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Compulsory Education in Europe


We need not linger long over the status of education in ancient Greece and Rome. In Athens, the original practice of compulsory state education later gave way to a voluntary system. In Sparta, on the other hand, an ancient model for modern totalitarianism, the State was organized as one vast military camp, and the children were seized by the State and educated in barracks to the ideal of State obedience. Sparta realized the full logical conclusion of the compulsory system; absolute State control over the "whole child"; uniformity and education in passive obedience to State orders. The most important consequence of this system was that it provided the ideal for Plato, who made this educational system the basis of his ideal State, as set forth in the Republic and the Laws. Plato's "Utopia" was the first model for later despotisms — compulsory education and obedience were stressed, there was "communism" of children among the elite "guardians" who also had no private property, and lying was considered a proper instrument for the State to use in its indoctrination of the people.

In the Middle Ages, the problem of compulsory state education did not present itself in Europe. Instruction was carried on in church schools and universities, in private schools, and in private schools for occupational training. The first modern movement for compulsory state education stemmed directly from the Reformation. A prime force was Martin Luther. Luther repeatedly called for communities to establish public schools and to make attendance in them compulsory. In his famous letter to the German rulers in 1524, Luther used Statist premises to reach Statist conclusions:

Dear rulers … I maintain that the civil authorities are under obligation to compel the people to send their children to school…. If the government can compel such citizens as are fit for military service to bear spear and rifle, to mount ramparts, and perform other martial duties in time of war, how much more has it a right to compel the people to send their children to school, because in this case we are warring with the devil, whose object it is secretly to exhaust our cities and principalities of their strong men.11

In this spiritual warfare, Luther of course was not speaking idly of the "devil" and the war against it. To him the war was a very real one.

As a result of Luther's urgings, the German state of Gotha founded the first modern public schools in 1524, and Thurungia followed in 1527. Luther himself founded the Saxony School Plan, which later became, in essence, the state education system for most of the Protestant States of Germany. This plan was put into effect first in Saxony in 1528, through an edict drawn up by Luther's important disciple Melanchthon, setting up state schools in every town and village. The first compulsory state system in the modern world was established in 1559 by Duke Christopher, Elector of Wurtemburg. Attendance was compulsory, attendance records were kept and fines were levied on truants. Other German states soon followed this example.

What was the spirit behind Luther's call for compulsory state education? A common view is that it reflected the Reformers' democratic spirit and the desire to have everyone read the Bible, the presumption being that they wished to encourage each one to interpret the Bible for himself.12 The truth is quite otherwise. The Reformers advocated compulsory education for all as a means of inculcating the entire population with their particular religious views, as an indispensable aid in effective "war with the devil" and the devil's agents. For Luther, these agents constituted a numerous legion: not only Jews, Catholics, and infidels, but also all other Protestant sects. Luther's political ideal was an absolute State guided by Lutheran principles and ministers. The fundamental principle was that the Bible, as interpreted by Luther, was the sole guide in all things. He argued that the Mosaic code awarded to false prophets the death penalty, and that it is the duty of the State to carry out the will of God. The State's duty is to force those whom the Lutheran Church excommunicates to be converted back into the fold. There is no salvation outside the Lutheran Church, and it is not only the duty of the State to compel all to be Lutherans, but its sole object. As the great historian Lord Acton stated of Luther:

The defense of religion became … not only the duty of the civil power, but the object of its institution. Its business was solely the coercion of those who were out of the [Lutheran] Church.13

Luther stressed the theory of passive obedience, according to which no motives or provocation can justify a revolt against the State. In 1530, he declared: "It was the duty of a Christian to suffer wrong, and no breach of oath or of duty could deprive the Emperor of his right to the unconditional obedience of his subjects." In this way, he hoped to induce the princes to adopt and compel Lutheranism in their domains. Luther was expressly adamant that the State power be used with utmost severity against people who refused to be converted to Lutheranism. He required that all crimes should be punished with the utmost cruelty. The chief object of this severity was to be, of course, against the chief crime, refusal to adopt Lutheranism. The State must exterminate error, and could not tolerate heresy or heretics, "for no secular prince can permit his subjects to be divided by the preaching of opposite doctrines."

In sum: "Heretics are not to be disputed with, but to be condemned unheard, and whilst they perish by fire."

Such was the goal of the initial force behind the first compulsory state school system in the Western world, and such was the spirit that was to animate the system. No less ardent a despot was Melanchthon, Luther's principal aid in the drive for compulsory state schools in Germany.

Melanchthon taught firmly that all sects must be put down with the sword, and that any individual who originated new religious opinions should be punished with death. This punishment must be levied against any difference, however slight, in Protestant teachings. All others than Lutherans — Catholics, Anabaptists, Servetians, Zwinglians, etc. — were to be persecuted with the utmost zeal.

The Lutheran influence on the political and educational life of the West, and particularly Germany, has been enormous. He was the first advocate of compulsory schooling, and his plans were the pattern for the first German schools. Furthermore, he inculcated Lutherans with the ideals of obedience to the State and persecution of all dissenters. As Acton states, he "impressed on his party that character of political dependence, and that habit of passive obedience to the State, which it has ever since retained."14 A succinct estimate of Luther's influence on politics and compulsory education by an admirer follows:

The permanent and positive value of Luther's pronouncement of 1524 lies not so much in its direct effects as in the hallowed associations which it established for Protestant Germany between the national religion and the educational duties of the individual and the state. Thus, doubtless, was created that healthy public opinion which rendered the principle of compulsory school attendance easy of acceptance in Prussia at a much later date than in England.15

Aside from Luther, the other leading influence toward the establishment of compulsory education in the modern world was the other great Reformer, John Calvin. Calvin went to Geneva in 1536, while the town was successfully revolting against the Duke of Savoy and the Catholic Church, and was appointed chief pastor and ruler of the city, which position he held until 1564. In Geneva, Calvin established a number of public schools, at which attendance was compulsory. What was the spirit that animated Calvin's establishment of the State school system? The spirit was the inculcation of the message of Calvinism, and obedience to the theocratic despotism which he had established. Calvin combined within himself political dictator and religious teacher. To Calvin, nothing mattered, no liberty or right was important, except his doctrine and its supremacy. Calvin's doctrine held that the support of Calvinism is the end and object of the State, and that this involves maintaining purity of doctrine and strict austerity in the behavior of the people. Only a small minority on earth are the "elect" (chief of whom is Calvin), and the rest are a mass of sinners who must be coerced by the sword, with the conquerors imposing Calvinist faith on the subjects. He did not favor killing all heretics. Catholics and Jews would be allowed to live, but all Protestants other than Calvinists must be killed. In some cases, however, he changed his position and advocated the severest punishment for Catholics as well.

Calvin, too, was adamant in asserting the duty of obedience to rulers regardless of their form of government. Government has divine sanction, and as long as it was Calvinist, it could pursue any course without deserving protest. Not only must all heretics be killed, but the same punishment should be meted out to those who deny the justice of such punishment. Calvin's leading disciples, such as Beza, were at least as ardent in promoting the extermination of heretics.

Calvin's influence on the Western world was wider than Luther's because, with diligent propaganda efforts, he made Geneva the European center for the widespread diffusion of his principles. Men from all over Europe came to study at Calvin's. Schools and read his tracts, and the result was Calvinist influence throughout Europe.

As the Calvinists became important throughout Europe, they agitated for the establishment of compulsory state schools.16 In 1560, the French Calvinists, the Huguenots, sent a memorandum to the king, requesting the establishment of universal compulsory education, but were turned down. In 1571, however, Queen Jeanne d'Albret, of the Estates of Navarre, under Calvinist influence, made primary education compulsory throughout that part of France. Calvinist Holland established compulsory public schools in 1609. John Knox, who conquered Scotland for his Presbyterian Church, was a Calvinist, although he had arrived at many of the principles independently. He established the Church along Calvinist lines, and proclaimed the death penalty for Catholics. Knox attempted to establish universal compulsory education in Scotland in the 1560s, but failed in the attempt. He advocated it in his Book of Discipline, which called for public schools in every Scottish town.

One of the most far-reaching effects of the Calvinist tradition is its influence on American educational history. Calvinist influence was strong among the English Puritans, and it was the Puritan influence that inaugurated public schools and compulsory education in New England, from whence it finally conquered the whole United States. The history of American compulsory education will be treated in the next section.

  • 11. Quoted in John William Perrin, The History of Compulsory Education in New England, 1896.
  • 12. For example, cf. Lawrence A. Cremin, The American Common School: An Historic Conception (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1951), p. 84.
  • 13. John, Lord Acton, "The Protestant Theory of Persecution" in his Essays on Freedom and Power (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1948), pp. 88 — 127.
  • 14. Ibid., p. 94.
  • 15. A.E. Twentyman, "Education; Germany," Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th ed., vol. 7, pp. 999 — 1000.
  • 16. Cf. Perrin, The History of Compulsory Education in New England.