Luther on Education

While we’re on the topic of public education…

Okay, so we weren’t on that topic, but rather Luther’s understanding of good government. Last week I cited Luther’s urgent appeal to the city councils and magistrates of Germany to establish schools as an example of what government was for: to care for the welfare of its people like parents care for their children.

Along the way, and in the middle of that treatise, Luther makes an extraordinary assertion, writing to those in charge of civic affairs across Germany:

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 – at least enough to engage one or two competent [persons] to teach school (LW 43:350).

Can you imagine that, for a moment: that we would value what we spend on education just as highly as we value what we spend on infrastructure and defense? Think of the schools we would have and, even more to Luther’s point, the kind of educated citizenry we’d enjoy. Luther realizes, you see, that the greatest threats to any civilization are always internal, not external. And so he asserts,

A city’s best and greatest welfare, safety, and strength consist rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and well-educated citizens. They can then readily gather, protect, and properly use treasure and all manner of property. (356)

Absent sound education and a responsible, well-educated citizenry, nothing else much matters because nothing else will last. And so he exhorts those in power to care for the young by providing good schools and competent teachers. And, should those in government be reluctant to spend money on education, he is not above chiding them, arguing that

There is not a dumb animal which fails to care for its young and teach them what they need to know (353).

And, as is usually the case with Luther, it’s difficult to separate the practical and the theological, as Luther believes it is our God-given duty to care for the emerging generation and so believes when we fall short we not only fail our young (and, by extension, ourselves), but we also sin against God:

What would it profit us to possess and perform everything else and be like pure saints, if we meanwhile neglected our chief purpose in life, namely, the care of the young? I also think that in the sight of God none among the outward sins so heavily burdens the world and merits such severe punishment as this very sin which we commit against the children by not educating them. (353)

I’ll ask again, what kind of schools would we have if we took Luther seriously? What kind of citizens? What kind of country? What kind of world?