Friday, January 24, 2020

Calvin (1509-1564) - Teachers as preachers... deficit model…

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, scripture and his subjects. It is also important to remember that his intellectual lineage is from St Augustine, so predestination, sin and eternal damnation figured large in his theological beliefs. We are imperfect sinners, born flawed and personal education is the path to salvation, work and redemption. In education, this reformed approach, with a new emphasis on the individual, and the Bible as a text, gave new impetus to self-improvement and universal schooling, made possible by the massive rise of cheap, printed books.

School as secular salvation

Influenced by humanists like Erasmus, 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. Calvin was very much and internationalist and 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.

Universal education

His second influence is on his emphasis one universal education from an early age. Education was part of the Protestant mission and compulsory, disciplined schooling was to be encouraged for all and so he encouraged the building of schools and free schooling for all, especially the poor. In countries like Scotland, where his acolyte John Knox pushed for a school in every Parish, literacy levels became the highest in Europe and some argue this led to the flourishing Enlightenment period in that country.

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.
This print explosion was to encourage other Calvinist evangelists, such as John Knox, to call in his 1560 Book of Discipline for a national system of education. This was in the spirit of the individualism of the Reformation but his primary reason was to allow all children to read scripture. This was to have an unintended consequence. 
In time, 1696 to be precise, the Scottish parliament passed the ‘Act for setting schools’, to legislate for a school in ever parish. By the end of the eighteenth Century Scotland would have the highest literacy levels of any other country. The Reformation by then has turned into the Enlightenment, not only in Scotland but across Europe. A more secular revolution has been set in motion by religious zeal.

Teaching as preaching

Calvin was never ordained and saw himself as a teacher rather than clergyman. 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. His teaching as preaching method was to read, deliver a sermon then sing (scripture through Pslams). The 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 predilections.


It has been argued that the Reformation, 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.


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. The Puritan influence on the founding fathers in the US was also substantial. We see this teaching and learning, and religion for the people, get rooted in local parishes, communities and schools.
Calvinism also led, indirectly to the Enlightenment, where the focus on the text of eth Bible raised problems with that text and reflection on religion and philosophy. We see this directly in Scotland, where an educated population, produced some of the geniuses of the Enlightenment Smith, Black, Hutton and Hume. It’s influence on capitalism through Adam Smith is also powerful, with its ethos of discipline, hard work and earthy success.
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. The religious view is that we are fallen creatures, born incompetent and the conceit of education is that the answer is always more schooling. The glass is always half empty and we always seem to have deep 'deficits' and 'divides'; digital divide, digital skills, maths, 21st C skills, qualifications, even happiness!
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, learners as being deficient and teachers as preachers.


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

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