PrintShareE-Mail This Page

Essay on Revolution

"The College's Role in Revolution," by Ross Vander Meulen

The following talk was given at Knox College's Opening Convocation, September 7, 1972

It is not uncommon in addresses of this kind to undertake an assessment of the present situation in higher education in general or Knox College in particular. Such assessments often strive to indicate where we are, where we are going, and what problems we are likely to encounter on the way.

One of my colleagues on the Knox faculty reminded me last week of something I said at an informal faculty meeting last year. In a moment of utter despair, I had asserted that academicians simply do not know where higher education is going in America, And so, to avoid inconsistency, or, what would be even worse, to avoid making erroneous or even silly predictions of my own, I have chosen not to try to look ahead. Instead, I would like to look back, first to the troubled times we lived through just three years ago, and then back to a much earlier period, one which was, in certain critical ways, so much like our own.

A Revolutionary Spirit
Those of you who are now seniors surely remember vividly the revolutionary spirit that reached a peak on our campus and other campuses [in 1968-69] when you were freshmen. The very word 'revolution,' which I personally hear only rarely these days, was truly the watchword back then.

There was to be a revolution in teaching methods, sweeping away the traditional, orthodox classroom regimen and replacing it with something more 'relevant,' to use another term of the times  still heard today but perhaps not so frequently as then. There was to be a revolution in the curriculum, in grading practices, in college governance,in the student-teacher relationship, which one student back then characterized to me as essentially a slave-master relationship.

It was also in that year that I first remember hearing revolutionary modes of expression in academic discussions. These new modes of expression, which five years earlier would have been characterized as ungrammatical, or in some cases obscene, became the new, the fresh, the direct and therefore honest way of communicating.

But I have identified only a few of the characteristics of the revolution, and maybe not even the most significant ones. To those who believed in the revolution, it was in any case more than a mere collection of discrete grievances. It was rather a deep, burning conviction that our society was corrupt from top to bottom, that higher education, an instrument of that society if not also corrupt, was at least an anachronism, and would have to be radically changed.

A revolutionary spirit is necessarily a dangerous spirit, and there was a tension and even a fear present then which I personally had never felt before, and which I have not felt since. On some other campuses, as everyone here certainly remembers, there were sporadic outbreaks  of violence; in the worst incident of all, the violence was not committed by students, but rather against students.  At the time, the general atmosphere of fear and violence threatened to paralyze higher education in this country indefinitely.

Reformation = Revolution
Perhaps we are still too close to those unsettling events to be objective about them, to see them in perspective, to understand why they happened at all. But I am intrigued by the striking similarity they bear to certain events connected with the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. It is generally known that the Reformation began officially in 1517, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, allegedly on the portal of the castle church in Wittenberg.

What is not so well known is that this one act made the University of Wittenberg a gathering place for discontented and radical students from all over Germany. Most were no doubt drawn to Wittenberg out of sympathy with Luther's attack on certain Church practices especially the sale of Indulgences. But there were other sources of deep discontent.

There was a sense of despair and rage at the low level of education at certain German universities, particularly in the faculties of theology. That very same year, 1517, saw the appearance of the second volume of the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum (Letters of Obscure Men), a collection of 119 letters written in a scrambled, ungrammatical Latin and characterized by an almost unthinkable stupidity and vulgarity. This collection was intended by its anonymous Humanist authors as a parody of the incompetence and ignorance of some of Germany's most prominent theologians. It is perhaps the most successful thing of its kind ever to appear in Germany.

But incompetence was by no means limited to higher education. The experiences of one student in particular, Erasmus Alberus by name, indicate some of the outrageous abuses current in early 16th century Germany. His experiences also help explain what kind of student was drawn to Wittenberg by Luther's 95 Theses. The illegitimate son of a priest, Alberus had his early schooling in two towns not far from Frankfurt on the Main. He gives the following account of his education at one of these schools:

"When I was 8 years old, I was sent to a schoolmaster in Nidda. When he was full of wine, indeed, full of the devil, he tore me from the straw sack on which I slept, and took me by the feet, and pulled me back and forth, as if I were a plough, so that my head, dragging along behind on the floor, suffered a good number of lumps. Next he began another game with me. He took a pole and forced me to climb it. Then he let go of the pole and it fell with me to the floor. Finally he took me and stuffed me into a sack and hung me out of the window."

Alberus concludes with bitter irony: "But I received such fine instruction that, when I  was 11 years old, I could not decline a single Latin noun." In the context of 16th century education, that was the equivalence of total illiteracy, since at the university, the lectures as well as the reading materials were all in Latin.

The Humanist Challenge
In about 1513 Alberus enrolled at the University of Mainz.  It is probably here that he made up for the real deficiency in his education. Mainz was at that time an important center for Humanism, and Alberus reflects favorably on the Humanist scholars he came to know there, particularly Ulrich von Hutten, one of those principally involved in the composition of the Letters of Obscure Men. But Mainz was also the center for the dispensation of indulgences in Germany, and Alberus left Mainz for Wittenberg soon after the appearance of Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, probably in 1518.

In the course of the next two or three years, the number of radical students in Wittenberg increased steadily, until they constituted a very formidable force within the city and at the University. After Luther's appearance at the Diet of Worms in 1521, there was real danger that he would be arrested by imperial forces. And so, instead of returning to Wittenberg, he went into hiding at the Wartburg Castle.

During his absence Professor Andreas von Carlstadt assumed leadership of the Protestant movement in Wittenberg. Carlstadt wished to go considerably further than J.Luther in numerous aspects of church reform. The historian Preserved Smith describes him most appropriately as one who "longed to out-Luther Luther." He could not tolerate the presence of works of religious art in places of worship.  Furthermore, he argued, since there is only one God, there should be only one part in Church music.

Carlstadt soon attracted a large following of young radical students, among them Erasmus Alberus. In the second half of 1521 tension increased sharply. There were riots in October after Gabriel Zwilling, an Augustinian Monk and close confederate of Carlstadt's, preached against the Mass. On December 3rd two priests were stoned for attempting to celebrate the mass, and on the following day students completely destroyed an altar in the Franciscan convent in Wittenberg. The arrest of these students precipitated an even worse riot.

Revolutionary Conservative
Luther was so disturbed by all this that he left the Wartburg in order to review the situation in Wittenberg firsthand. He urged his followers to exercise restraint and left behind the manuscript of a tract entitled "A True Exhortation to All Christians." This is one of several tracts written in the 1520's condemning violence and calling for obedience to civil authority.

I have no evidence linking Carlstadt directly with the violence that occurred. But considering his popularity among the students, his temperament, and his convictions, he must have been at least sympathetic with what was done. In any case, his position in Wittenberg became untenable after the violence subsided. Erasmus Alberus, who at one tine had been one of Carlstadt's favorites, wrote later: "I abandoned Carlstadt's fanaticism and lies when the truth shone clearly to me from the books of Dr. Martin Luther."

Luther returned to Wittenberg permanently in 1522, and his presence restored order to the reform movement.  Aside from Carlstadt's part in the disturbances, there were serious theological differences between him and Luther. In 1521, Luther attacked Carlstadt savagely in a pamphlet, calling him "the new Judas." As a result, Carlstadt felt compelled to flee. Eventually, he settled in Switzerland, where he found a religious atmosphere more compatible with his own convictions. Erasmus Alberus went on to become a school teacher, and founded a number of Lutheran schools. Later, he was also the Pastor of several Lutheran churches.

That concludes the story of the riots of Wittenberg. The violent revolution ended as abruptly as it had begun, not because students were jailed, though they were, nor because the conflict which had created the revolution was resolved. It wasn't. The violence ended when students like Erasmus Alberus saw the pointlessness of stoning priests and smashing altars.

What Have We Learned Today?
It would be nice if there were some lesson we could derive from the agonies suffered at Wittenberg, a lesson that would help us understand the conflicts of our recent past and present. But the lessons of history are rarely or never so direct. Nevertheless, it is instructive and helpful, if not exactly comforting, to realize that our situation is not unique.

Institutions of higher learning have always been particularly vulnerable to instability and unrest in the society as a whole. But it is in these moments of instability that higher education has the opportunity to realize its most sacred mission -- that of preserver. We must face the present squarely, even when it challenges us with apparently unresolvable conflicts. But let us also preserve the altars of the past.

Apply Now

Upcoming Events