Marking 500 Years of Lutheran Education


In his passionate letter to the political leaders of Germany, Martin Luther asked them to create an educated nation from a largely illiterate and impoverished populace. The request seemed utterly preposterous to many who read it. And yet who could have known in 1524 that a letter penned by a professor from a little-known university would reshape not only education but also global cultures? For, indeed, education and literacy have now become universal rights, rights first championed by Lutheran educators.

From that small beginning there emerged during the subsequent 500 years an international network of academies, colleges, and universities marked by the vision of Luther (1483-1546), his reforming collaborator, Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), and their colleagues at the University of Wittenberg. Their commitment to social reform prompted revolutionary changes in education and bequeathed to Lutheran centers of higher learning the remarkable capacity to reform themselves in light of new knowledge, unexpected crises and human need.

For the first time in human history, girls joined boys in a basic education program, ensuring their ability to read and write and opening to them a previously unknown world of knowledge. Granted boys were allotted more time in class than girls and yet the reformers insisted, in the face of fierce resistance, that girls from all socio-economic classes receive basic education. By promoting spiritual equality rather than spiritual hierarchies, Luther laid the foundation for a society marked by equal access to education: now all young people, regardless of gender, economic class, or social status, could be educated.

Lutheran schools in 16th century Germany were the first to welcome thousands upon thousands of first generation students. And yet this move was met with considerable resistance from wealthy elites (“Why should poor people be educated?”) and parents who expected their children to become laborers (“What good is an education?”).

For the first time in human history, education became the responsibility of all citizens. Luther asked that municipal governments establish and support schools for all children. Funding for teachers, textbooks and school buildings was supported by an educational tax levied on all citizens. In this revolutionary proposal, state-funded public education was born.

Lutheran educators invented the primary school and laid the foundation for the gymnasium (the process of “exercising the mind” in what Americans would call high school). If you have been educated in a public school, you are a beneficiary of the Lutheran reform of education.

While modern universities value academic freedom – the protection of scholarly research and teaching from external pressure – it was Lutheran reformers who insisted that the primary gift of religion is freedom of conscience rather than unthinking obedience to authority. Consequently, they argued that scholars should be absolutely free to pursue methods and pedagogy appropriate to their disciplines.

In early Lutheran universities, the granting of tenure was nothing less than the solemn promise of a church-sponsored university to protect faculty from censorship – from donors, politicians, businesspersons, or church leaders who might be unsettled by or opposed to faculty research and teaching.

In contrast to others forms of education (and religion), Lutheran reformers insisted that the best education is an education in the liberal arts, “liberal” in that the study of the arts and sciences held the power to liberate the mind from uncritical thinking and religious parochialism. They argued that no religious litmus test should govern university education. While they promoted the study of religious subjects in departments of theology, they also argued that religious instruction cannot serve as a substitute for learning in the liberal arts.

Philip Melanchthon, professor of classics and a devout Christian, argued that no particular university discipline should control the university. In the many Lutheran universities he established, the natural sciences were thus separated from philosophy; theologians could no longer dictate study in other fields; scientists could not claim that theirs was the final word on knowledge of the world.

Lutheran educators insisted that all persons in many career paths are called to let their education shape their commitments to persons and groups who suffer in society. Rather than view education as a private avenue to personal advancement, they argued that educated leaders have a primary responsibility to others: to use their education for the alleviation of human suffering and injustice.

These are some of the gifts of the Lutheran intellectual tradition and the reform of education: a reform that is imperfect, a reform that is ongoing, a reform that welcomes many voices. Rather than see the university as a place in which knowledge is guarded and handed down unchanged to new generations, the Lutheran reform of education promoted what is cherished at PLU: a community of scholars and students in which the advancement of knowledge, for the good of all, takes place through critical questioning, experimentation, performance and community engagement.

That just might be something worth celebrating.