In Martin Luther’s call for universal education, literacy was part of his programme for ‘reformation’. It was education, schools and literacy that would put young people in touch with the realities of scripture and knowledge, without the mediating power of a priestly elite. Education would produce individuals who had direct access to the good book and therefore God. This was still education in the service of religion but a much more disintermediated and democratised approach to learning. There can be no doubt that he was a major catalyst for the reformation, which in itself had an enormous effect on shaping education, not only in Europe but around the world. It led, in the end, to a more secular form of education rooted in schools and Universities, free from the church.
Luther and learning
Luther expressed a keen interest in education, schools and teaching. Reflections on all appear across his writings but two texts stand out; the letter to The Mayors and Aldermen of the Cities of Germany on Behalf of Christian Schools and the sermon The Duty of Sending Children to School. This interest in learning and education had deeper roots in the Renaissance but the Reformation gave it new impetus.
Spiritual and civic education
In The Mayors and Aldermen of the Cities of Germany on Behalf of Christian Schools (1524), which he directs at town councillors, the duty to provide education is evidenced in Scripture, where in Psalms, it is God’s command that we teach the word of God and in Deuteronomy that we nurture and immerse youth in scripture, and inculcate respect for parents and authority. The state, he thought, should provide schools for all, rich and poor, that serve both spiritual and civil needs. An educated citizenry would be more structured, conscientious and produce better leaders. As to what was taught, he resorts to the renaissance model of the Classical curriculum, based on the works of Greece and Rome. The German Bible and other translations were important but he still revered the Greek and Latin versions.
Six years later, after the failure to see his recommendations realised and witnessing an anti-intellectual leaning in the Reformation, he wrote a more practical work, The Duty of Sending Children to School (1530). Here, he admonished parents for not seeing the value of spiritual education and knowledge of the Kingdom of God. Yet he is still loyal to his vision of seeing education as both a spiritual and civic matter, as the earthly realm, a gift from God, needs professionals and leaders to produce a prosperous society in which the spiritual can flourish.
The Reformation saw universal education as a ‘form’ of reformation. They saw it as a means of ridding the Catholic grip on beliefs and institutions, reconnecting all people to God through more direct means, their ability to read, study and understand scripture. But Luther was not as radical as some other reformers, who wanted to eradicate the reading and teaching in ancient languages. He was still a Renaissance preacher and teacher. Unlike Erasmus, for Luther, education was not an end in itself; it was a route to scripture and the gospels, all leading back to spiritual development. Nevertheless, the Reformation pushed an agenda that gave the individual learner the power to read, write and reflect. Whatever the means and ends, universal schooling and literacy was on the march. Lutheran influence in schools still exists in its original heartlands, northern Europe, and through emigration, in the US and Australia.