Reformed Thinkers on Education: Johann Sturm

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I am returning again to my “Reformed Thinkers on Education” series-within-a-series to look at Johann Sturm. Sturm is an older writer — about as old as you can get and merit the label reformed! — a contemporary of Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin. I have just read a few essays from Johann Sturm on Education: The Reformation and Humanist Learning [ed. Lewis Spitz and Barbara Sher Tinsley (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1995)], but I think they are enough to give me a pretty good idea of his approach and philosophy. Though he is an older writer and in many ways what he has to say may not seem applicable to today’s world, his influence on later educators, both Protestant and Catholic (p. 12), has been great so it is well worth our time to see just what Sturm was all about.

Sturm’s philosophy of education is very definitively classical (see this recent post on the characteristics of classical ed). Like much of classical education, morality was the goal of education, and an education based in literature (p. 57) was seen as the way to produce good morals (p.71).

“For there is nothing in the nature of the universe that cultivates morality as does the study of letters.” (p. 72)

Sturm acknowledged the place of nature and experience but argued for the role of learning in further shaping character (p. 73). This learning, of course, might not be available to all but was a powerful force in the lives of those suited to it. [Sturm’s educational program was not universal. He did advocate for the inclusion of select poorer boys but girls were left out entirely (p. 16) as were those deemed “slow” (p. 78).]

Though definitively Christian and reformed — he “represented a Calvinist element within the church” (p. 350) — Sturm valued classical authors, seeing them as “a harbinger of rather than a challenge to Christian morality” (p. 45).  In practice, classical authors were exalted even above Christian ones. They were assumed to give the proper moral base and distinctly Christian subjects like dogmatics were left out of the core curriculum (p. 50).  Despite this lack of Christian sources, the teacher was expected to be a Christian and to provide the right mindset and perspective through which to view the materials studied (p. 54). And education was said to be useless if not “imbued with sound Christian values” (p. 347).

As is common in the classical tradition, Sturm placed a high value on being able to speak well, saying that “eloquence without knowledge was as dangerous as knowledge without eloquence” (p, 49). This indeed seems to have been the motivating factor in Sturm’s approach to education and his return to classical sources — he saw in his own day a lack of learning which paled beside the vision he had of the ancients and turned to classical sources and oratory as a way to recover learning (p. 119). The early years in particular were given over to the development of morality and proper speech (p. 74) so that these habits, ingrained early, might form a proper basis for the later years. The end goal was a “wise and eloquent piety” (p.85), combing the three goals of morality, knowledge, and eloquence.

Sturm advocated for a large role for parents in the early years (p. 19), but ideally expected qualifying boys to enter school around age 6 (p. 86). At that time they would go to centralized schools. Sturm preferred a very centralized education, both in terms of geography and curriculum. Thus boys would be expected to go to the big city (wherever that might be) and the curriculum was standardized. Large classes were the ideal (p. 84). This was not interest-led learning. Even individual teachers did not make decisions about what was to be taught, but everything was standardized across the school so that all students would learn the same material.

In “The Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters (1538)” Sturm presents his program, year by year, outlining which books of Cicero, for example, were to be studied in which year. The first nine years, to age 15 or so, would be for general “boyhood education” and then five more for advanced education (p. 85). In terms of methodology, Sturm was very modern in that he threw everything he had at students. Many different approaches were tried so that if one didn’t work with a particular student, another might (p. 51). He advocated strongly for the use of rewards and prizes as motivations to learning (pp. 51, 88), playing upon students’ innate desires for validation and victory in competition (p. 65).

Though there is a strong emphasis on competition as a motivating factor for the boys, yet Sturm seems to have valued cooperation above all in his teachers. The students’ ambition was used against them (or for them, depending on your perspective) to urge them on in their studies. Yet, for his faculty, Sturm says “nothing corrupts religion more than ambition . . .  When men are contorted by envy and tossed by ambition, there is no loyalty in them, and nothing perfect” (p. 116). The theory in the younger years seems to have been that competition breeds friendship among boys (p. 117). I am not a male so perhaps this is lost on me, but this seems like a very fine line to tread, using a quality you ultimately don’t want to inculcate.

Though he was not opposed to corporal punishment, above all his goal seems to have been to make learning enjoyable for students, to keep their motivation up. To aid in this, lessons were to be kept short and varied (p. 92). Yet too much variation in one day was also to be avoided; Sturm advocated no more than three subjects per day (p. 93). In all this, there was a large role for the teacher in keeping up students’ motivation and appropriately varying the curriculum (yet without varying it too much).

Latin and Latin authors were the backbone of the curriculum. One began with Cicero in grade 9 (which was the youngest grade; Sturm counted from grade 9 up to grade 1; p. 89). Sturm made much use of memorization (p. 55) and in the early years one goal was to train the faculty of memory (p. 91). Greek and Greek authors would be introduced in fifth grade (p. 95). In the last years (grades 2 and 1 for him), the emphasis was particularly on “ornate speech” (p. 102), defined as speech which is “literary, embellished by learning, worth of a free man, and appropriate to the occasion and the person” (p. 103). Subjects like math and astronomy would also come up in these last years.

Though, as we have said, “Christian” subjects were not part of the main curriculum, they were included in some ways. Festival days were for “sacred lectures” and boys were expected to know “the entire history of Christ and the apostles” (p. 104). When this was supposed to happen is not clear, but there was apparently a good amount of reading expected to be done apart from school hours. In all subjects original sources were preferred to later commentaries (p. 48) and this was true of the Scriptures as well (p. 106). In the last years of schooling, the catechism would be explained and Hebrew grammar taught (p. 104).

Sturm believed all subjects were inter-related and warned against over-specialization especially in those first nine years of education. As we have seen, the curriculum was very much a top-down, standardized affair so that there would be few if any options for boys.  Older students, those in the five years of advanced education, were at the age of specialization but were also encouraged to attend lectures in fields outside their main interest (p. 49).

There is no doubt Sturm has been influential, on both classical and non-classical educators, Protestants and Catholics. He lived at a time when the reformed church, brand new itself, had a new situation to deal with. Education had been the work of the Roman Catholic Church and Luther and others sought to break it free (see this post on the history of education during the Reformation). The Protestant emphasis on reading the Scriptures led to a desire for not just an educated clergy but an educated laity as well, yet in an environment in which few structures were already in place.  Sturm was called in to build a school system essentially from scratch, a rare opportunity.

As he began to do so, Sturm looked around and saw an appalling lack of education in his own day, especially in comparison with the educational level of the past (or at least the perceived level). At a time when the gospel was once again begin preached and spread abroad, it is no wonder he felt very much the need for not just Christian morality but eloquence. The great orators of Greece and Rome seemed to provide just the model he needed and so it was to them that he turned, developing an approach to education which was almost the definition of neo-classical.

I have not made a secret of the fact that I am not a big fan of classical education. As we evaluate Sturm’s work we need to keep in mind the environment in which he lived and the resources available to him. What he created was of incredible value for the church and the society of the time. But we must also realize that we live in a different situation. We have many more centuries of thought about education behind us. We have different needs, different ways of communicating, even different bodies of knowledge, and many, many more resources. We can appreciate Sturm’s work, and take from it what might still be useful to us, but it would be foolish to try to recreate his system today. My critique of much of modern classical education (see this recent post in Clark and Jain’s work) is that it assumes a classical foundation and builds up from there without asking if this is the proper foundation. Sturm does this as well. In his case, I think it was much more excusable; he was in a unique situation and had little else to turn to. We don’t have the same excuses.

Nebby

One response to this post.

  1. […] Johann Sturm on Education (ed. Spitz and Tinsley) — Part of my continuing series on reformed Christian education. Sturm is an older writer, like contemporary of Luther and Calvin old. His approach to education is classical. In all honesty I did not read the whole book but it is a collection of letters and the like and a few key ones serve to give a pretty good overview of his approach. He was quite influential, on both Portestant and Catholic education, though I found a lot of what he had to say dated. Read my full review here.  […]

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