Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

The Legacy of Protestant Education

A little over a year ago, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I commented in a short piece on the salutary effect that event had on education. The general historical picture is clear enough without detailed statistical analysis; but statistical evidence can help to contribute to a thicker, more complete picture.

Such evidence is provided by a recent article in Comparative Sociology called “Still Influential: The Protestant Emphasis on Schooling” (already referred to in the popular press here), in which Horst Feldmann, of the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, uses data collected from 147 countries to argue that those that are historically Protestant have “a cultural heritage that puts a high value on education and schooling,” because Protestantism from its inception “has been advocating and actively pursuing the expansion of schooling, including the schooling of girls.”

Universal elementary education was a Protestant concern already in the sixteenth century, Feldmann points out, not only in Germany, but in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as well. Such a single-minded focus on schooling carried over into the New World, such that, due mostly to the efforts of Protestant educators, “[b]y the middle of the 18th century, literacy in New England approached 85% among men and 50% among women,” rates that were “exceptionally high, even by the standards of western Europe.” The reason is not far to seek: they wanted people to be able to read the Bible.

More recent effects of Protestantism on education are less drastic, due primarily (though not solely) to the secularization of school systems in Europe and the United States. For example, Feldmann points out that “[u]nder the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century–Nazi Germany (1933-1945) and Communist East Germany (1949-1990)–the Protestant Church lost whatever little influence had remained” to it. Similarly, “[i]n the United States, the emergency of state-sponsored education in the early 19th century undermined the hitherto strong Protestant influence on schooling.”

Nevertheless, argues Feldmann, a 2000 study found–unsurprisingly, I should add–that “the historically dominant religion–such as Protestantism–has shaped the national culture of a given society, with enduring effects on a wide range of contemporary values and beliefs among the population–even in countries where nowadays most people have little or no contact with religious institutions.” That kind of analysis, he says, should be applied to the question of education in particular, and that is what he set out to do in his research.

What did he discover? He discovered that “[b]y and large, countries with higher Protestant population shares in 1900 tended to have higher secondary enrollment rates over 1975-2010, both among the group of boys and girls combined as well as among each of the two genders.”

His results are not insignificant for gauging the link between the historical legacy of a given society’s general religious outlook and its levels of literacy and education. Indeed, unlike the strong link between historical Protestantism and general schooling, “the effect of Roman Catholicism is statistically insignificant throughout” the study and shows many fewer opportunities for girls, particularly due to the functional restriction of literacy to “the clergy and the nobility.” It took until the 1970s for “the largely adverse effect Roman Catholicism has had on mass education throughout history” to be “overcome in most countries.”

As we have recently marked another anniversary of the Reformation, then, the study provides a good reminder of something to be thankful for that resulted from it. Feldmann’s study suggests that the educational effects of the Reformation endured into the twentieth century “in spite of almost 200 years of secularization and a dramatic expansion of government-provided secondary education” in recent decades, because, although contemporary Protestantism has almost no influence on broader education, historic Protestantism’s “original emphasis on education and schooling has long become part of the national culture in traditionally Protestant countries and…in several former British colonies,” including the United States.

Even if “the magnitude of this effect is small,” as Feldmann says it is, it is nevertheless important, for it is a reminder of the drastic ramifications of the simple claim that ordinary people should be allowed and able to read the Bible. Martin Luther may not have been able to predict in 1517 that his ideas would eventually lead to a massive uptick in education among men and women. But even if that result was unintended, the educational reformation he sparked remains worth celebrating.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.