Lutheran Studies at PLU

4. Learning and research within community

Lutheran education is indelibly marked by a love of liberal and collegial learning. It was, in fact, a group of Wittenberg scholars – working together – who launched the reform of education, ethics, language study, marriage, music, social welfare, and theology – to mention only a few. Such reform began with the serious questioning of the status quo, a questioning which led the authorities of church and state to brand Luther as a heretic and a criminal. Indeed, were it not for academic colleagues, friends, and unexpected benefactors, Luther’s reform may well have died quickly.

One of Luther’s earliest claims was that every Christian should have access to his or her central religious text, the Bible. Yet he had grown up in a society where most people were illiterate, the Bible was in Latin, and only the educated few were able to read and interpret the ancient book. Thus, in his “Address to the German Nobility” (1520), Luther argued that access to this central text – which had become the charter of religious and social reform – was absolutely necessary.

In order for Germans to read it, however, he insisted that city councils establish public schools for boys and girls, financed by a public tax, in which they would be taught to read. This insistence on literacy gave rise to the kindergarten (the “children’s garden”) and the gymnasium (the secondary school), the first founded in 1528. For the first time in human history, public schools were established to educate children regardless of their socio-economic status. Influenced by the Italian humanists, the German reform insisted on the study of languages as a communal activity: students learning together under the guidance of their instructors. Indeed, the cultivation of literacy opened all knowledge to all students, an opening enhanced by the latest communication technology: the printing press.

At the same time, Lutheran professors led the reform of university education. Drawing on humanist concerns, they included the study of languages, history, poetry, and ethics in addition to the medieval foundation in the trivium and quadrivium. And yet their educational reform was undergirded by a profound sense of human limitation, that is, no one person and no one discipline could possibly grasp the totality of the natural world and all that dwells within it. Luther insisted that “no science should stand in the way of another science, but each should continue to have its own mode of procedure in its own terms … one should not condemn the other or ridicule it; but one should be of use to another, and they should put their achievements at one another’s disposal” (“Lectures on Genesis,” 1535).

Since the disciplines need each other, teaching and research could never be private enterprises. Of course, the scholar may need to do his or her research in solitude, without distraction. Yet the teaching scholar at a Lutheran university is called to share the results of his or her research with other scholars and with students – “they should be of use to one another.” This insistence on the real though limited nature of human knowledge thus cultivates an intellectual humility and charity which is at the heart of a humanist university. In a culture which prizes individual achievement, a Lutheran university rightly asks how we might put our scholarly achievements at one another’s disposal and for the common good.