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How Martin Luther Invented Modern Education

Luthers Geburtshaus, Lutherstadt Eisleben, Germany
Luther, a man committed to universal education. Source: Getty

For the uninitiated, there’s little of interest in the tiny settlement of Reckahn in rural eastern Germany. The farming village comprises a mere handful of dwellings clustered around a manor house on the sandy plains of Brandenburg. Yet its small elementary school is a beacon for educators and policy-makers. Every year, hundreds of visitors from France, Poland, Russia and Denmark, as well as from the German-speaking world, come to scrutinize – and are completely astonished. The pupils – boys and girls – are cheerful, motivated and well-behaved. There is no shouting in the classroom and no corporal punishment. Each and every child reads and writes flawlessly.

A triumph for contemporary German methods? Not quite. This is the late 1700s. The school is the creation of a local nobleman, Eberhard von Rochow, an education reform pioneer. At a time when education was largely reserved for the rich, his ideas were nothing short of revolutionary: humane schooling for all social classes, not just a few years of brutal, rudimentary rote learning. Yet even more significantly, he offered an education to girls, too, who were taught alongside their brothers. One more victory for enlightened thought. And a lesson just as relevant today – with some countries still denying women and girls an equal education – as it was in Frederick the Great’s Prussia.

But the girls and boys of Reckahn owed their good fortune to something far more influential than 18th century philosophy. Rochow was a deeply devout Protestant, as were nearly all his neighbors. A line from the Bible, “Let the children come unto me,” was inscribed above the school door. The village of Reckahn lies just 100 kilometers north of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to a church door exactly 500 years ago this coming October, thereby igniting the Protestant Reformation. And it was Luther who first preached the importance of education for both sexes, a legacy that has handed down vital advantages to generations of Protestants. If Protestant-majority countries enjoy a higher standard of living today, it is thanks to Luther and his ideas on education.

In the 16th century, Luther’s message was certainly startling. In pre-Reformation Europe, education was for the elite – even more so than in 18th century Prussia. Learning was a privilege reserved for the sons of aristocracy or of the rich merchant class, as well as for children selected by the Catholic Church to become clerics. Latin was the sole language of scholarship and a basic requirement for the priesthood. The very idea of a literate labor class, reading and interpreting the Bible for itself, or making personal political judgments, represented a threat to Christendom and the established order. Religious tenets could only be understood and explained by the clergy, who were educated by the Church itself.

Luther saw matters very differently. The very heart of his teaching urged returning to the source of Christian faith, the Bible. And the faithful could only read, understand and discuss the Bible if it was available in their common language. So, Luther delivered the first translation of the Bible into German, from which a standardized written language emerged. The work’s influence cannot be overstated. In time, a Lutheran Bible would find its way into the home of almost every German Protestant.

But a German Bible was little use to an illiterate population. Therefore, Luther was committed to the idea of universal education. One of his first acts as a young reformer was to recommend monasteries be turned into schools; one of his last was to set up a school in Eisleben, where he died in 1546. He constantly pressed secular rulers into opening new schools, and his followers strove to ensure that every parish had its own school.

What’s more, there was no question of denying women the benefits of knowledge. In a letter of 1522, Luther states explicitly, “And would to God that every town had a girls’ school as well, where the girls would be taught the gospel for an hour every day, either in German or in Latin.” (Not that Luther was prepared to discard all traditional attitudes. A woman’s place was still in the home, looking after the family, and there was no place for girls in advanced education.)

Thus, a pattern was established, linking Protestantism, education for all and economic success. When women were first admitted to German universities in 1908, the number of female Protestant students outnumbered Catholics eight to one. Even today, German Protestants average one more year of education than Catholics, with a positive effect on their earnings.

What intrigues modern scholars is whether Luther’s emphasis on education explains the economic strength that seems to mark out Protestantism. Famously, the Prussian sociologist and economist Max Weber, writing at the start of the 20th century, asserted that a distinctive “Protestant work ethic” was the driving force behind modern capitalism and the key to Protestants‘ greater affluence. But maybe the true reason can be found in the greater literacy that attended more widespread Bible-reading and schooling.

That’s certainly the belief of the contemporary researchers Sascha Becker and Ludger Wössmann. In a study of 19th century Prussia, provocatively titled “Was Weber Wrong?,” they set out to prove that better education trumped the work ethic in breeding Protestant success. In their own words: “Protestant economies prospered because instruction in reading the Bible generated the human capital crucial to economic prosperity.” Simply put, “higher literacy alone may account for the disparity between Catholics and Protestants regarding economic affluence.”

Challenging Weber takes courage, but the pair rests their case on solid scholarship and the data-crunching capabilities of 21st-century computers. They paid particular attention to meticulous yet previously neglected Prussian statistics collected in more than 400 counties between 1816 and 1871. Their findings revealed literacy to be 10 percent higher in Protestant counties, which were also markedly wealthier than their Catholic counterparts. (Back in the 18th century, boys who passed through the Reckahn school often became exemplary farmers). Furthermore, the more Protestants living in a county, the more girls went to school.

As always, linking cause to effect is tricky business. It could be that richer and better educated communities were quicker to take up Protestantism than their Catholic neighbors. But Becker and Wössmann have carefully screened the variables and come up with their own ingenious response. According to their data, literacy rates were highest in communities closest to Wittenberg, where local sovereigns were quickest to impose the religion on their subjects. In other words, adopting Protestantism had nothing to with individual or local prosperity, it was simply the ruler’s will.

But to focus on the awkward business of correlations is to miss the broader point. Luther’s legacy seems plain enough. Literacy and education for all goes hand in hand with economic progress. To this day, cultural and religious opposition to these ideals may still be strong in some parts of the world. United Nations figures suggest that in the early 21st century, only five out of 148 developing countries have as many female as male students at university level, and in some regions girls receive hardly any education at all. For future guidance, one could do worse than look back 500 years.


Christine Eichel is a journalist and book author based in Berlin.

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