In light of the ongoing discussion about Common Core and the state of education in America, it is helpful to examine again the Lutheran theology of education.
Lutheran theology roots education in the Fourth Commandment, and so today I will focus narrowly on Luther’s explanation in the Large Catechism. Here Luther establishes that principle that not only the call to educate children, but also the call to rule over nations comes from the family, from the authority given to parents in this commandment. “All authority flows and is born from the authority of parents. Where a father is unable alone to educate his rebellious and irritable child, he uses a schoolmaster to teach the child. If he is too weak, he gets the help of his friends and neighbors. If he departs this life, he delegates and confers his authority and government upon others who are appointed for the purpose.” (LC I.141) Obedience to the schoolmaster and obedience to the king flows from the first human institution that God established: the family. This is a responsibility that should not be taken away or given up. “For this purpose He has given us children and issued this command: we should train and govern them according to His will. Otherwise, He would have no purpose for a father and a mother. Therefore, let everyone know that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children in the fear and knowledge of God above all things. And if the children are talented, have them learn and study something. Then they may be hired for whatever need there is.” (LC I.173-174) The primary purpose of education is to raise up children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Second, but still vitally important, is to prepare the next generation for all the vocations that life in this world requires. “If we wish to have excellent and able persons both for civil and Church leadership, we must spare no diligence, time, or cost in teaching and educating our children, so that they may serve God and the world.” (LC I.172) Education is vital, not for the child him or herself, but for the good of the neighbors they will serve. In the Table of Duties, Luther provides a summary by citing Ephesians 6:4. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
We can draw two conclusions from this brief (and narrow) examination. First, we see that for Lutheran theology, education is done primarily at home by the parents. The church steps in when the parents are unable or unwilling, for a variety of reasons, to carry out all or part that task on their own. This goes for confirmation instruction as much as for reading, writing, and arithmetic. The state takes responsibility when both the Church and the parents are unwilling or unable to provide such an education, for the primary function of the state is to do what the family is unable to do on its own. This is obviously the complete opposite of how we look at things in our own country, where public education is the norm, private education is available for those who want it, and parents have some limited freedom in educating their children themselves if they so choose. Now, the point of all this isn’t to denigrate public education or the Lutheran school system—far from it, we need good educators and good education going on in those places precisely because not every parent can carry out this weighty responsibility on their own, for many different reasons. The point is that in our country we have a philosophy of education that is backwards, top down from government mandates to the parents, rather than founded on parental responsibility, and this is exemplified no more clearly than with Common Core. This Lutheran perspective on education is not a relic of the sixteenth century or bound to a particular society or age, but is theologically formed and rooted in the Fourth Commandment.
Second, regardless of whether parents educate their children themselves at home or ask the Church or state to do so on their behalf, the responsibility for education still rests upon them. This goes as much for catechesis in the truths of the faith as it does for math and science. The Church and the state are able to help, but the responsibility for the raising of children doesn’t belong to the Church or to the state, but to the family. Parents need to be teachers; they need to know what their children are being taught, and they need to be able to reinforce it at home. On the other hand, teachers, whether at a Christian school or in the public school system, need to understand this as well. For this reason, we need Lutherans in public education who understand this and champion the authority of parents. Obviously, this perspective should also be a driving force in our Lutheran schools.
For all of its downfalls and dangers, technology has provided Christian parents and Christian churches with a tremendous opportunity. It has never been easier for parents to homeschool their children, to take the responsibility for education given by the Fourth Commandment directly into their own hands. It has also never been easier for congregations (even the smallest of congregations!) to provide education on behalf of parents. Through online materials (such as Wittenberg Academy), a small congregation far from an established Lutheran school can host a ‘homeschool consortium’ to provide for the education of the children of the congregation. Technology has made it possible for an explosion of Lutheran education; we only need to see and take advantage of the opportunities given to us. We can and should promote Lutheran education, from our wonderful Lutheran school system, to encouraging homeschooling, to the more creative arrangements that congregations should explore. For the good of our neighbors, we should also be active in doing our best to improve public education, including putting Lutheran teachers in public schools, with a solid grasp of the Fourth Commandment firmly in mind. The Fourth Commandment is what a Lutheran theology of education is all about, in the home, at Lutheran schools, and even in the public school system.