It was natural that the Revolution should for a time disrupt the educational system of Western Europe, for that system was almost wholly a service of the Church, and the influence of the orthodox clergy could not be successfully challenged without breaking their control of education. Luther condemned the existing grammar schools as teaching the student “only enough bad Latin to become a priest and read Mass .... and yet remain all his life a poor ignoramus fit neither to cackle nor to lay eggs.” 2 As for the universities, they seemed to him dens of murderers, temples of Moloch, synagogues of corruption; “nothing more hellish .... ever appeared on earth... or ever would appear”; and he concluded that they were “only worthy of being reduced to dust.” 3 Melanchthon agreed with him on the ground that the universities were turning students into pagans.4 The opinion of Carlstadt, the Zwickau “prophets,” and the Anabaptists—that education was a useless frill, a peril to morals, and a hindrance to salvation—was readily accepted by parents who grudged the cost of educating their children. Some fathers argued that since secondary instruction was largely directed to preparing students for the priesthood, and priests were now so unfashionable, it was illogical to send sons to universities.

The Reformers had expected that the revenues of ecclesiastical properties appropriated by the state would in part be devoted to establishing new schools to replace those that were disappearing with the closing of the monasteries; but “princes and lords,” Luther complained, “were so busily engaged in the high and important affairs of the cellar, the kitchen, and the bedchamber that they had no time” to help education. “In the German provinces,” he wrote (1524), “the schools are now everywhere allowed to go to ruin.”5By 1530 he and Melanchthon were lamenting the deterioration of the German universities.6 At Erfurt the enrollment fell from 311 in 1520 to 120 in 1521, to 34 in 1524; at Rostock from 300 in 1517 to 15 in 1525; at Heidelberg in that year there were more professors than students; and in 1526 only five scholars enrolled at the University of Basel.7

Luther and Melanchthon labored to repair the damage. In an Epistle to the Burgomasters (1524) Luther appealed to secular authorities to establish schools. In 1530, far ahead of his time, he proposed that elementary education should be made compulsory, and be provided at public expense.8 To the universities, gradually reconstituted under Protestant auspices, he recommended a curriculum centered on the Bible, but also teaching Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, law, medicine, history, and “poets and orators .... heathen or Christian.” 9 Melanchthon made the revival of education a main task of his life. Under his leadership and stimulus many new schools were opened; by the end of the sixteenth century there were 300 in Germany. He drew up a Schulplan (1527) for the organization of schools and universities; he wrote textbooks of Latin and Greek grammar, of rhetoric, logic, psychology, ethics, and theology; and he trained thousands of teachers for the new institutions. His country gratefully named him Praeceptor Germaniae,the Educator of Germany. One by one the universities of northern Germany passed under Protestant control: Wittenberg (1522), Marburg (1527), Tübingen (1535), Leipzig (1539), Königsberg (1544), Jena (1558). Professors or students who (as Duke Ulrich of Württemberg put it) were opposed to “the right, true, evangelical doctrine” were dismissed. Calvinists were excluded from Lutheran colleges, and Protestants were barred from universities still held by Catholics. Generally, after the Peace of Augsburg (1555), German students were forbidden to attend schools of another faith than that of the territorial prince.10

Johannes Sturm immensely advanced the new education when he set up a Gymnasium or secondary school at Strasbourg (1538), and published in that year an influential tract On Rightly Opening Schools of Letters (De litterarum ludis recte aperiendis). Like so many leaders of thought in Central Europe, Sturm had received his schooling from the Brethren of the Common Life. Thence he went to Louvain and Paris, where he met Rabelais; the famous letter of Gargantua on education may echo a mutual influence. While making “a wise piety” the chief aim of education, Sturm laid rising stress on the study of the Greek and Latin languages and literatures; and this thoroughness of training in the classics passed down to the later Gymnasien of Germany to raise the army of scholars that in the nineteenth century raided and ransacked the ancient world.

The schools of England suffered even more than those of Germany from the religious overturn. Cathedral, monastic, guild, and chantry schools melted away in the heat of the attack upon ecclesiastical abuses and wealth. Most university students had been sent up by those schools; this flow ceasing, Oxford graduated only 173 bachelors of arts, Cambridge only 191, in 1548; in 1547 and 1550 Oxford had no such graduates at all.11 Henry VIII felt the problem, but his need of funds for war or weddings limited him to establishing Trinity College, Cambridge (1546), and financing regius professorships in divinity, Hebrew, Greek, medicine, and law. Private philanthropy in this period founded Corpus Christi College, Christ Church College, St. John’s College, and Trinity College at Oxford, and Magdalen College at Cambridge. The royal commission sent by Cromwell to Oxford and Cambridge (1535) to appropriate their charters and endowments for the King brought both faculty and curriculum under governmental control. The reign of Scholasticism in England was summarily ended; the works of Duns Scotus were literally scattered to the winds;12 canon law was set aside; Greek and Latin studies were encouraged; the curriculum was largely secularized. But dogmatism remained. A law of 1553 required all candidates for degrees to subscribe to the Anglican Articles of Religion.

In Catholic France and Flanders the universities declined not in endowments or enrollments but in vigor and freedom of intellectual life. New universities were opened at Reims, Douai, Lille, and Besançon. The University of Louvain rivaled that of Paris in number of students (5,000), and in defense of an orthodoxy that even the popes found extreme. The University of Paris had a large enrollment (6,000), but it no longer attracted foreign students in any considerable number, or tolerated, as in its thirteenth-century prime, the quickening ferment of new ideas. Its other faculties were so dominated by that of theology—the Sorbonne—that this name became almost a synonym for the university. The curriculum of theology and expurgated classics seemed to Montaigne a superficial routine of memorizing and conformity. Rabelais never tired of satirizing the scholastic formalities and logical gymnastics of the Sorbonne, the waste of student years in debates carefully removed from actual concern with human life. “I am willing to lose my share of paradise,” vowed Clément Marot, “if those great beasts”—the professors—“did not ruin my youth.”13 All the power and authority of the university were turned not only against the French Protestants but against the French humanists as well.

Francis I, who had drunk the wine of Italy, and had met churchmen steeped in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, did his best to protect French scholarship from the conservative discouragements emanating from the Sorbonne. Urged on by Guillaume Budé, Cardinal Jean du Bellay, and the indefatigable Marguerite, he provided funds to establish (1529), independently of the university, a school devoted predominantly to humanistic studies. Four “royal professors” were initially appointed—two for Greek, two for Hebrew; and chairs of Latin, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy were presently added. Tuition was free.14 This Collège Royale, later renamed Collège de France, became the warming hearth of French humanism, the home of the free but disciplined mind of France.

Spain, though passionately orthodox, had excellent universities, fourteen in 1553, including new foundations at Toledo, Santiago, and Granada; that of Salamanca, with seventy professors and 6,778 students in 1584, could bear comparison with any. The universities of Italy continued to flourish; that of Bologna, in 1543, had fifty-seven professors in the faculty of “arts,” thirty-seven in law, fifteen in medicine; and Padua was the Mecca of enterprising students from north of the Alps. Poland testified to its golden age by enrolling 15,338 students at one time in the University of Cracow;15 and in Poznan the Lubranscianum, founded (1519) by Bishop John Lubranski, was dedicated to humanistic pursuits. All in all, the universities suffered less in Catholic than in Protestant countries in this cataclysmic century.

The importance of the teacher was underestimated, and he was grievously underpaid. The professors at the Collège Royale received 200 crowns a year ($5,000?), but this was highly exceptional. At Salamanca the professors were chosen by the students after a trial period of sample lectures by rival candidates. Instruction was mostly by lectures, sometimes brought to life by debates. Note-taking served many a student in place of textbooks; dictionaries were rare; laboratories were practically unknown except to alchemists. Students were housed in cheap and poorly heated rooms, and became ill on unclean or inadequate food. Many worked their way through college. Classes began at six in the morning, ended at five in the afternoon. Discipline was rigorous; even near-graduates might be flogged. The students warmed themselves with street brawls and such wine and wenches as they could afford. By one means or another they achieved education, to a degree.

Girls of the lower classes remained illiterate; many of the middle classes found moderate schooling in nunneries; well-to-do young women had tutors. Holland boasted of several ladies who could be courted in Latin, and who could probably conjugate better than they could decline. In Germany the wife of Peutinger and the sisters and daughters of Pirkheimer were famous for learning; in France the women around Francis graced their flirtations with classical quotations; and in England some bluestockings—More’s daughters, Jane Grey, “Bloody Mary,” Elizabeth—were paragons of erudition.

Two famous teachers belong to this age. The lesser was Sir Thomas Elyot, whose Boke Named the Governour (1531) outlined an education by which pedigreed pupils might be fitted for statesmanship. Elyot began by berating the cultural crudity of the English nobles; he contrasted it with the learning credited to men of affairs in ancient Greece and Rome, and quoted Diogenes the Cynic, who, “seeing one without learning seated on a stone, remarked .... ‘Behold where one stone sitteth on another.’ “16 At seven the boy should be placed under a carefully selected tutor, who will teach him the elements of music, painting, and sculpture. At fourteen he is to be taught cosmography, logic, and history, and is to be trained in wrestling, hunting, shooting with the longbow, swimming, and tennis; not football, for that is plebeian, and “therein is nothing but beastly furie and external violence.” The lad is to study the classics at every stage of his education—first the poets, then the orators, then the historians, then the generals, then the philosophers; to which Elyot, as almost an afterthought, adds the Bible, thereby reversing Luther’s plan. For, despite his protestations, Elyot much prefers the classics to the Bible. “Lord God, what incomparable sweetness of words and matter in the works of Plato and Cicero, wherein is joined gravity and delectation, excellent wisdom with divine eloquence, absolute virtue with pleasure incredible,” so “that those books be almost sufficient to make a perfect and excellent governor!”17

Juan Vives, humanest of the humanists, followed a larger aim and wider course. Born at Valencia in 1492, he left Spain at seventeen, never to see it again. He studied in Paris long enough to love philosophy and despise Scholasticism. At twenty-six he wrote the first modern history of philosophy—De initiis, sectis, et laudibus philosophiae. In the same year he challenged the universities with an attack on Scholastic methods of teaching philosophy; the scheme of promoting thought by debates, he felt, promoted only futile wrangling over inconsequential issues. Erasmus hailed the book, recommended it to More, and politely feared that “Vives .... will overshadow .... Erasmus.” 18 Perhaps through Erasmus’ influence Vives was appointed professor of the humanities at Louvain (1519). Urged on by Erasmus, he published an edition of Augustine’s City of God with elaborate commentaries; he dedicated it to Henry VIII, and received so cordial a reply that he moved to England (1523). He was welcomed by More and Queen Catherine, his compatriot, and Henry named him one of Princess Mary’s tutors. Apparently for her guidance he wrote On the Education of Children (De ratione studii puerilis, 1523). All went well until he expressed disapproval of Henry’s plea for a marriage annulment. Henry stopped his salary, and put him under house arrest for six weeks. Released, Vives returned to Bruges (1528), and spent there the remaining years of his life.

Still idealistic at thirty-seven, he dedicated to Charles V an Erasmian appeal for an international court of arbitration as a substitute for war (De concordia et discordia in humano genere, 1529). Two years later he issued his major work, De tradendis disciplinis (On the Transmission of Studies), the most progressive educational treatise of the Renaissance. He called for an education directed “to the necessities of life, to some bodily or mental improvement, to the cultivation and increase of reverence.” 19 The pupil should enter school “as if into a holy temple,” but his studies there should prepare him to be a decent and useful citizen. Those studies should cover the whole of life, and should be taught in their interrelation, as they function in living. Nature, as well as books, should be studied; things are more instructive than theories. Let the student note the veins, nerves, bones, and other parts of the body in their anatomy and action; let him consult farmers, hunters, shepherds, gardeners .... and learn their lore; these gleanings will be more useful than the Scholastic “babblement which has corrupted every branch of knowledge in the name of logic.”20 The classics, expurgated for youth, should remain a vital part of the curriculum, but modern history and geography are to be studied too. The vernaculars as well as Latin should be taught, and all by the direct method of daily use.

Vives was so far ahead of his time that it lost sight of him, and let him die in poverty. He remained a Catholic to the end.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!