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Learning from Luther in our education wars

The great Reformer called for both parents and political communities to share teaching obligations

Portrait of Martin Luther Wikimedia Commons

Learning from Luther in our education wars
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Among America’s ongoing cultural battles, perhaps the most consequential has been about education. COVID lockdowns and “woke” curriculum have fueled a backlash among many, including conservative Christians. Believing parents have upped their involvement and their organization in an attempt to reorient how we teach children back toward truth, goodness, beauty, and how they all find their ultimate manifestation in God, His Word, and His gospel.

As much as these struggles feel new, Christian worries about and reforms for education have a long history. Five hundred years ago, in 1524, Protestant reformer Martin Luther published, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools.” This engagement with Christians and education retains remarkable relevance to our own times.

Like believers today, Luther had harsh words about the state of education in early Reformation Germany. He wrote that “schools are everywhere allowed to go to wrack and ruin.” He gave two particular critiques pertinent to our own time, stating, “how unchristian and devoted only to men’s bellies those institutions are.” We say much the same now. Our schools, both K-12 and the university system, largely inculcate un-Christian, even anti-Christian values. They replace the gospel of Jesus Christ with visions of progressive utopia. These schools attack God’s natural and revealed laws about the good, replacing them with an ethics based in autonomous (and sinful) self-fulfillment.

Likewise, too much of our education is “devoted only to men’s bellies.” In other words, our schools too often treat the student as little to nothing more than material matter in motion. People exist to hold down a job so they can eat, have shelter, and contribute positively to our gross domestic product. In big swaths of our education system, any additional obligations or characteristics are ignored if not outright denied.

In response, Luther described the proper purposes for education. He saw these purposes playing out both for parents and for governments. For parents, Luther argued that mothers and fathers should not fall for the false idea that learning only fits children for eating and working. Instead, true education also should “provide … for their souls.” At its core, this education involves bringing up the young in the fear and admonition of the LORD. We must return to a time, Luther said, when “Christians had their children taught and trained in a Christian manner,” one focused on “the knowledge of God and spreading and teaching others God’s Word.”

On the political side, Luther’s call built on a broader political theology. In a parallel to his parental admonishments, Luther exhorts magistrates not to see “the welfare of a city” as involving only “gathering great treasures and providing solid walls, beautiful buildings, and a goodly supply of guns and armor.” The goals of politics do not consist merely in security, economic prosperity, and grand public works—the public equivalent of filling stomachs. Instead, “a city’s best and highest welfare, safety and strength consist in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and well-bred citizens.” The state has an obligation and an interest in soul-cultivation, too, in order to inculcate civic virtue and facilitate citizens’ glorifying God.

Political communities have an independent obligation to see that children receive an education.

Finally, the German Reformer articulated that education was a shared obligation between parents and political communities. Regarding parents, he appealed to “nature itself,” felt internally and seen in “the examples even of the heathen” or in the “irrational animal” in the wild. More importantly, God commands parents to instruct their children. Luther quoted Psalm 78:5 as his proof-text on this point, rendering it, “How straitly he commanded our fathers that they should give knowledge unto their children and instruct their children’s children.”

But here an important point for today arises. Why should political communities make decisions and dedicate resources to education, not just parents? Much of the current reforms in education seek to protect and enhance parental rights against the state and to enable education apart from public schools. While good in many ways, Luther points out limitations we must consider on both of these counts.

Regarding parental rights, Luther noted that some parents fail in their duty to educate. Some do so by rejecting their obligation, neglecting their kids’ learning entirely. Others indoctrinate their kids in the worst of un-Christian, materialistic values. Speaking about transgender surgeries on minors, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently said that parents have no right to mutilate their children. Along similar lines, while parents should receive significant deference on education, they cannot decide to leave their children completely ignorant nor is the state helpless to advocate for truth. The problem today is that the government does not know the good, not that it should not facilitate knowledge of it.

Moreover, many parents need help in fulfilling their duty to educate. On this matter, Luther pointed out something that might be underappreciated by some supporters of education reform. He argued that making every parent act also as a formal teacher “would be too heavy a burden upon the common man.” Not everyone possesses the intellect, finances, and time to be their kids’ primary educator. That is not sin on their part but a limitation for which others should provide aid to remedy. The state can and should be one such aid-giving entity.

Political communities also have an independent obligation to see that children receive an education. Magistrates must attend to “the property, honor, and life of the whole city,” and cultivating decent humans and citizens is essential that task. Political communities cannot “carve them out of wood” but must fashion them in the classroom for the public good.

The present education wars are rightly intense. They are a battle not only for the future of our families and country. They participate in a struggle for souls and thus for those souls’ eternal state. Though five centuries old, let us look to Luther’s guidance on how to conduct this battle. And let us gain renewed vigor to contest for the souls of generations to come.

Adam M. Carrington

Adam M. Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College, where he holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution. His book on the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field was published by Lexington Books in 2017. In addition to scholarly publications, his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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