Protestantism still wielding a big influence on global education: Report

Martin Luther demanded compulsory elementary education for all social classes
Martin Luther demanded compulsory elementary education for all social classes

Protestantism still matters when it comes to secondary school education across the world, a study shows.

Many more young people attend secondary school in countries where there is a historical legacy of the Protestant religion.

This is despite nearly two centuries of secularisation and a dramatic expansion of government-provided secondary education since the mid-20th century.

At the start of the Reformation in 1517, initiated by Martin Luther, Protestantism made strenuous efforts to expand schooling.

Luther demanded compulsory elementary education for boys and girls from all social classes.

Other German Protestants soon developed a comprehensive system of schooling, including a system of secondary education.

The German reforms quickly became a blueprint for education across many other countries in western and northern Europe.

Britain exported Protestantism to its colonies around the globe, which profoundly shaped their educational systems as well.

Here too, Protestants introduced mass education, including formal education for women as well as for marginalised groups, including slaves.

The Protestant missionaries in the British colonies were also the first to provide post-primary education.

As a result of these reforms, school enrolment rates were substantially higher than in colonies of, for example, Spain and France.

However, from the 19th century Protestantism’s influence on schooling had strongly waned – first in traditionally Protestant countries and, further to decolonisation, in Britain’s former colonies.

School systems were secularised and almost completely taken over by the state.

Dr Horst Feldmann, from the University of Bath, looked at data from 147 developed and developing countries from 1975 to 2010.

He argues that Protestantism’s original influence on education and schooling has become part of the national culture in traditionally Protestant countries and in several former British colonies such as Australia and the US.

His statistical analysis finds that countries with larger Protestant population shares in 1900 had higher secondary school enrolment rates over the years 1975 to 2010.

For example, the Nordic countries have both the highest historical Protestant population shares and some of the highest contemporary enrolment rates.

“In contrast to what many might expect, the Protestant legacy has an enduring effect on secondary schooling – in spite of almost 200 years of secularisation,” he said.

“This study is the first to show that the historically positive effect of Protestantism on schooling is still noticeable today.

“It also shows that this is not only the case in a few traditionally Protestant countries. Rather the historically positive effect of Protestantism on schooling is a global phenomenon.”

Dr Feldmann’s study suggests that the magnitude of the effect is small.

It indicates that Protestantism’s traditional influence on schooling has diminished over time and that contemporary Protestantism, in contrast to historical Protestantism, does not affect schooling.

• The paper, Still Influential: The Protestant Emphasis on Schooling, is published in the International Journal of Comparative Sociology.