Lutheran Education

In his recent book, Lutheran Education: From Wittenberg to the Future, Dr. Thomas Korcok examines the history of Lutheran schools, starting with Luther and the other Wittenberg reformers and ending with a discussion of how Lutheran schools today best make use of this rich heritage. The basic premise is that throughout its history, confessional Lutheranism has considered the education of their youth to be critical to the ongoing life of the church. In every age, the church’s schools have had to determine how this work is to be done. Korcok makes the case that at critical points in its history, Lutherans have determined that the classical liberal arts model of education was the ideal in accomplishing its aims. And yet, Korcok shows how Luther and the Wittenberg educators, and then Walther and the Saxon immigrants modified and adapted the liberal arts for their own use. In each generation, various theological and educational movements either needed to be rejected or adapted in order for Lutheran education to be useful. Luther dealt with medieval scholasticism and Aristotelian philosophy, while also understanding that Erasmus’ humanism wasn’t the complete answer either. In Walther’s day, Rationalism was a force opposed to the Lutheran teaching, while Pietism was the pervasive background, even to many confessional Lutherans of that era.

It was enlightening to see how these Lutherans saw in the liberal arts (and their adaptations of it) a natural way of passing on the faith to the next generation and raising up another generation of useful members of society, particularly in the seedbed of society, the home. Baptism, vocation, and catechesis were central. Music was considered  an essential part of this education, and was incorporated into the lower trivial arts. Languages were always important, as language is the means by which God communicates in his word and the tool with which the baptized serve in their vocations in the world and with which they are able to communicate the Gospel to others. This was true even if the languages shifted from Latin to German to English.

The book does not spell out exactly what a Lutheran classroom should look like in the 21st century. It does make the point that the modern classical education movement is not completely identical to the Lutheran adaptation of the liberal arts. But Lutheran schools should carefully consider (or at least be familiar with) what their fathers did, why they did it, and thoughtfully adapt for today.

The book focuses on the schools established by the Saxon Lutherans who became the Missouri Synod. It would be very interesting to find out how those efforts compared to the beginnings of schools in the Wisconsin Synod. It seems as though Wisconsin churches were nearly as aggressive in starting and promoting their parish schools. I wonder if the paths are parallel here. Today, I don’t hear much talk at all about the liberal arts or classical education within the WELS. For example, last fall’s Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Symposium on Lutheran Schools featured a paper entitled “What our Lutheran Fathers Taught Us about Lutheran Schools.” The paper didn’t even mention the liberal arts as a foundation for Lutheran schools. The other papers didn’t mention it either. It makes me wonder why.

One issue that took me by surprise was the response to the kindergarten movement from confessional Lutherans. Interestingly, the first kindergarten in the United States was begun in Watertown, WI, in 1856. The first publicly funded kindergarten was started in St. Louis in 1873. The founder of the movement, Friedrich Fröbel, was raised a Lutheran but denied original sin, among other things. The philosophy behind the movement was not a good one, and the reaction from confessional Lutherans was not positive. At least one point of opposition to the kindergarten was that it removed young children from the influence of their parents. Today, obviously, we do not hear such objections. In fact, early childhood education is hailed as a premier outreach opportunity for Lutheran congregations. For example, take a look at this video that was publicized yesterday. My question is:  How is it that we have come full circle on this? I’m interested to know how the original objections were dismissed, and whether there is still some need for caution.

Another question that crossed my mind while reading about the differences between a Lutheran use of the liberal arts and progressive liberal education in the United States today, is to what degree are our Lutheran schools today influenced by these opposing philosophies? Or, have we somehow reconciled them? What are the distinctives in Lutheran education that set it apart from other models of education? How, for example, does our teacher training prepare our teachers to distinguish their teaching from progressive liberal education? Is it just that we teach religion classes and we watch for anti-Christian bias in other subjects? Or is there something fundamental in the basics of educational theory that is either Christian or not? Are our teachers trained to know the difference?

Finally, what does a liberal arts education look like in a 21st century Lutheran School? According to Korcok, there are three areas of emphasis in which a Lutheran school draws on its liberal arts roots—catechesis, language, and music. I would guess, then, that a strong focus on these areas is the best way for a Lutheran school to begin down the path of drawing on our rich heritage of Lutheran education in the liberal arts.

This past year our school went through the process of accreditation, and as part of that process we identified these statements to describe the way we see our school fulfilling its mission. At least part of the goal in stating these is to keep in the forefront those things that make a Lutheran school what it is.

  1. The school will demonstrate that its main objective is the catechesis (instruction) of its students in the Word of God and its teachings.
  2. The school will develop and maintain a quality music program, as central to its ministry.
  3. The school will intentionally seek to build up the homes and families of students and members of the congregation.
  4. The school will develop and maintain a language curriculum that prepares students to be master communicators and clear thinkers.

I highly recommend this book to all Lutheran pastors, teachers, school board members, etc. At the very least it should be a starting point for a discussion of the state of our schools and teaching today, and as a guide for talking about our future as well. Perhaps some of my readers will have some answers for the questions that my reading has raised. Below I have included a few additional links to resources dealing with the topic of the Lutheran use of the liberal arts and classical education models.

Lutheran Education: From Wittenberg to the Future
Lutheran Schools of America (Evangelical Lutheran Synod)
The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education
Issues, etc. Segments on Classical Education

*This image is from the title page of a music book published in 1894. My copy came from my great-uncle George, which I think belonged to his grandfather before him.

3 thoughts on “Lutheran Education”

  1. Pastor Caauwe,

    Hello! It has been sometime since we chatted (last spring I believe). Blessings to you are your new addition, we added a member to our family in Feb as well. I came across your blog and found this post very interesting.

    We are Lutherans who follow (generally) a classical approach to education through homeschooling, but I would love to have a local school that would do the same. One of my areas of interest is the history of schooling – I will put this book on my wish list.



    1. Thanks, Amie. Congratulations and blessings to you as well.

      This book was a delightful read. I have found it particularly interesting to learn more about the schools run by the first generations of Lutherans. One of the things that I have been particularly interested to see is the role that music instruction played in our schools, including the ways that the children participated in the congregations and how they made music a vital part of home life.

      I imagine that finding elements of a classical education is actually easier as a homeschool. I read somewhere just recently that the first step in developing a classical curriculum is having a classical educator. And to be honest, I don’t know where those come from. Most of us in our generation did not receive that kind of instruction as children. I don’t know of formal training programs for it (at least within Lutheranism). The parent or teacher just picks up what they can and tries to adapt these classic principles into their own instruction.

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