Two seminal events transformed the educational institutions of the West—the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1455 and the Protestant Reformation in 1517. The press undermined the monopoly on learning exercised by the medieval monastery. No longer were ancient manuscripts laboriously transcribed and illustrated by monks for an exclusive audience. Once the Bible went into mass production, people no longer learned their spiritual lessons by contemplating the statuary adorning cathedral doors.
Bible reading became integral to the Protestant Revolution when Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin to German, thereby making written language accessible to the German-speaking masses. The same was done for English speakers with the King James Bible, which even today shapes our speech.
It was John Calvin, however, who laid the spiritual groundwork for universal learning. Because the Calvinist faith was rooted in direct encounters with God’s word, reading became a religious requirement. On arriving in America, Calvinists established seminaries and colleges to sustain both the intellectual and the spiritual well-being of their communities.
In Europe, the Catholic Church responded by making education the centerpiece of the Counter-Reformation. Thus as late as the seventeenth century, education was still the domain of the spiritual world.
With the rise of powerful nation-states—Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy—education became increasingly secularized as those seeking to build powerful nation-states discovered that public schools were a remarkable tool for nation building.
In the United States as well, learning the three Rs was initially left to home and church. But when Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany threatened New England’s Calvinist culture, the Massachusetts legislature compelled parents to educate their children. Public school advocates thus saw education as a way to achieve a uniform culture among an increasingly heterogeneous people.
In the twentieth century, nation builders from Stalin and Mussolini to Nehru and Sukarno have found state control of education to be not just an engine for economic development but, more important, a means for achieving political integration. Today most everyone—liberals, conservatives, democrats, or authoritarians—believes that the modern state requires universal, compulsory, state-financed education.
When education has been securely tied to the power of the state, however, new issues arise. Why does the schoolchild no longer know in which century, much less in which year, the printing press was invented or the Reformation began? How can government-sponsored education be reconciled with liberty and diversity? Do governments have the zeal and conviction that effective education requires? Or do state-controlled education systems inevitably become ossified and corrupt? Can the dominance of the state-controlled system be challenged?
As the century draws to a close, public demand for choice in education is rising. Can today’s reformers create new institutions as powerful as those of the sixteenth century? Or will state-controlled schools mount a counter-reformation more effective than that mounted by the seventeenth-century papacy?
Finding the answers to these questions may take a century, if not a millennium.