Tag Archives: educational reform

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.


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.

19th Century European Educators Part I: Pestalozzi & Froebel

Many of the ideas that serve as a foundation for modern educational thought were developed in the 19th century in Europe. Naturally, the United States derived many of their own ideas from Europe as well despite their desire to develop a separate identity.

This post will examine the contributions of two prominent educational leaders in 19th century European. Both Johann Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel have had a profound impact on education in both Europe and America.

Johann Pestalozzi

Pestalozzi was a Swiss educator whose ideas contributed to modern elementary school practice. Pestalozzi believed that education should be on the natural development of the child. This could be where the idea of ‘meeting the students needs’ came from.

In addition, Pestalozzi stated that learning takes place through the senses. Of course, this sounds somewhat like realism and perhaps Pestalozzi was borrowing from ancient Greek philosophers with this idea. However, his contribution is that he applied this concept to the education of children. The Greeks talk a lot but never laid down a systematic pedagogical approach in the way that Pestalozzi did.

Pestalozzi called his teaching approach that focused on the senses the ‘special’ method. The ‘special’ method may be the harbinger of experiential education and Dewey’s ideas. Pestalozzi’s other approach was called the ‘general’ method and focused on providing for the social-emotional needs of the children. This time, Pestalozzi was ahead of Maslow and his hierarchy by over 100 years.

Friedrich Froebel

Froebel’s, a German Educator, major contribution to education was the development of the Kindergarten or “children’s garden” as it means in English. He believed that the learning of small children should be focus around play and the interest of the children. Songs, stories, games were all used in this child-centered approach, which may have been the first of its kind.

Froebel believed that providing such a learning environment would allow the children to grow up naturally. This idea sounds similar to Pestalozzi’s idea of the natural development of the child. In addition, Froebel’s focus on action based education is another focus on the senses of the child.

American schools are deeply in-debt to the work of Froebel. Almost every elementary school has a Kindergarten. In addition, there is a tremendous push for pre-schools in America. Keep in mind that Froebel’s researched often focused on 3-4 year-olds or those who would attend pre-school.


Pestalozzi and Froebel provided both old and new ideas. They brought another emphasis on the senses. The provided important support of the education of young children. In addition, they took the focus off of books and onto the students in their approach to education. This concept only has resonated throughout American education. Even though America wants to be different from European. The foundations of American education is still European.

Post Revolutionary Education in the United States

After gaining independence from England, the newly formed United States now had to deal with educating its populace. Before, different regions attending to education how they wanted. Now, there was a need for a united effort in providing education for the masses. For many of the founding fathers and influential educational leaders, democracy and education went together. In this post, we will look at the ideas and influence of two early education reformers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson stated that an ignorant nation cannot be a free nation. As such, Jefferson supported a plan that brought education to everyone through a system of taxation. His model was focused on the state of Virginia and included schools in every parish of the state. There was to be a tiered system of scholarships so that a handful of the best students would attend college for free.

Unfortunately, Jefferson’s plan was never accepted. Taxation was not a popular idea at the time.  It did provide a model of how education could be. In other words, it provided at least a theoretical framework that other educators could consider as they wrestled with the issue of educating people.

Benjamin Rush

Rush supported Benjamin Franklin’s view of a practical education. Since the goal was now to educate the masses and not just the elite, it was necessary to modify the curriculum. Latin and Greek was of no use to the masses and should not be the foundation of a universal education.

Rush proposed to his home state of Pennsylvania a model of education in which every area that had 100 families or more would have a school. Students would receive a free elementary, secondary, and tertiary education if they wanted it. This system of universal education would be supported through taxes.

Rush’s argument was that the taxes people paid now would be returned in having access to educate, productive workers. However, there was little support for taxes after several decades of British rule. As a result, Rush’s proposal suffered the same fate as Jefferson’s.


Both Jefferson and Rush brought what was at the time a radical idea to the table for leaders to consider about education. This idea was one of a universal educational system supported by tax funds. Education had always been available but almost never on the scale that Jefferson and Rush was proposing. The idea of everyone receiving an education was somewhat radical. In addition, the idea of having everyone pay for the education of everyone else was even more radical.

Both of these men were reacting to the need of having an educated populace that could help to maintain the democracy. Citizenship is what Jefferson called this and progress is what Rush called it. However, the idea of sending tax money into education and thus increase the size and the power of the government was something that people were not ready for.

The ideas of Jefferson and Rush serve as seed for many to come after them. Consider the work of Horace Mann and the “Common School” movement or John Dewey and his ideas of progressivism and democracy in the classroom or even the ideas of Pablo Friere and the call for developing people who can think critically  and you can still see the footprint of Jefferson and Rush/