Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, most commonly known simply as Erasmus, was a Catholic priest and theologian. Erasmus was a star figure during the Renaissance and one of the most articulate proponents of Christian humanism. As a Christian humanist, Erasmus believed that exposure to the wisdom of past and current thinkers could elevate and inspire humans to see the beauty and truth of Jesus. His emphasis on the positive potentiality of human beings led him into the famous, public debate between Martin Luther and himself on the so-called “bondage of the will.” He also became a controversial figure during the Protestant Reformation, as Erasmus railed harshly against clerical abuses in the Catholic Church (seen most prominently in his seminal work, The Praise of Folly) yet refused to join Luther and other Protestants in defecting from the Church.
In his advocacy of education, Erasmus articulated some truly revolutionary thoughts concerning children’s rights — rights to be educated, to not be neglected, to not be beaten by their parents or teachers, and so forth. Thus a careful examination of Erasmus’s thoughts can help us redeem a narrative of child liberation from this particular time period in the evolution of Christian theology. While various manifestations of Christian theology have been used for centuries to justify the abuse of children, there are moments and thinkers — such as Erasmus — who can help us invert these conceptions and find places of apocalypse that signify the liberation found in Jesus of Nazareth.
For Erasmus, education is one of the most important tasks given to parents, churches, and governments. While the obligation falls primarily to parents, he makes abundantly clear that he sees no problem with — and in fact energetically encourages — the latter spheres stepping in when the former fails in its obligation. Parents not only have a duty to educate; children have a right to that education. And children whose parents fail to fulfill that right are owed nothing from their children. This conviction of Erasmus’s could perhaps be traced to his own neglected childhood, a childhood “of illegitimate birth” leading him to be “orphaned at an early age.”[i]
To Erasmus, this importance of education is universal and thus “all parents are under obligation to provide an education for their children.”[ii] It is not only important for ruling classes but all classes. For ruling classes it is of course imperative for a whole nation’s well-being: “The main hope of getting a good prince hangs on his proper education,” Erasmus warns in The Education of a Christian Prince.[iii] But it is also imperative for every single child, as he believes uneducated children can become threats to themselves, their communities, and ultimately their parents’ relationship with God (since God tasked parents with fulfilling their children’s rights).
Erasmus also articulates ideas about child development and psychology that were truly ahead of their time — ideas that foreshadow contemporary, recent developments in those fields.
On Education for Children
Erasmus most systematically expressed his thoughts on children and their rights in his treatise on education, A Declamation on the Subject of Early Liberal Education for Children, otherwise known as On Education for Children. He composed this treatise during his travels through Italy from 1506-9. Erika Rummel, editor of The Erasmus Reader, describes On Education for Children as “a Christian-humanist reformulation of the classical ideal of education.” Rummel says that, “It reflects Erasmus’ own priorities in its firm depreciation of mechanical rote-learning, its lively insistence on the educative power of play in the instruction of the young, and in the emphatic rejection of corporal punishment.”[iv]
The treatise begins with Erasmus’s belief in the importance of early education. He instruct parents that they should “not follow common fashion and opinion by allowing your son’s first years to pass by without the benefits of instruction and by deferring his first steps in learning to an age when his mind will already be less receptive and more subject to grave temptations.” Erasmus argues that some people oppose early education because they “maintain out of a false spirit of tenderness and compassion that children should be left alone until early adolescence.” He cautions, however, that such people “actually think that children should be kept from education as though it were a poison, contending that at this young age they are not as yet capable of absorbing instruction.”[v]
Education should not only begin early, but — more importantly — it should actually happen in the first place. Erasmus gives great value and importance to children, even calling them the “most precious of all your possessions.”[vi] Thus to neglect their education is, to Erasmus, “absurd and grotesque”: “It would be absurd and grotesque for someone to lavish his utmost care on his estates, buildings, and horses, to consult knowledgeable and expert people for this purpose, and yet at the same time to attach so little importance to the upbringing and education of his children.”[vii]
To Erasmus it makes no sense that parents would neglect their children’s education. But more than being nonsensical, such neglect violates certain obligations parents have to their children. On the basis of nature, parental love, divine law, and human customs, children have rights — rights that are seen in those parental obligations. Parents who fail to meet those obligations are failing to be loving parents: “We are all aware of the obligations towards children that natural instinct, parental love, divine law, and customs impose upon parents…Yet there are persons who believe they have fulfilled their parental obligation through the simple act of procreation. This, however, represents only the least aspect of parental love.”[viii]
Erasmus grasps the full weight of childhood neglect. It creates lifelong consequences, including mental and physical problems up to and including death. “Neglected childhood means a sick and afflicted old age,” he warns, “if this final stage is ever reached.”[ix]
Why is education so important, then? Why does the neglect of it cause such harm? The answers to these questions illuminate one of the problematic elements in Erasmus’s ideology. True to the humanistic beliefs of his time, Erasmus believes that “man is certainly not born, but made man.”[x]
This is not a statement about the essence of a child as non-human, but rather a statement concerning a human’s development. All humans are, by definition and nature, animals. Humans are simply distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom due to their ability to reason. This ability to reason is not, however, innate upon a child’s birth. Rather, a child must be socialized via instruction on how to reason. Without such socialization and instruction, Erasmus claims humans resemble “primitive man” who was “lawless, unschooled, promiscuous” and “not a human, but rather a wild animal.”[xi]
In modernity, we understand that such claims are anthropologically inaccurate as well as bordering on classist, racist, and xenophobic. But to Erasmus, these claims are not so much focusing on classic hunter-gatherer societies but more focused on the threat posed to a child who does not receive education. Erasmus is truly terrified for (not of) children who are neglected, and thus aims to strike fear into parents’ hearts about the consequences of that neglect. To him, education is the only means by which children can become fully human and thus fully good: “A proper and conscientious instruction is the well-spring of all moral goodness.”[xii] Depriving them of moral goodness via education is depriving them of “the means to live a good life.”[xiii]
After establishing the importance of education and the dire threat that child neglect poses to a child, Erasmus then situates this importance within a larger context. Namely, the parental duty to educate one’s children is a duty not only to the children themselves (via their right to be educated), but also a duty to one’s community and God Themself. If we assume for the sake of argument Erasmus’s worldview in which neglect forces children to stay in their “wild animal” stage, we can understand this point. If children remain sub-rational and thus animalistic, they can pose not only a threat to themselves but also their surrounding world: “Parents also cause harm to society when they, in so far at least as it lies within their power, present the community with a citizen who constitutes a real threat.” And in neglect one’s children to the point of raising them as real threats to society, such parents fail to properly steward their children — children given as gifts from God. Thus neglectful parents “also sin against God, for God gave them children to be raised in the ways of religion.”[xiv]
Even though Erasmus emphasizes the threat than uneducated children can allegedly become, it is important to note that he does not advance a theory of children’s existential depravity, often termed “total depravity” by theologians. Erasmus is, after all, the famous debate opponent of Martin Luther, who claimed that all humans — even unborn children and infants — were held in “the bondage of the will,” utterly broken, sinful, and evil. In contrast, Erasmus emphasized the innocence and potential goodness of children. Any evil that might arise in young children, he claims, is not the result of evil within the child but rather the result of parents’ own neglect and abuse. “We often hear extravagant complaints that children are inclined by nature to evil,” Erasmus states, “and that it is very difficult to instill in them a love of the good. But these accusations against nature are unfair. The evil is largely due to ourselves; for it is we who corrupt young minds with evil before we expose them to good.”[xv] Erasmus would have sharp words for contemporary “child discipline” experts like Voddie Baucham who claim children are “vipers in diapers.”[xvi] If your child acts like such a viper, Erasmus would say it is the parent’s fault, not the child’s.
Having stated the importance of education and the impact neglect has on a child’s self, community, and God, Erasmus next turns to focus on actual pedagogy. He wonders, How do we best educate children? Beginning with the negative, he examines 3 common parental mistakes when it comes to education: “First of all, they may neglect the education of their children entirely. Secondly, they may begin to turn their children’s minds to learning when it is already too late. Or finally, they may entrust their children to unworthy teachers whose instruction leaves bad effects that later have to be overcome.”[xvii]
We have already examined Erasmus’s thoughts concerning the first two mistakes (failing to educate in the first place and failing to begin education early in a child’s life). So the third mistake — choosing unworthy teachers — requires our focus.
Considering the utmost importance he places on child education, Erasmus will not tolerate parents who shirk this obligation by not letting qualified teachers actually teach. “Some parents,” he decries, “are deterred by sheer meanness from hiring a qualified instructor.”[xviii] This is of course utterly irresponsible, considering that education is “a task that requires a craftsman, so to speak.”[xix] Parents must therefore exercise extreme judgment in choosing a teacher, and Erasmus once again reiterates that educational neglect — this time defined as not choosing a good teacher — can lead one’s child to pose a real threat to society: “When your son’s well-being is at stake — indeed the well-being of his parents, his whole family, and all of society — would you not use your judgment at all?”[xx]
A qualified teacher should, therefore, be (1) “recommended from all directions,” (2) be “well tested by a rich variety of experience,” and (3) hold their teaching position in a “permanent” way. (Constantly changing a child’s teacher creates a disjointed educational experience for a child, Erasmus says, which can lead to that child’s dislike of learning.)[xxi]
Erasmus next turns to positive answers to the question, How do we best educate children? It is here that his humanistic ideology shines brightest, for his own experiences teaching and tutoring many youth now come into play. We see his expert understanding of child development and psychology on full display.
First, Erasmus says that education must be tailored to each child individually. This is because there is “a nature unique to each individual being.” Each unique being learns differently. Thus “one child may have an aptitude for mathematics, another for theology, a third for poetry and rhetoric.” One must change one’s teaching methods accordingly.[xxii]
Second, education must be age-appropriate. Not only do all children learn differently from one another, they also learn differently according to how advanced they are in age. “A young child,” Erasmus cautions, “is not ready for Cicero’s De officiis, Aristotle’s Ethics, or Seneca’s or Plutarch’s moral treatises, or St. Paul’s Epistles.”[xxiii] Instead of forcing young children to learn outside of their current age range, he says a parent should work with children’s “unique urge to imitate whatever they hear or see” to impress good manners on them.”[xxiv] Lessons should be “intermingled with play.”[xxv] Children are also very visual, he says, and thus lessons should be taught with “skillful illustration”: “Every story [should be] presented through pictures.” For example, children can “enjoy pictures of hunting scenes” and thereby learn “a large variety of trees, plants, birds, and animals” through the pictures.[xxvi] He even suggests including the sense of taste in education by “rewarding small children with cookies shaped like letters.”[xxvii]
Third, Erasmus stresses that education will be most successful if it instills in children a love of learning. ““A prerequisite for learning,” he says, “is that the teacher must be liked.” A teacher can only accomplish this if he or she is gentle and kind in instruction style: “A teacher can expect success in the classroom if he displays the qualities of gentleness and kindness and also possesses the skill and ingenuity to devise various means of making the studies pleasant and keeping the child from feeling any strain.”[xxviii]
Fourth and finally, Erasmus is vehement about the importance of an educational environment feeling safe for children. Thus he is stridently opposed to corporal punishment. During his day and age, teachers often beat students for failing at school. This practice sickened Erasmus, not only because of his own experiences with corporal punishment growing up but also because he saw such practices as destroying children’s love of learning. To drive this point home, Erasmus first recounts a situation from his own childhood where he was beaten after an educational mistake. Erasmus says, “This incident destroyed all love of study within me and flung my young mind into such a deep depression that I nearly wasted away with heart-break.” He then minces no words concerning teachers who continue that practice today, saying, “Men of this sort should be butchers or executioners, not teachers of the young.”[xxix]
Implications for Children’s Rights
As we see from Erasmus’s advocacy of education, he articulated thoughts concerning children’s rights that were advanced for their time. Erasmus vociferously defended the rights of children to be educated and cared for by their parents (both mentally and physically) and minced no words in condemning parents and teachers who used corporal punishment against their children. While Erasmus was certainly influenced in these thoughts by his understanding of the Christian Gospel, he also had keen insights into non-religious child development and psychology. He understood, for example, that “physical and mental harm suffered at an early age will affect the adult”[xxx] — something that we continue to struggle to persuade parents and charitable and governmental agencies of today.
While other theologians and philosophers of his time period believed in the importance of education, Erasmus stands out as unique in making that importance a moral and spiritual obligation of parents. It is not only an obligation to society, but to God Themself: arranging “the best education at the earliest age,” he says, is “a duty you owe to God and nature.”[xxxi] Thus it is a violation of one’s duty to God to (1) not educate your children, (2) not educate your children starting at an early age, and (3) not educate your children in the best way possible. This 3-pronged obligation is certainly a bold claim. But even bolder is how he states in stark terms that neglecting that 3-pronged obligation is essentially a serious sin: “Neglect of a child’s education is more than simply a venial sin.”[xxxii]
Erasmus thus connects the right of a child to be educated with the call of Jesus of Nazareth to follow Him and the One Who Sent Him. For parents to rightly follow Jesus, they must give their children the very best education possible.
And if they do not? If parents fail at this task, not only are they sinning against God, Erasmus also believes that their children cease to owe much their parents. By violating their children’s right to education, Erasmus believes parents forfeit significant claims to their children — a rather radical sentiment for its time. As he says, “Children owe little gratitude to parents who are their parents only in the physical sense of the word, but have failed to provide them with the proper upbringing.”[xxxiii]
While this might seem harsh to some, one must understand that, to Erasmus, violating a child’s right to education is essentially the same as violating that child’s right to life — in other words, murdering that child. To Erasmus, remember, children require education in order to rise up out of the “wild animal” nature into which they were born. Thus failing to educate your children condemns those children to a type of death: being captive to their animal instincts and thus posing a threat to themselves and their communities. To Erasmus, this is comparable to people who engage in exposure, leaving their newborn infants on mountainsides to die. Erasmus says, “There are severe laws against people who expose their children and abandon them in some forest to be devoured by wild animals. But is there any form of exposure more cruel than to abandon to bestial impulses children whom nature intended to be raised according to upright principles to live a good life? If there existed a Thessalian witch who had the power and the desire to transform your son into a swine or wolf, would you not think that no punishment could be too severe for her? But what you find revolting in her, you eagerly practice yourself.”[xxxiv]
This is a serious matter to Erasmus. He compares educational neglect to not only exposure, but also to infanticide and witchcraft: “Abominable is that tribe of men who would destroy young bodies by witchcraft. What, then, are we to think of parents who, as it were, bewitch their children’s souls through negligence…? We call those who slay new-born children infanticides. But these destroy only the body. How much greater a crime is it to kill the spirit.”[xxxv]
Once one understands that Erasmus sees educational neglect as “the cruelest form of exposure imaginable,”[xxxvi] it makes sense why he so firmly believes that not only “It is…disgraceful if parents…neglect their children’s education,”[xxxvii] but that “Neglect of a child’s education is more than simply a venial sin.”[xxxviii]
Also of note is the fact that Erasmus does not believe that parents are merely sinning against God when they violate their children’s right to education. He also believes that, as they are essentially violating their children’s right to life as well, the government must step in and intervene. Speaking of educationally neglectful parents, Erasmus says, “They do not deserve the name of parents and are indeed no different from people who abandon and expose their children; they therefore deserve to be punished.”[xxxix]
Not only does Erasmus rally in favor of children’s right to education, he also defends children’s right to physical safety. Corporal punishment had no place in his system of childhood education. As J.J. Chambliss notes, “Hazing and corporal punishment were repugnant to him, and he emphasized the destructive nature of such practices.”[xl] Erasmus called corporal punishment “that monstrous mentality which finds pleasure in the pain of another person.”[xli]
In fact, against the current legal culture of his age, Erasmus believed that parents and teachers who engaged in corporal punishment ought to be punished by the government. He bemoaned the fact that, “Men of this type are never prosecuted for maltreatment, nor are the strict penalties of the law any deterrent against their barbarities.” As a Christian himself, the fact that many Christian parents and teachers struck their children was particularly concerning to him: “A great many customs have crept into the lives of Christians that would have been too horrible even for Scythians or Phrygians.”[xlii]
By relating a child’s right to education to the parent’s call to follow Jesus, Erasmus opens the door for rethinking theologically the parent/child relationship in a way that leads to liberation for children. And by taking a firm stance against physical violence against children, he also makes clear that children have a right to not only mental safety, but also emotional and physical safety. This raising up of children from the margins is precisely what Jesus called His followers to do when He placed a child in their midst and said to welcome Him, one must welcome the child.
Setting Limits to The Liberating Elements in Erasmus’s Thought
While Erasmus’s thoughts on childhood education and children’s rights are liberating to some extent, it is important to point out the limits to that liberation. As a male theologian in a misogynistic and classist time period (much like our own today), Erasmus failed to see a number of damaging implications of some of his foundational thoughts. Two of these thoughts require immediate attention.
First, Erasmus doubles down on the classism, racism, and xenophobia of the Renaissance Humanists by overstating the threat of uneducated children. Rather than keeping the focus on the threat neglect poses to children themselves, Erasmus plays on the fears of his fellow citizens of the “wild animal” that is “primitive man,” conjuring up horrid caricatures of perfectly human and entirely rational tribal people and non-white people. He runs roughshod over the diversity of human experience by imperialistically assuming that his culture’s definition of the rational human being ought to reign supreme. And he helps no children by assuming that, apart from his culture’s process of becoming that “rational human being,” children will somehow be worth less or inferior.
Second, Erasmus inherited and advanced the misogyny of his time period. As his treatise On Education For Children (as well as his other works on education) demonstrate, he was only concerned about the education of sons, not daughters — and this is particularly motivated by the entrenched patriarchal fact that sons would inherit their fathers’ estates (and thus required education to properly steward those estates). He also believed simply that girls were “not as capable of benefitting from education as boys.” This misogyny is also seen in his disapproval of female teachers.[xliii]
However, these anti-women sentiments held by Erasmus did change as he grew older. J.J. Chambliss notes that, “Unlike many of his contemporaries…who held to their preconceived notions, Erasmus modified his views, persuaded by the example of learned women of his acquaintance. Impressed with their proficiency in Latin and their keen understanding of Scripture, he composed a dialogue in praise of educated women, which he added to his Colloquia in 1524. In this piece, entitled ‘The Abbot and the Learned Lady,’ a well-read and witty gentlewoman gets the better of a boorish abbot who wants to confine her to the ‘distaff and the needle.’”[xliv]
Honestly, describing “The Abbot” as “boorish” is a bit too kind to the character. He is, rather, exceptionally misogynistic, perhaps a caricature of what Erasmus himself used to believe and what his contemporaries continued to believe (to his dismay). The dialogue itself is extraordinarily humorous and pointed, demonstrating that in his later years Erasmus fully embraced the education of women. One can see this in the following excefpts from “The Abbot and the Learned Lady,” in which “The Learned Lady” Magdalia thoroughly schools “The Abbot” Antronius:
Antronius: What furnishings do I see here?
Magdalia: Elegant, aren’t they?
Antronius: How elegant I don’t know, but certainly unbecoming both to a young miss and a married woman.
Antronius: Because the whole place is full of books.
Magdalia: Are you so old, an abbot as well as a courtier, and have never seen books in court ladies’ houses?
Antronius: Yes, but those were in French. Here I see Greek and Latin ones.
Magdalia: Are French books the only ones that teach wisdom?
Antronius: But it’s fitting for court ladies to have something with which to beguile their leisure.
Magdalia: Are court ladies the only ones allowed to improve their minds and enjoy themselves?[xlv]
An additional excerpt only makes Erasmus’s condemnation of the misogyny of male-only education clearer:
Antronius: Books ruin women’s wits — which are none too plentiful anyway.
Magdalia: How plentiful yours are, I don’t know.[xlvi]
Eventually, Erasmus’s experiences with seeing the benefits of educating girls and women made him an outspoken advocate of that education. In fact, it has been noted that Erasmus not only “encouraged women to study whatever would assist them in educating their own children” but also encouraged them in “becoming intellectual companions to their husbands.”[xlvii]
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, the famous Catholic priest and theologian, shows contemporary Christians a way to begin mining the Christian Scriptures and the Christian theological tradition for tools to aid in the physical and spiritual liberation of children. These tools are not perfect. In some ways these tools can be counterproductive or damaging — especially when he advances the rights of certain children (well-to-do male children) at the expense of other children (children of color, of poverty, of non-European descent, and female children). His humanistic assumption of human beings as “being made, not born” is also problematic for seeing all humans, including children, as the image of God — an image that is granted to all of us regardless of our level of “rationality.”
Despite these shortcomings, however, Erasmus demonstrates there is a rich tradition within Christian thought that defends children’s rights over and against the crushing weight of the current evangelical obsession with parental rights. This tradition is not born of the so-called contemporary enemies of parental rights, such as “modern secularism” or “fascist statism.” Rather, this tradition is born out of Christians engaging the Scriptures and the experiences of Church itself and seeing Jesus’s call to welcome children in a radical and destabilizing way. The call to welcome children is a call to place children at the center of our praxis and reimagine world power structures in a way that liberates those children.
In contributing his own imaginative thoughts to the defense of children, Erasmus helps us to find places of apocalypse that signify the liberation found in Jesus of Nazareth.
[i] J.J. Chambliss, “Erasmus, Desiderius (c. 1469-1536),” Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, 2013, p. 196.
[ii] Ibid, p. 197.
[iii] Desiderius Erasmus, Erasmus: The Education of a Christian Prince with the Panegyric for Archduke Philip of Austria, ed. by Lisa Jardine, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 5.
[iv] Erika Rummel (editor), The Erasmus Reader, “On Education for Children/ De pueris instituendis,” University of Toronto Press, 1990, p. 65.
[v] Desiderius Erasmus, The Erasmus Reader, ed. By Erika Rummel, “On Education for Children/ De pueris instituendis,” University of Toronto Press, 1990, p. 66.
[vi] Ibid. p. 71.
[vii] Ibid, p. 66-7.
[viii] Ibid, p. 67.
[ix] Ibid, p. 67.
[x] Ibid, p. 72.
[xi] Ibid, p. 72.
[xii] Ibid, p. 68.
[xiii] Ibid, p. 71.
[xiv] Ibid, p. 78.
[xv] Ibid, p. 79.
[xvii] Erasmus, The Erasmus Reader, p. 79
[xviii] Ibid, p. 80.
[xix] Ibid, p. 79.
[xx] Ibid, p. 81.
[xxi] Ibid, p. 81.
[xxii] Ibid, p. 82.
[xxiii] Ibid, p. 85.
[xxiv] Ibid, p. 85.
[xxv] Ibid, p. 94.
[xxvi] Ibid, p. 96.
[xxvii] Chambliss, p. 197.
[xxviii] Erasmus, The Erasmus Reader, p. 89.
[xxix] Ibid, p. 92.
[xxx] Chambliss, p. 197.
[xxxi] Erasmus, The Erasmus Reader, p. 73.
[xxxii] Ibid, p. 75.
[xxxiii] Ibid, p. 71.
[xxxiv] Ibid, p. 74.
[xxxv] Ibid, p. 75.
[xxxvi] Ibid, p. 74-5.
[xxxvii] Ibid, p. 72.
[xxxviii] Ibid, p. 75.
[xxxix] Ibid, p. 79.
[xl] Chambliss, p. 197.
[xli] Erasmus, The Erasmus Reader, p. 92.
[xlii] Ibid, p. 92.
[xliii] Chambliss, p. 197.
[xliv] Chambliss, p. 198.
[xlv] Desiderius Erasmus, “The Well-Read Matron: The Abbot and the Learned Lady,” Erasmus on Women, ed. by Erika Rummel, University of Toronto Press, 1996, p. 174.
[xlvi] Ibid, p. 177.
[xlvii] Shirley Nelson Kessey, Classics in the Education of Girls and Women, Scarecrow Press, 1981, p. 29.