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Luther and Educational Reform

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is best known for his religious work as one of the main catalysts for the Protestant Reformation. However, Luther was also a powerful influence on education during his lifetime. This post will take a look at Luther’s early life and his contributions to education

Early Life

Luther was born during the late 15th century. His father was a tough miner with a severe disciplinarian streak. You would think that this would be a disaster but rather the harsh discipline gave Luther a toughness that would come in handy when standing alone for his beliefs.

Upon reaching adulthood Luther studied law as his father diseased for him to become a lawyer. However, Luther decided instead to become a monk much to the consternation of his father.

As a monk, Luther was a diligent student and studied for several additional degrees. Eventually, he was given an opportunity to visit Rome which was the headquarters of his church. However, Luther saw things there that troubled him and in many laid the foundation for his doubt in the direction of his church.

Eventually, Luther had a serious issue with several church doctrines. This motivated him to nail his 95 theses onto the door of a church in 1517. This act was a challenge to defend the statements in the theses and was actually a common behavior among the scholarly community at the time.

For the next several years it was a back forth intellectual battle with the church. A common pattern was the church would use some sort of psychological torture such as the eternal damnation of his soul and Luther would ask for biblical evidence which was normally not given. Finally, in 1521 at the Diet of Worms, Luther was forced to flee for his life and the Protestant Reformation had in many was begun.

Views on Education

Luther’s views on education would not be considered radical or innovative today but they were during his lifetime. For our purposes, we will look at three tenets of Luther’s position on education

  • People should be educated so they can read the scriptures
  • Men and women should receive an education
  • Education¬† should benefit the church and state

People Should be Educated so they Can Read the Scriptures

The thought that everyone should be educated was rather radical. By education, we mean developing literacy skills and not some form of vocational training. Education was primarily for those who needed it which was normally the clergy, merchants, and some of the nobility.

If everyone was able to read it would significantly weaken the churches position to control spiritual ideas and the state’s ability to maintain secular control, which is one reason why widespread literacy was uncommon. Luther’s call for universal education would not truly be repeated until Horace Mann and the common school. movement.

The idea of universal literacy also held with it a sense of personal responsibility. No one could rely on another to understand scripture. Everyone needs to know how to read and interpret scripture for themselves.

Men and Women Should be Educated

The second point is related to the first. Luther said that everyone should be educated he truly meant everyone. This means men and women should learn literacy. The women could not hide behind the man for her spiritual development but needed to read for herself.

Again the idea of women education was controversial at the time. The Greeks believed that educating women was embarrassing although this view was not shared by all in any manner.

WOmen were not only educated for spiritual reasons but also so they could manage the household as well. Therefore, there was a spiritual and a practical purpose to the education of women for Luther

Education Benefits the Church and the State

Although it was mentioned that education had been neglected to maintain the power of the church and state. For Luther, educated citizens would be of a greater benefit to the church and state.

The rationale is that the church would receive ministers, teachers, pastors, etc. and the state would receive future civil servants. Therefore, education would not tear down society but would rather build it up.

Conclusion

Luther was primarily a reformer but also was a powerful force in education. His plea for the development of education in Germany led to the construction of schools all over the Protestant controlled parts of Germany. His work was of such importance that he has been viewed as one of the leading educational reformers of the 16th century.

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Education During the Reformation

By the 16th century, Europe was facing some major challenges to the established order of doing things. Some of the causes of the upheaval are less obvious than others.

For example, the invention of gunpowder made knights useless. This was significant because now any common soldier could be more efficient and useful in battle than a knight that took over ten years to train. This weakened the prestige of the nobility at least temporarily while adjustments were made within the second estate and led to a growth in the prestige of the third estate who were adept at using guns.

The church was also facing majors issues. After holding power for almost 1000 years people began to chaff at the religious power of Europe. There was a revival in learning that what aggressively attacked by monks, who attacked the study of biblical languages accusing this as the source of all heresies.

The scholars of the day mock religion as a superstition. Furthermore, the church was accused of corruption and for abusing power. The scholars or humanists called for a return to the Greek and Romans classics, which was the prevailing worldview before the ascension of Catholicism.

Out of the chaos sprang the protestant reformation which rejects the teachings of the medieval church. The Protestants did not only have a different view on religion but also on how to educate as we shall see.

Protestant Views of Education

A major tenet of Protestantism that influenced their view on education was the idea of personal responsibility. What this meant was that people needed to study for themselves and not just listen to the teacher. In a spiritual sense that meant reading the Bible for one’s self. In an educational sense, it meant confirming authority with personal observation and study.

Out of this first principal springs two other principles which are education that matches an individual’s interest and the study of nature. Protestants believed that education should support the natural interest and ablities of a person rather than the interest of the church.

This was and still is a radical idea. Most education today is about the student adjusting themselves to various standards and benchmarks developed by the government. Protestants challenged this view and said education should match the talents of the child. If a child shows interest in woodworking teach this to him. If he shows interest in agriculture teach that to him.

To be fair, attempts have been made in education to “meet the needs” of the child and to differentiate instruction. However, these goals are made in order to take a previously determined curriculum and make it palpable to the student rather than designing something specifically for the individual student. The point is that a child is more than a cog in a machine to be trained as a screwdriver or hammer but rather an individual whose value is priceless.

Protestants also support the study of nature. Be actually observing nature it reduced a great deal of the superstition of the time. At one point, the religious power of Europe forbade the study of human anatomy through the performing autopsies. In addition, Galileo was in serious trouble for denying the geocentric model of the solar system. Such restrictions stalled science for years and were removed through Protestantism.

Conclusion

The destabilization that marks the reformation marks a major break in history. With the decline of the church came the rise of the common man to a position of independent thought and action. These ideas of personal responsibility came from the growing influence of Protestants in the world.