Accelify Blog

Don’t like our public schools? Blame Martin Luther’s 500 years of influence

June 27, 2016

By: Jay Mathews


Perhaps if I went to church more often, I would have realized it sooner. Next year is the 500th anniversary of when priest Martin Luther nailed 95 anti-papal theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. That simple act from a 33-year-old man transformed Western civilization with the rise of Protestant Christianity.

My interest was sparked by Andrew Pettegree’s new popular history, “Brand Luther: 1517, Printing and the Making of the Reformation.” I learned a great deal I didn’t know, particularly that Luther inspired an approach to schooling that deeply influenced — through German, English, Scottish, Dutch and other immigrants — how American children, for good or ill, are taught today.

Luther set a course for how our schools relate to the economy, to elites, to genders and to religion. The great change he made in history stemmed from his own education. The son of a copper mine investor who could afford to send him to the university, Luther read so deeply and widely that he found, to his shock, that the Bible and thinkers such as St. Augustine did not sanction what the popes of his time were doing with their church.

I grew up thinking Luther was a dour scold. That comes from the liberal denomination (United Church of Christ) in which I was raised. Some of Luther’s flaws, such as his anti-Semitism, are impossible to defend. But he was also — as I learned from Pettegree — witty, creative, musical, kind and quite brave. He built a new church while under the equivalent of a death sentence from Rome.

He was also deeply interested in the lives of children, including the five he had with the resourceful runaway nun he married, Katharina von Bora. His major work on education was “A Sermon on Keeping Children in School.” It was written in 1530, a time when education was largely a prerogative of the church. Schools trained future priests and the children of the political and economic elite.

Pettegree’s book describes how Luther revolutionized the infant publishing industry. He was born 44 years after Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type in Europe. Five years after Luther posted his 95 theses, excoriating the Catholic practice of raising money by promising less time in purgatory, “he was Europe’s most published author,” Pettegree said. That sermon on education was one of his bestsellers.

The sermon throbs with his amazement at the technological progress of his era, similar to the way people my age feel about the Internet.

“Knowledge of all kinds is so abundant, what with so many books, and so much reading,” Luther wrote. “One can learn more in three years than used to be possible in twenty.”

Christianity could only be saved if there were more schools, he said. “I would like to know where we are going to get pastors, schoolteachers and sacristans three years from now if we do nothing about this.”

Schools had to be public, he said, supported by the German princes who ruled the fractured Holy Roman Empire. He wanted education available to everyone. The next generation needed lessons in literature, history and science if they were to fulfill their destiny. He wanted to include girls. By the late 16th century, rural German schools were gender balanced, Pettegree reported, while Venetian students were nearly all male.

Luther’s passion for better schooling feels like the impatience of today’s educational reformers. Many of his readers might have thought, as many do today, that Luther was pushing reform too hard. Many German parents preferred their children stay home to help make ends meet.

But Luther didn’t relent. He thought the world would soon end. He wanted his people educated so they would be ready for God. Our rush for better schools has different roots, but we live in a time like his, full of innovation, conflict and anxiety. Like him, we pray that our schools will prepare the next generation to handle all that.