be able to attend as well, since God’s word was as much for them as for the learned elite. He exhorted churches and rich Christians to provide for those who were unable to afford tuition. He encouraged potential donors to fund schools by telling them by doing so, “you secure [students’] deliverance from hell and entrance into heaven… That would be a praiseworthy Christian behest, in which God would take pleasure, and for which he would honor and bless you, that you might have joy and peace in him.”
Luther knew firsthand the hardships some people face to attain a quality education; he had been a “beggar pupil,” forced to beg for bread so he could continue studying at the University of Erfurt and attain a Doctor of Divinity. But education was important enough that he exhorted fathers to “without anxiety, then, let your son study, and if he should have to beg for bread for a time you give our God material out of which he can make a lord.” The idea that everyone should be taught to read and write, rather than only the priests and upper class boys, was a novel idea, and Luther struggled throughout his life to enact his vision of universal education.
Luther’s ideas about who should be taught may have been innovative, but his methods for how they should be taught reached back through the long history of Western education. Luther had been educated in a “trivial” school, meaning that the curriculum was based on the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, similar to Whitefield Academy’s way of teaching. As a reformer he advocated a continuation of these classical methods of schooling. He confessed that as a boy he had hated the hard work of learning Latin, but nevertheless, he proposed a curriculum which demanded students learn Latin, recognizing that this difficult work paid large dividends later in life. He also advocated for the learning of Greek and Hebrew so that people could read the Bible in its original languages.
Besides the languages, Luther’s model for education sought wisdom in the texts of ancient cultures. For children, he especially favored the fables of the sixth-century BC Greek storyteller Aesop, which teach moral lessons through stories about animals. At older ages he thought the writings of the first-century BC Roman statesman and political philosopher Cato were essential in the formation of wise citizens as well as just rulers. Luther advocated the use of Roman and Greek authors even though they were not Christians because “they were so earnest and diligent in educating and training their young boys and girls.” He said of the example of these pagan educators, “that when I call it to mind I am forced to blush for us Christians.” Luther was willing to recognize that non-Christians often do a better job of living moral lives than Christians, and he was not afraid to use their wisdom in training children.
Higher Pursuits Than Money
In Luther’s day, much like our own, parents often thought about schooling in terms of their children’s ability to make money rather than their spiritual well-being. Luther saw schools, as well as other institutions of civil society, as structures given by God to “make men out of wild beasts.” Luther called those who took their children out of schools once they had learned arithmetic and German “worshippers of Mammon.” For Luther, these goals paled in comparison to the study of God’s word and growth in godliness.