“The Reformation’s impact on education was profound,” says Scott Ashmon, dean of the School of Arts & Sciences. “Luther was a theological reformer. At the same time he was an educational reformer. His compatriot, Philip Melanchthon, was the key curricular architect.”
Deb Mercier, dean of CUI’s School of Education, says that before the Reformation, “many parents didn’t have aspirations for their children. Education was a luxury for the rich, not the common people. But Luther believed that to be good citizens and Christians, to use the gifts God had given them, parents and the government should get involved.”
Up until then, a liberal arts education was reserved for young men most likely intending to be lawyers, doctors, or priests. Luther and his compatriots expanded both the concept of vocation and the availability of education far beyond those confinements.
“He argued that all boys and girls should receive a liberal arts education,” Ashmon says. “He wasn’t thinking they would be in school all day or all go into a university, but that liberal arts education is what everyone needs, and that the state should pay for it because the greatest treasure of a society is its citizens. Education is good for society and for the church.”
European education was already changing, with a shift toward the study of original texts. Then “Luther and his colleagues reshaped education toward the church and the Word, believing that everybody should be able to read scripture, proclaim or share the Word of God, and defend the doctrines of the church to some degree,” says Ashmon.
The repercussions went far beyond catechism.
Jeff Mallinson, associate professor of theology and philosophy, says that Luther wrote letters to princes to pressure them into investing in education.
“He said it was a matter of national wellbeing,” Mallinson says. “So they established schools throughout Germany and those become a model for Europe. Melanchthon literally developed curriculum for use in their schools. There was more attention to the original sources, infused with the Bible, and an emphasis on style. Luther and Melanchthon completely transformed the nature of education. It was not just for people in specific disciplines anymore. The idea was it would be universal and include boys and girls. That was a very bold move.”
Today the Lutheran system of education is second only to the Roman Catholic school system in the U.S. in size.
The availability of education, and its ennoblement in Luther’s concept of the Christian life, had an unexpected side effect: greater social mobility.
“If everyone is able to read, write, study logic and languages, arithmetic, geometry and music, it’s not hard to see where the trajectory goes as society becomes more knowledge-based and specialized,” Ashmon says. “Luther called it being a ‘wise, honorable and cultivated citizen.’ You can imagine the influence that had. The more education you have, the more opportunities you have. People now had the possibility of branching out, or going into a trade or profession that hadn’t been open to them before. And more professions were seen as worthy.”
Luther’s emphasis on the primacy and universality of education crossed the Atlantic with Christian laypeople and clergymen.
Almost invariably, when Lutherans, and many other types of Christians, landed in the New World, the first community building they built was a school to educate the children.
“You’d worship in the school, and if you had money, you’d build the sanctuary,” Ashmon says. “That was the common model.”
Mercier, who attended public and Lutheran schools, and served as an administrator in both environments, says that “the atmosphere in Lutheran schools is very distinctive. You walk in and instantly feel you’re part of a caring community. There is a personal and spiritual connection made with each person. Yet Lutheran education is very open to making people who are non-Christians or of different Christian denominations feel just as at home as people who are Lutheran.”
Today, the Lutheran system of education is second only to the Roman Catholic school system in the U.S. in size. It retains a strong commitment to Scripture and to academics “because those are both important, spiritually and socially,” Ashmon says.