Education as a religious imperative
Calvin, with Luther, was a hugely influential Protestant reformer who attacked the Catholic Church and worked towards a return to a more basic form of Christianity based on a personal relationship between God the creator and his subjects. It is also important to remember that his intellectual lineage from St Augustine, so predestination, sin and eternal damnation figured large in his theological beliefs. In education, this reformed approach gave new impetus to self-improvement and universal schooling, made possible by the massive rise of printed books.
School as secular salvation
We must know only God and ourselves through scripture. Idolatry and ritual were to be shunned. We are fallen creatures, with the burden of original sin and have to find redemption through Christ. This fight against sin was to shape schooling and education in
Northern Europe and North America for centuries, with its deficit model, matched by righteous schoolmasters who had to drill, beat and moralise leaners into improvement. Discipline, attention and punctuality were to become the virtues of the schoolroom. Illich thought that Calvinism had literally shaped schooling as we know it, with school as the new form of secular salvation.
His second influence is on his emphasis one universal education from an early age. Education was part of the Protestant mission and compulsory schooling was to be encouraged for all and so he encouraged the building of schools and free schooling for all, especially the poor. Through reformers like John Knox, schools were formed in every parish and they were to shape the Prussian model under Friedrich Wilhelm I, then the Napoleonic model and much of modern institutional learning, even into North America.
Calvin and print
Literacy was a virtue as it enabled the personal study of scripture direct from the printed word. Luther was another great influence on this policy. As an active promoter of the new publishing industry, he saw our personal relationship with God being truly mediated, not by the church and priests, but through personal reflection. Calvin’s support for the printed word, mostly scripture, came at a time in Europe when the print revolution was exploding and as books were no longer scarce, reading became a major pedagogic force.
Teaching as preaching
Perhaps his most enduring, influence is on preaching, exposition and the repetition as pedagogic techniques. In other words, the traits of the preacher were to become that of the teacher. Regular singing of Psalms, repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, moral assemblies each morning all made their way into schooling, reinforced in the Victorian era when schooling became compulsory and large numbers of children had to be looked after and schooled, as their parents were working in factories. We are still mired in this protestant pedagogy, if not its theological predilictions.
It has been argued that the Reformation, and Calvinism in particular, sees education as the rectification of weakness and not the building of strengths. What is produced and exposed is not success but failure, leading to fixed curricula, obsessive testing and a deficit model that interprets education in pathological terms. It can also be argued that many of the institutional behaviours and practices in schools regiment children in a way that as unnatural and unnecessarily restrictive. Morning assemblies, the teacher as transmitter of knowledge , rows of desks, bells on the hour, drill and practice, can be seen as strict Calvinist practices, where students are regarded as sinful beings that have to be saved from ignorance.
Calvin’s influence on education through universal schooling has been immense, as is his influence on attitudes towards education as a deficit model, where the students are seen from the start as a flawed creatures. This led to methods of teaching that are only now being re-examined. In a sense Calvin has been a curse and a blessing, with his emphasis on the virtues of education combined with the vices of, for example, teachers as preachers.
Calvin, J. Institutes for the Christian Religion
Tillich, Paul, (1968) History of Christian Thought, New York: Harper and Row
Reid, W. S. (1972) John Calvin: His Influence on the Western World, Michigan: Zondervan
Graham, W. Fred (1971), The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact, Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press
Helm, Paul (2004),John Calvin's Ideas, Oxford