The Art of Protestant Learning

One of the misguided but persistent assumptions about English reformers in the sixteenth century is that they rejected the study of ancient languages, rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, and poetry in their efforts to defend the supremacy of Scripture. The Roman Catholic humanist and statesman Thomas More is rightly admired for his classical learning and for teaching his children classical languages and literature. Yet More’s family was less novel than is often thought. As Roger Ascham (1515-1568), classical scholar and near contemporary of More, wrote to his fellow humanist educator Johannes Sturm: there “are now many honourable ladies who surpass the daughters of Thomas More in all kinds of learning; but among them all the most shining star, not so much for the clarity of her mind as for the splendor of her virtue and her letters, is my mistress, Elizabeth, sister of our King.”[1]

As sixteenth-century divines recognized, it is proper that a child not be left in ignorance.  Education is a means to free a child from error and to instill a desire to live well, to seek virtue more than money or glory, to freely follow the will of God, or, as stated in the Collect for Peace of the Book of Common Prayer, to serve God in “perfect freedom.”  God is Wisdom itself, and the liberal arts free the child to serve Christ wisely.  Among Christian humanists it became a special task to instruct parents and teachers on how to educate their children, for the good of the soul of the child and for the good of the Christian commonwealth.

Education is a means to free a child from error and to instill a desire to live well, to seek virtue more than money or glory, to freely follow the will of God.

Ascham held that the arts of reading Greek and Latin, of rhetoric, and a thorough knowledge of ancient philosophy, history, and poetry were necessary to those who were to govern a Christian commonwealth.  This ideal was common to humanists on both sides of the religious divide; men and women, all agreed, should be classically educated. The ideal “noble ruler” should manifest a “learned piety”(pietas litterata)[2] and exhibit wisdom, learning, and virtue.[3] He must be eloquent; therefore, the art of rhetoric is important to public life. History teaches virtues to be imitated and vices to be avoided through example, poetry idealizes examples of the same, and moral philosophy teaches the principles of good character.[4] This education was intended as a preparation for public life, and more importantly, private virtue, so that nobles would make proper use of leisure time, as Christian gentlemen and gentlewomen should.

When Roger Ascham entered Cambridge in his youth, he chose to study Greek. Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) observed in his Life of Ascham that, “as he became a Grecian, [he] became a protestant.”[5] After obtaining his baccalaureate degree, his antipapal views nearly jeopardized his chances to remain at St John’s College, but remain he did, due to the kindness of the Master of the College who overrode the concerns of the Catholic faculty.[6]  Ascham rode out the religious tensions in England safely.  His career was one of both scholarship and public service; he served as Queen Mary’s Latin Secretary, “despite his undissimulated Protestantism,”[7] and then as Latin Secretary to her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth, whose love of learning continued (encouraged by Ascham) unabated through her life. She translated ancient texts into her old age.[8]

Ascham’s Protestant connections included Martin Bucer, and through Bucer, he became a lifelong friend with the Lutheran educator Johannes Sturm, whose epistolatory correspondence gives further evidence of his views on education.[9] 

Ascham tells this story of how he came to write a book on education. In 1563, as Latin Secretary to Elizabeth, during a great plague in London, he sat at dinner with the Queen and her principal secretary, Sir William Cecil, as well as various members of Privy Council.  At one point in the course of dinner Cecil remarked that there had been strange news out of Eton: a number of scholars had run away from school for fear of a beating. Perhaps, he mused, the schoolmasters were lacking “in discretion”; by beating young men for slowness in learning, they might teach them only to forsake books, thus depriving them of any means to learn the art of governance apart from raw experience.  A discussion followed as to whether or not Plato was correct to observe, in the Republic, that children are more apt to learn by play than compulsion.[1]  Ascham’s vigorous defense of the Platonic opinion, based upon his own experience as a schoolmaster, led those present to request he set down his thoughts.

Ascham’s work would be different from that of Thomas Elyot, contemporary of Thomas More, who had already addressed the topic of education in The Boke of the Governor (1531).  Works on education were multiplying in this period. The earliest humanist tracts on the subject were those of Pier Paolo Vergio (1370-1444), who wrote The Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth, andPope Pius II (1405-1464), who wrote The Education of Boys. Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote The Education of a Christian Prince (1516), and even Martin Luther showed a concern with education in a letter “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany,” instructing them to ensure that all children be educated in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.[11] Ascham’s friend and correspondent, the reformer Johannes Sturm, wrote numerous works and letters on the topic, not least De institutione Principis to the Duke of Cleves.[12]

The list of classical works read by the humanists is far longer than can be listed here. Ascham particularly admired Homer, Pindar, Virgil, Horace, Aristotle, Plato, Isocrates, Quintilian, and Xenophon.  Greek was learned by reading the New Testament and the Greek Fathers. On a typical day, as Ascham described it, while under his tutelage, Princess Elizabeth would read the New Testament in the morning followed by a sermon of St. Cyprian. St. Chrysostom’s sermons were also read for theological instruction and for rhetorical style. Ascham’s friend and fellow Cambridge humanist Sir John Cheke said, first “God’s holy Bible, and then join with it Tully in Latin, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Isocrates, and Demosthenes in Greek”; to dwell with these books would prove a man excellent.[13]  Historians were also to read Livy, as well as Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Polybius, and Thucydides.[14]  In Latin, Cicero was valued above all others because of his eloquence and political wisdom. The effect of reading so much Cicero on the development of republican ideas over the next two centuries would not be insignificant.

Ascham held that this reading was a better teacher than experience.  “Erasmus, the honor of learning of our time, said wisely that experience is the common schoolhouse of fools and ill men; men of wit and honest by otherwise instructed.”[15]  One contrasts this with Aristotle’s statement that the prudence necessary to just rule is only attained through maturity, knowledge of particular facts, and life experience.[16]  In Renaissance Europe, princes had to ascend the throne very young, so they could never obtain wisdom through their own experience.  Furthermore, as Christians, Protestants held that the Scriptures read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested, as Cranmer’s Collect for the second Sunday in Advent states, made experience the less certain means to virtue.

Ascham’s method of teaching languages has been called double translation—translating from Latin into English, and then taking an English translation of the same, and translating it back again, taking care to imitate not only the grammar but the style.  He also encouraged the young to teach each other, so that when a pupil had obtained proficiency in Greek, he would be asked to instruct other boys who were desirous of instruction; by teaching, one learns.  Ascham himself was a gifted lecturer. A contemporary is reported to have remarked that he learned more from hearing Ascham explain one of Aesop’s fables to a boy than by hearing a Homeric poem explained by another.[2]

The technique of imitation and memorization is explained in the second part of his book. The arts of teaching are: Translatio linguarum, Paraphrasis, Metaphrasis, Epitome, Imitatio, and Declamatio. The presupposition behind all this practice at imitative writing and paraphrasing was that “man is a creature whose information comes first through his senses and who learns by imitating what is in the world around him.”[18] In his chapter on the “Ready Way with the Latin Tongue,” Ascham gives numerous examples of striking and memorable passages that were imitated over and again through the centuries; for example, Homeric passages paraphrased in later works of Greek and Latin authors.  Thus, the repetition, paraphrasing, and imitation of the style of Cicero or Sallust places the pupil within a tradition of learning, and past wisdom becomes part of the thinking of the present.  One is reminded of the great Renaissance painting The School of Athens by Raphael, in which Plato and Aristotle walk together and the other “schools” are represented all around on what appears to be a portico, under cover of a decorated classical arch, which itself echoes the classical structure of the room in which it is painted.  The past and the present merge.

The repetition, paraphrasing, and imitation of the style of Cicero or Sallust places the pupil within a tradition of learning, and past wisdom becomes part of the thinking of the present.

Gentleness is necessary to teaching.  Quintilian (35-100) had criticized those who thought that a child will become more avid about his studies after a beating or flogging.[19]  Beatings only make a child sick of school.  Some children are slower to learn than others, but that is not a cause for punishment. Ascham said of a child who is silent and still, and who may appear a “hard wit” (slow learner): “monish him gently,” for “gentleness is better than a beating to bring up a child rightly.”[20] Patiently draw him back to his work with kind words.  Never reward the child who is a quick learner—that simply rewards nature; consider the disposition of the child.  “For this I know, not only by the reading of books in my study, but also by experience of life abroad ‘in the world,’ that those who be commonly the wisest and the best man, when they are old, were never commonly the quickest of wit when they were young.”[21]  Seek, therefore, for the good of the commonwealth, not those who will be the “wisest men.”[22]

Some people think that schoolwork is always wearisome, but Ascham disagrees. All children desire to learn.  “For the matter lieth not so much in the disposition of them that be young as in the order and manner of bringing-up by them that be old, nor yet in the difference of learning and pastime. For beat a child if he dance not well and cherish him though he learn not well, ye shall have him unwilling to go to the dance and glad to go to his book.”[23]  He reminisced about the unjustly executed Lady Jane Grey, who, like her cousin Elizabeth, showed great promise as a scholar. One day he found her reading Plato’s Phaedo instead of playing or dancing as most young girls would. She remarked to him that the “greatest benefit that ever God gave me is that he sent me so sharp and secure parents and so gentle a schoolmaster.”[24] “For the pure clean wit of sweet young babe is, like the newest wax, most able to receive the best and fairest printing, and like a new bright silver dish never occupied, to receive and keep clean any good thing that is put into it.”[25]  “Therefore, if to goodness of nature be joined the wisdom of the teacher in learning young wits into a right and plain way for learning, surely children, kept up in God’s fear and governed by his grace, may most easily be brought well to serve God and country both by virtue and wisdom.”[26] 

The wanton behavior of nobles who had too much liberty, and too few tools to use it well, drew Ascham’s particular ire. He warned of sending young men to Italy on their European tours, because it exposes them to vain pleasures and factions. All goodness and all learning would be soon forgotten, he said, for which the only remedy was the medicine given and taught by God.[27]  Ascham had travelled on the continent when, during the final three years of the reign of King Edward IV, he acted as secretary to Richard Morison, the King’s ambassador to the court of the Emperor Charles V.

Always the Christian humanist, Ascham lamented the disorders of the day, the dangers of the court where “everywhere innocency is gone, bashfulness is banished,” and, in short, “disobedience doth overflow the banks of disorder.”[28] These are “God’s just plagues” for our sins and for “shrinking from his word.”[29]  He wrote: “God keep us in his fear; God graft in us the true knowledge of his word, with a forward will to follow it, and so to bring forth the sweet fruits of it, and then shall he preserve us by his grace from all manner of terrible days.”[30]

Dr. Johnson remarked that his own age owed much to forgotten benefactors such as Ascham, who lived when learning was “prosecuted with that eagerness and perseverance, which, in this age of indifference and dissipation, it is not easy to conceive.”[3]

The steady decline in literacy, and the success of new theories of education based upon technique and socialization, has undermined our understanding.

This is still true.  Although great advances in science appear more distantly related to the recovery of ancient letters than politics, law, and letters, the English-speaking world up to and including the time of the American Framers continued teach students Latin and Greek, ancient literature, ancient poetry and history, for the same reasons that Ascham taught.  The steady decline in literacy, and the success of new theories of education based upon technique and socialization, has undermined our understanding of this literature. Forgotten is that truism that, if the “liberal” arts are called “liberal” because they inform our use of freedom, they should be part of our leisure. Regular study habituates the will to moderation and temperance; the content of the books instructs us in virtue, satisfying that human desire to know and instilling a love of truth.

Ascham’s charming prose style and common sense advice makes The Schoolmaster a useful as well as pleasant read. His gentle personality and scholarly wisdom echo down through the centuries. As Dr. Johnson remarked at the conclusion of his Life of Ascham, the fact that his “English works have been so long neglected is a proof of the uncertainty of literary fame.”  Dr. Johnson’s thoughts are mine: it is time to allot Ascham the “reputation due to his knowledge and his eloquence.”[4]

Dr. Roberta Bayer is Associate Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College. She received her Ph.D. in Political Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, an M.Sc in Political Philosophy from the London School of Economics, and studied medieval philosophy at the University of Toronto. Dr. Bayer was the Garwood Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University during the 2018-2019 academic year. For a number of decades, Dr. Bayer has been engaged in promoting the continued use of the historic Books of Common Prayer, and from 2008-2018 edited Anglican Way Magazine for the Prayer Book Society of the USA. In this vein she also edited a series of essays on the Book of Common Prayer, Reformed and Catholic: Essays in Honor of Peter Toon. She is currently working on the Scottish Enlightenment and its influence on the American Framer James Wilson.


1 A reference to Plato, Republic, VII.537a; The Schoolmaster, 6.
2 Johnson, “Life of Ascham.”
3 Johnson, “Life of Ascham.”
4 Johnson, “Life of Ascham.”


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