Reflections on Martin Luther and Childhood Education

[1] Schools in the United States face a multiplicity of challenges, from gaining adequate funds to hiring well-qualified and dedicated teachers to meeting the ever-increasing obligations of state-mandated testing to determining policy about such complex issues as bi-lingual education. In a nation of extraordinary religious, cultural and ethnic diversity, does Martin Luther, writing in the far more homogenous culture of sixteenth century Western Europe, speak in a meaningful way to us about childhood education?

[2] There is no denying the huge gap between the sixteenth century and the twenty-first. Luther’s Germany was overwhelmingly Christian; he could look to the state to further the agenda of Christian education, although he insisted that the responsibility for education was not solely, or even primarily, the responsibility of government. We live in a very different world from that of Luther. The United States is rich in cultural and religious diversity, and, from an early age, children experience that diversity and multiplicity of religious traditions and values in school and community.

[3] It is dangerous to sift through Luther’s writings with the intention of choosing some ideas as relevant and discounting others. Yet, different as our societies may be, there are ideas that are foundational to Luther’s thinking about childhood education that, I believe, offer us ground upon which to stand today as we survey the challenges and opportunities before us with respect to educating children and young people.

[4] In opposition to those who saw education as the privilege of only a few, Luther argued vociferously for compulsory education for all, recognizing the value of each individual before God. In an age in which only a few could afford to attend school and women received little if any education, Luther eloquently argued for expanding educational opportunities. We are the inheritors of that belief in universal educational opportunity even if our rationale for it is very different from Luther’s. For the sixteenth century reformer, education was above all necessary so that Christians could read and understand the Scripture for themselves without dependence on a religious authority for interpretation. Luther correctly perceived that literacy furthers freedom and independence. He was profoundly aware that truly encountering a text can be a life-changing experience. Different as the twenty-first century may be from the sixteenth, the question Luther posed to the government leaders of his time echoes resoundingly today: “My dear sirs, if we have to spend such large sums every year on guns, roads, bridges, dams and countless similar items to insure the temporal peace and prosperity of a city, why should not much more be devoted to the poor neglected youth?”[1] Society’s well-being depends on the investment it makes in educating its youth and preparing them for civic responsibility and independent thinking. A society’s greatest wealth is its educated citizens. Luther’s words are as vital a warning to our leaders today as they were to the princes of Germany in the sixteenth century.

[5] For Luther, of course, education was grounded in the study of Scripture, a study that was to take place both within homes and schools. Committed by the First Amendment to separation of church and state and to freedom of religious expression, pluralistic America of the twenty-first century is very different from Luther’s Germany of the sixteenth century. The curriculum that Luther advocated with its stress on study of the Bible now finds its context within church and home. Luther might well argue that our present situation places even more responsibility upon both church and family to establish the context for Scriptural study. No less today than in the sixteenth century, parents model education for their children, both by what they teach and by how they exemplify their values. In the complex world of the twenty-first century, the inculcation of values within the home becomes more important, not less. Education is most successful when it is collaborative. Yet, for those parents whose circumstances have not allowed them to pursue higher education, school can be an intimidating place and it may take a special effort from teachers to invite parents into an educational partnership. As Luther rightly stressed, education is above all a community endeavor.

[6] Some of Luther’s harshest words were reserved for parents who fail in their educational duty, abdicating that responsibility as caretakers and nurturers of their children’s minds and spirits, as well as of their bodies. Luther roundly criticized those parents who acted as if their children existed only for their benefit and failed to recognize their responsibility in preparing their children for their roles in secular and spiritual affairs.

[7] Luther emphasized that it is only through education that we discover our gifts and our calling, our individual vocation. That is perhaps the greatest purpose of education, to enable young people to discover their talents and interests, indeed their sense of purpose in the world. Thus, childhood education should be designed so that it elicits knowledge of one’s gifts and calling, vocatio. This knowledge cannot be detached from an education in values, a furthering of the understanding that no matter what one’s vocation, it should be utilized to serve a purpose beyond oneself, to honor God and to serve one’s community.

[8] In reviewing Luther’s writings on education, I find particularly meaningful his comments about valuing and respecting different forms of education. In Luther’s Germany, few individuals-and only males-had the opportunity for a university education. Today, Luther’s words that only some should progress to higher education may seem elitist and exclusionary. As he wrote, only those who are the “most highly qualified students who have been well trained in the lower schools” should advance to the university.[2] For Luther, this training was above all study of Holy Scripture. Yet, I sense another meaning behind his words as well. In contemporary American society, a university or college education has become the entry card to the work force. While higher education should be available to all who seek it, no matter what their socio-economic status, we should also teach young people to respect the diversity of gifts and callings and the dignity of all vocations-many of which are not linked to university study.

[9] Indeed, I would argue that Luther’s concept of vocation is a powerful and transformative one. To discover one’s calling, to gain a sense of responsibility for utilizing the gifts one has been given, is foundational to education within school, church, and family. A person who has a clear sense of vocatio will not lose his or her bearings in a culture which all too often equates financial status with individual value. Careers and jobs gain meaning through the lens of vocatio. Parents and teachers bear the responsibility of fostering respect for all callings, enabling a child to grow into his or her own gifts and interests.

[10] Recently, I had the opportunity to read Albert Schweitzer’s Memoirs of Childhood and Youth. Written nearly 80 years ago, in 1924, Schweitzer knew the toll the Great War had taken upon his society, but a second world war, let alone the Holocaust, was not yet on the horizon. Nonetheless, Schweitzer, whose father was a pastor and who was raised in a profoundly religious environment, recognized the importance of education in shaping a just and compassionate society. Recounting the formative experiences of his childhood and directing himself toward the young, Schweitzer wrote: “So the knowledge about life which we grown-ups must impart to the young is not: ‘Reality will surely do away with your ideals’ but rather: ‘Grow into your ideals so life cannot take them away from you.’ If people were to become what they are at age fourteen, how very different the world would be!”[3] Schweitzer, I believe, reminds us of an extraordinarily important truth, the responsibility of educators and parents to model our ideals. Preparing young people to face the challenges of a world of violence and conflict does not mean stripping them of their ideals; instead, it means empowering them in their ideals and providing models that will guide them in their search.

[11] Writing in times far different than ours, Luther underscored the importance of a curriculum that truly engages young people and that inspires them to a genuine love of learning in all its many forms. In particular, Luther stressed the study of history which teaches by example. History helps us to find our place in the world, to learn from those who have preceded us–in short, history helps us to find our “own place in the stream of human events.”[4]

[12] By this statement, I think, Luther urged us to be cognizant of our values and to have the courage to articulate them in even the most trying of circumstances. In home, school, church, and community, fostering that awareness and understanding is the purpose of education and the responsibility of educators. No challenge is more urgent than empowering young people courageously to step into the stream of human events, refusing to stand upon the shore as bystanders. In my own teaching, I share with my students the example of the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany. In the midst of a nation where the many were silent and obedient bystanders, a few students, empowered by their faith, chose to speak out. They proclaimed: “We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.”5 They urged their fellow citizens to “cast off the cloak of indifference you have wrapped around you.”6 They challenged the authority of an evil regime not with physical weapons but with spiritual ones, with the power of words. Sentenced to death, they faced execution with remarkable faith and courage, young people who had found their “place in the stream of human events” and who, guided by conscience, refused to be separated from their ideals.

[1] WA 15, 30, 16-20; Luther’s Works, vol. 45: The Christian in Society II, ed. Walther I. Brandt (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962), 350.

[2] WA 6, 461, 38-39; Luther’s Works, vol. 44: The Christian in Society I, ed. James Atkinson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 206.

[3] Albert Schweitzer, Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, trans. Kurt Bergel and Alice R. Bergel (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 94-95.

[4] WA 15, 45, 19; LW 45, 369.

[5] Inge Scholl, The White Rose: Munich 1942-1943, trans. Arthur R. Schultz (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 86.

[6] Scholl, The White Rose, 89.