Dr. Korcok served as pastor of a church in rural Ontario, Canada, which was in the process of establishing a Lutheran elementary school. This led him to ask questions, such as, “Why should the church establish a school?” and “How is a Lutheran school different from public schools and other private schools?” This led to additional questions, like, “What is the relationship between pedagogy and theology?” and “How does theology shape the curriculum?”
In researching the answers to these questions, Korcok learned of efforts to develop a distinctly Lutheran pedagogy by returning to the ancient arts of the trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—as the basis for a modern form of classical education. In this book he shows how Evangelical Lutheran theology with its emphasis on Baptism, catechesis and vocation modified the classical liberal arts curriculum. Korcok writes, “In Luther’s theology there is an indissoluble unity between Baptism and catechesis. Like vocation, catechesis grows out of Baptism. If catechesis were to be isolated from its sacramental moorings, it would stand in peril of being treated as a purely intellectual exercise instead of an integral part of the Baptismal life. However, within the context of the Baptismal life, catechesis is a process whereby the baptized learn to pray divine texts through which God reveals divine wisdom. A right knowledge and use of the catechism is a key element in enabling the baptized to fulfill the obligations of their vocation” (60).
In the first part of the book, Korcok describes the journey of the liberal arts from Augustine to Luther. He points out that the arts are the handmaiden to theology. “The liberal arts, molded by theology, enabled the student to make sense of theology” (88). The Evangelicals modified the arts curriculum to suit their theology and purposes, integrating catechetical training, courses in history, particularly Bible history, and practical musical instruction, which would aid the church in worship.
The second part of the book shows how the arts curriculum was transplanted to America by immigrants from Saxony led by C.F.W. Walther. Along the way, Korcok contends that the primary reason the Saxon confessionalists left for America was because they believed “that, in order for their confessional theology to survive, they required an educational system supportive of that theology, and that this could not be achieved in Saxony” (141). In Saxony the Lutheran schools were heavily influenced by Rationalism and Pietism. Once they arrived in America, the immigrants immediately began to establish schools that would serve their theology. Korcok writes, “Baptism and vocation were the theological drivers of the Missourians’ liberal arts curriculum” (235). But he notes, “While religious instruction was a significant aspect of the Missourian curriculum, it was not the type of instruction that Luther recommended. Instead of the catechism being a prayer book whose chief purpose was to develop Lutheran piety in the individual, it was understood more as a compendium of correct expressions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church which inculcated a understanding of proper doctrine. Thus catechetical instruction tended to be more noetic than Luther had envisioned” (236).
In the third part of the book, the author shows how the liberal arts might be employed in an Evangelical classroom today. Here Korcok explains that contemporary liberal education uses a different definition of the word “liberal.” Traditionally, the word referred to “the activities of those who were free by virtue of having leisure.” The definition often used today “connotes being open-minded and free from prejudice” (255). This is what the difference between contemporary liberal education and Lutheran pedagogy boils down to: While much of contemporary liberal education is driven by “the quest for autonomy and the freedom from indoctrination” (256), classical Lutheran education aims to indoctrinate in the positive sense of the word, teaching God’s Word, Law and Gospel. “True ‘autonomy’ is rooted in the spiritual liberation that comes through the proper application of Law and Gospel” (264). In the end, however, the connection to the ancient trivium remains strong: “Vocation, especially in a global context, demands that laity also possess enough grammar to speak correctly, enough logic to think cogently, and enough rhetoric to speak persuasively” (273). Korcok summarizes by writing, “As long as the school retains the essential characteristics of Evangelical pedagogy—building the curriculum with one eye on the liberal arts and another eye on the Evangelical principles of Baptism, vocation, and catechesis—it can proudly and rightfully call itself a classical Lutheran school” (269).
Like me, many readers of this review may have had the benefit of being educated in a classical Lutheran school without realizing it. I never thought about the origins of this type of education or to the theory and theology behind it. The author does an excellent job of explaining the history of the liberal arts education and its adaptation by Evangelicals in Germany and by the Saxon immigrants to this country. (Much of what he says about the origins of liberal arts education as practiced in the LCMS is true also of the WELS.) For those who are trying to answer the question, “Why should our church establish a school?” or “How is a Lutheran school different from public schools and other private schools?” this book should be required reading.
A bonus for the readers of this book, even those who aren’t planning to start a school and aren’t serving a parish with a school, is the thought-provoking comments about Luther’s intention for how his Small Catechism would be used. He writes, “Often…the Small Catechism is treated simply as a didactic tool whose only function was to impart theological knowledge, ignoring or at least downplaying its use as a prayer book” (57). Later he adds, “When Luther spoke of the catechism, he generally referred to the primary texts of the Decalogue, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. The explanations that he provided in the Small Catechism were designed primarily to give the Christian a better understanding of the primary texts in order to have a fuller devotional life” (210). And what Lutheran pastor or teacher hasn’t had to contend with catechism students (and parents!) who fail to see the value of memorizing the Six Chief Parts? It’s encouraging to hear how vital the fathers, like Augustine (30) and Luther (87), considered memorization to be.
Reading this book is time well spent as it permits the reader, who may be involved daily in the countless details of operating a Lutheran school, to step back and reflect on the big picture: Why do we exist? And what makes us different from other schools?
Thomas Korcok serves as a senior lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Niagara University in Niagara Falls, NY. He has studied educational models and theology in the United States, Canada, Scotland, and Holland. Dr. Korcok has also taught Catechetics at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada. While serving as pastor of Grace Ev. Lutheran Church in Pembroke, Ontario, Canada, he developed an elementary school that was based on the principles outlined in this book.