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Johann Sturm: Calvinist, Humanist, and Educator

June 10, 2009

Johann SturmWe should all know more about Johann Sturm, and I hope to devote another post to his legacy. For now it will be sufficient to give a very brief account of who this man was. He was responsible for the Classical curriculum at the Stasbourg  Gymnasium (academy) founded by Martin Bucer, and through his lifelong service to that school and his reputation as a man of superior intellect and piety he became the father of the German public school system. Sturm was a tutor to the famous logician Peter Ramus and friends with the tutor of Queen Elizabeth I of England Roger Ascham, even working for Elizabeth for a time as a diplomat. Within the first decade of Sturm’s rectorship of the Strasbourg Academy he employed such professors as John Calvin, Wolfgang Capito, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and the founder of the school, Martin Bucer. All of these men had the utmost respect for Sturm, to the extent that they trusted him with the education of Strasbourg’s future civil and ecclesiastical leaders.

So, what was a Reformed education like in the 16th century? Speaking of Sturm’s treatise The Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters, Lewis Spitz notes:

If this treatise were merely a discussion of books, classroom procedures and teaching techniques, it would still be fascinating; for its description of Sturm’s expectations for boys astonishes modern readers who find it hard to believe that seven-year-olds, often brought to their first year teacher without knowledge of the alphabet, were by the end of that year expected to be reading Cicero’s shorter letters! In their third year they were reading Vergil’s Aeneid, and in their fifth, the one in which they began Greek, Aesop. Then, during “their last year of boyhood” (at twelve) they were studying Aristotle’s logic. At fourteen, the year they would have acquired “ornate speech,” they began to study Hebrew. In their final year of the Gymnasium, they were to perfect “apt speech,” which Sturm expressed as “instructed, liberal, and accommodated to things” and to have begun (!) “the science of numbers,” and astrology. (Spitz, Johann Sturm on Education, p. 48)

You might have noticed that there is no mention of Latin amidst this discussion of curricula. That ommission is due to the fact that Latin was the language of discussion for teachers and students within the classroom, at play time, and on the walk home. Sturm writes to an instructor in the Lauingen School:

We want youth – all of them, including those harbored in the lowest grades – to have Latin conversations. We do not want teachers speaking to them in the native tongue, nor will it be necessary. . . When boys enter school, when they play, when they walk together, when they are coming on the way to school, their speech should be Latin or Greek. Let no one come here if he is going impudently to stray in this matter. (Sturm, For the Lauingen School, in Spitz, p. 246)

I will discuss the motives behind Sturm’s academic rigor in a separate post, but suffice it say that he was a true humanist who considered the eloquence of speech achieved by Cicero and others of antiquity to be the quintessential element of a proper education. Sturm viewed rhetoric with the utmost importance, since a true rhetor must be gifted with the knowledge of subject matter and the prudence required to choose the appropriate words and their arrangement, the combination of which will not merely stir the heart of the listener but will convince the mind as well. As a humanist educator and promoter of Classical education, Johann Sturm is one scholar that all Reformed educators – all Christians for that matter – should know about.

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