Like public education?  Thank Martin Luther.

If Jesus had never lived, the world would be a very different place.

The followers of Jesus elevated the status of women, abolished slavery, created the first hospitals and universities, invented modern science, established schools for the blind and the deaf, and advocated for the God-given rights of the individual and due process under the law. 

Much of what we take for granted today is the direct result of Christian influence in society, including public education. 

Shortly after the Reformation began in the 16th century, Martin Luther demanded compulsory public education for all children, girls as well as boys, including servants and other marginalized groups. 

No one was to be excluded, as it was Luther’s desire for all people to be able to read the Bible in their native language. 

Compulsory education for all was a radically new concept.

Before the Reformation, schooling in Roman Catholic countries was limited to the clergy and nobility. 

Until the 19th century, Rome largely confined its educational initiatives to the male elite, with few opportunities for girls, and Rome resisted the concept of mass education until the early to mid-20th century. 

Other German Protestants followed Luther’s lead, developing a comprehensive system of primary and secondary education, which became the blueprint for educational reform throughout western and northern Europe. 

Great Britain made Protestantism a global phenomenon, and Protestant missionaries introduced mass education in the British colonies.  This is why education rates in Britain’s colonies were substantially higher than in the colonies of, say, Spain or France.

The Protestant influence on public education is still observable today, even in secular countries, according to Dr. Horst Feldmann, University of Bath, UK, in his article, “Still Influential:  The Protestant Emphasis on Schooling,” published in the journal Comparative Sociology.

Feldmann looked at data from 147 countries, both developed and developing countries, and found that those with a legacy of Protestantism still have more young people attending secondary school. 

In fact, those with the highest population of Protestants, such as the Nordic countries, have the highest contemporary enrollment rates.

Feldmann statistically controlled for factors such as income and demographic factors, to eliminate their effects. 

He summarizes his findings as follows, “In contrast to what many might expect, the Protestant legacy has an enduring effect on secondary schooling—in spite of almost 200 years of secularization.” 

He warns, however, that “Protestantism’s influence over schooling has diminished over time, and that contemporary Protestantism, in contrast to historical Protestantism, does not affect schooling.” 

It is ironic that some educators today, and even some Protestant leaders, disavow the need for any religious influence in our public schools.  

I understand. 

With so many interpretations of the Christian faith on the loose, whose theology would be taught in the classroom?

One may argue that no theology is better than bad theology, but only on the condition that good theology is being taught in the home.

Educators today may not be aware of the Christian roots of their profession and some may not care.

Still, given the Protestant origin of mass education, given the inherently religious nature of humanity, and given that education is crucial for personal and societal development, educators would do well to better understand the lingering effects which historical Protestantism still exerts today, even in a culture that has become increasingly secular. 

Has anything else they have tried had a similar impact?

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