Protestantism And Education

As it began to gain influence in western Europe, Protestantism discovered the importance of education. Populations had to be persuaded of the folly of their older religious ways and beliefs and assisted in gaining a firm grasp of the principles of the new form of Christianity that was gaining influence and momentum. The development of the educational form of the "catechism" was an important response to this need: congregations could be encouraged to learn these by heart. Luther's Catechisms of 1529 proved particularly effective and established the question-and-answer format as normative. Yet more was clearly required. Luther recognized the potential importance of the public school system for educating children in the ways and ideas of Protestantism, yet lacked the professional expertise necessary to exploit this resource.63 As time passed and Protestantism became more securely established, the home began to emerge as the primary focus of intergenerational transmission of faith.64 Family Bible reading and prayer became an important daily routine, cementing the family's unity as much as its religious devotion.65 The late eighteenth century saw the emergence of the family Bible with notes, which was an important source of religious education within the family, not to mention a significant influence on the shaping of social attitudes in relation to issues of gender.66

The rise of the Sunday school in the late eighteenth century proved to be a significant means of consolidating Protestant influence. This was initially seen as a means of providing suitable occupation for the urban poor, who would otherwise merely cause trouble. However, Sunday schools quickly developed into an important agency of Protestant education in the cities of the United States. There students were encouraged to memorize verses of the Bible, an exercise seen as fundamental to a religious upbringing.67 By 1820 there are known to have been several hundred Sunday schools in the United States. All gave priority to religious instruction over reading and writing, although most taught the latter subjects as a means of inculcating the former. Many schools used a "ticket reward" system: students were given a blue ticket for every ten verses they memorized, traded six blue tickets for one red, and eventually cashed in the red tickets at a value of one-half cent each toward purchasing Sunday school books or tracts. Some expressed anxieties over this mercenary aspect of the educational process; others relished the fact that it seemed to work so well.

Yet the most significant way in which Protestantism shaped education was through the founding of colleges, seminaries, and universities. Recognizing the importance of well-educated pastors and other church leaders, Protestantism saw investment in education as essential to its survival. Calvin realized the need for such facilities in 1541; owing to political disagreements in Geneva, however, it was not until 1559 that the Geneva Academy was inaugurated, with Theodore Beza as its first rector.68

Yet the new academy was soon upstaged. As Calvinism became an international movement, an increasing number of universities became favorably disposed toward the new religion. Leiden and Heidelberg rapidly gained an international reputation, eclipsing Calvin's personal foundation. These new seats of learning were supplemented by the new Calvinist academies located strategically at German cities such as Herborn in Hanau, and especially those founded in France after the Edict of Nantes—Montauban, Saumur, and Sedan.

The founding of what became known as Harvard College in 1636 established the intellectual hegemony of Calvinism in New England. Following the founding of Harvard would be the establishment of a series of colleges and seminaries dedicated to the propagation of the Protestant faith in church and society. From its outset, Harvard saw itself as dedicated to the goal of a Protestant education. As the Statutes of 1646 put it, the chief object of its education would be "to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life." This goal was admirably summarized in the college's motto of 1692: Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae ("Truth for Christ and the Church"). Other schools followed this trend, usually emphasizing denominational distinctions alongside a general desire to deepen personal faith and piety.

It was a powerful, yet ultimately vulnerable, vision. The American Revolution caused significant modifications to the founding ideals of many such institutions on account of the constitutional separation of church and state.69 Yet the real issues began to emerge in the late nineteenth century, and especially in the twentieth, when colleges with Protestant religious foundations began to wonder whether they were prisoners of their past. Was their Protestant commitment deterring potential applicants? Might these be barriers to funding? A slow, complex, and seemingly irreversible process of secularization began as colleges across the United States chose to marginalize their religious heritages.70 In a deeply symbolic move, Harvard changed its motto to the single word Veritas. Most colleges and universities that began with specific Protestant faith commitments have now given up on these.71

This phenomenon of institutional drift in American Protestant educational institutions has taken place at three different, though clearly interconnected, levels.

1. A denominational or sectional identity has been lost, in order to achieve a broader appeal within the wider Protestant community. Recent changes in seminary names are indicative of a desire to relocate institutions on conceptual maps without necessarily changing theological identity.

2. A generally Protestant identity has been lost, in order to serve a wider constituency within the Christian churches. The rise of ecumenism, especially at the grassroots level, in the final decades of the twentieth century has accelerated this trend.

3. A specifically Christian identity has been lost, either in order to focus on religion in general, without any specific commitment to its Christian form, or in order to focus on other disciplines for which Christian identity either confers no advantages or is seen to be an impediment. The pressures created by the need for academic accreditation from secular agencies has played no small role in catalyzing this transition.72

While all institutions of education founded on a specifically religious basis face similar challenges, it seems that Protestantism has been particularly vulnerable to an erosion of vision and loss of focus. One possible explanation lies in the influence of Pietism within Protestant institutions. The traditional Pietist emphasis on a "religion of the heart" easily leads to a neglect of theology and a disregard for the church. This expresses itself in religious anti-intellectualism, which has little time for the intellectual content of faith and makes little attempt to correlate it with other academic disciplines. The outcome has been a religious disengagement with learning. Faith was a matter of the heart, not the mind. The outcome was predictable: apart from an emphasis on nourishing personal devotion to Christ, educational programs at such institutions became indistinguishable from those offered at secular institutions. The Pietist element came to be regarded as academically risible by academics in such institutions and often fell into disrepute.

Faced with this phenomenon of institutional drift, Protestants have sought to find ways of either enforcing the religious identity of their institutions or making this a selling point. The former approach generally involves a "statement of faith," which all trustees and faculty members are required to sign as a condition of service. These statements are seen as safeguarding the institution's core identity from erosion or redirection. Although these are generally quite broad—often affirming little more than what C. S. Lewis would term "mere Christianity," though sometimes with specific denominational emphases or issues— they have occasionally been the source of tension within institutions, particularly if long-standing faculty members change their religious views—for example, through converting to Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

With the resurgence of interest in religion in North America since about 1980, this latter option has become entirely realistic. The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) was founded in 1976 with the objective of advancing "the cause of Christ-centered higher education" and "faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth." The Council offers support to the presidents and faculties of its member institutions in order that they might retain their distinct identities and agendas and engage positively with the increasingly competitive higher education market.73

Yet Protestantism has continued to expand its educational vision, especially in North America. Fuller Theological Seminary, now one of the world's most prestigious institutions of theological education, was founded in Pasadena, California, in 1947 by evangelicals who were anxious to establish evangelicalism's intellectual credentials in the wake of the damaging fundamentalist controversies of the previous decades.74 Regent College in Vancouver opened its doors in 1970 and is now Canada's largest institute of theological education, with a significant global reach. Both schools are interdenominational and evangelical. The age of Protestant commitment to education is far from over; indeed, it seems to be entering a new phase.

The rapid expansion of Protestantism in Africa, Latin America, and Asia in the twentieth century has led to some remarkable new educational developments. Korea now has some of the largest Protestant seminaries and universities in the world, reflecting both that nation's valuing of learning and the remarkable advances of Protestantism there since 1900.

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