How we Lost Lutheran Education in the Missouri Synod, by Dr. Gene Edward Veith
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The perennial question for Lutherans is to what extent they should assimilate into the dominant religious culture. That is the issue for Lutheran theology, and it is also the issue for Lutheran education. The Reformation and education went hand in hand.
The Renaissance classical curriculum of the University of Wittenberg stressed the revival of the Greek language and going back to the original sources. This led to Luther’s fresh study of the ultimate original source, the Bible, which became the basis of the Reformation.
Since all Christiansâ€”laity as well as clergy, peasants as well as nobles, women as well as menâ€” needed to read God’s Word and since most of the population was illiterate, the Reformers opened schools. These were more than Bible reading schools. At Luther’s request, Philipp Melanchthon, one of the greatest Renaissance scholars, devised a classical education for everyone.
Melanchthon invented a special institution to train leaders for the church and the state. The “Gymnasium” offered a six-year program in the liberal arts (from the Latin word for “freedom,” designed to equip free citizens as opposed to the job-oriented “servile arts” given to slaves). At the conclusion of these six years, the graduate would go to university. The Gymnasium survives to this day in modern Germany, which sends students with the highest test scores to a Gymnasium, with the rest channeled into vocational high schools.
This kind of classical education would be challenged, though, with the Enlightenmentâ€”which made scientific rationalism the only kind of truthâ€”and the invention of the Prussian University model, which, by reducing all knowledge to scientific specializations required even theology to be “scientific.” One of its inventors was Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology, the champion of the higher criticism of Scripture, and the theological instigator of the Prussian Union, which provoked the founders of the LCMS to leave for America.
Here those founders faced a different educational challenge: an educational system designed primarily to assimilate immigrants. Instead of teaching foreign languages and Western civilization, these little red schoolhouses would focus on English and on instilling the values of “Americanism.” This included the propagation of a “civil religion,” with a generic, ecumenical, national deity and the teaching of moralism rather than salvation.
In response, the founders of the LCMS started parochial schools, which were solidly Lutheran and classical. For further education, they founded Gymnasiums, which is the original form of most of the Concordia Colleges today.
Then came John Dewey and “progressive education.” A socialist and an atheist who believed that education should replace religion, Dewey dismissed the knowledge of the past in favor of modern pragmatism. To train workers for modern industrialism, Dewey urged schools to downplay content in favor of processes. Dewey believed that teaching is a science, leading to the establishment of teacher colleges.
The LCMS largely accepted progressive education, opening teacher colleges of its own, requiring state licensing for parochial teachers, and bringing progressive techniques into its classrooms. Eventually, the Concordias were re-organized according to the Prussian university model to conform with the rest of American higher education.
The new goal of LCMS schools was to give students the same kind of education as in the public schools, but adding instruction in the Christian faith. This approach arguably worked for awhile, since the secular curriculum did not directly undermine Christianity. But in recent decades, the postmodern version of progressive educationâ€”which sees truth and morality as relativeâ€” undermines what children learn in their religion class.
This relativist curriculum has also led to an academic collapse. If there is no truth, what is there to learn? If there is no goodness, how can teachers enforce discipline? This crisis has led to a search for alternatives, including homeschooling and the founding of evangelical schools. Some of these emulate traditional American education (including its limitations). Others, though, are going back further, rediscovering the classical education that has given us Western civilization.
Among these are Lutherans bringing back the Lutheran heritage of education. A number of parochial schools have gone classical and in doing so have both improved their academics and strengthened their theological integrity. Check out the Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education– www.ccle.orgâ€”for the most promising developments in Lutheran education today.
Dr. Gene Edward Veith
Provost and Professor of Literature
Patrick Henry College