When Mennonites first arrived in Russia and Ukraine in the early 19th century, the world was a darkly illiterate planet. Global literacy hovered just above ten per cent, in Russia it was less, among women 2 – 6 per cent were literate and among men 4 – 8 per cent, and in the rural areas where the Mennonites lived things were even worse. By comparison, in 1820 half of British and German people could read and write. Today 99.7 per cent of Russians and Ukrainians are literate while the global literacy rate is 86.3 per cent.
You could say the greatest gift of the Reformation was the literacy of the masses. The Reformation movement emphasized education as a means toward an end: achieving salvation. Therefore, Luther and others translated the Bible into the language of the common people and helped them gain reading and writing skills so they could choose for themselves the way of life as revealed in the Scriptures.
Among the German settlers in Russia, including the Mennonites, illiteracy was virtually unknown. Perhaps this contributed to the disdain Mennonites felt for their Russian and Ukrainian neighbours. Each village had its own elementary school and everyone learned to read and write.
|GERHARD||I had completed only two years of school because for several years there was no school available during the Revolution. My mother kept us busy with knitting and sewing which has helped me a great deal in my life. I was 13 when I entered the private school in the third class. The next year I had to go into the fifth class because there were not enough students for the fourth class. My father hired a tutor to help me but I still found it very difficult to complete my school work as well as the other work at the private school. In time I caught up to the other students. Our school had seven grades and when you completed them, you could attend a teacher training institution, and after four years there you could attend university.|
The school buildings, built with local funds without help from the state, bore witness to the desire for universal education in the German colonies of Russia. They stood out in many places through their magnificent architecture, which reflected the wealth and self-assurance of the German settlers. The schools in the larger cities, such as St. Petersburg, Moscow and Odessa, were outstanding and were also popular among Russian and Ukrainian children.
Even though Mennonites valued literacy they maintained a guarded attitude toward education. Some Mennonite groups provided only a minimal education and prior to 1900 only a few Mennonites secured a higher education, and those who did frequently settled in non-Mennonite communities.
Despite the 450 village schools, the quality of the education was poor. The teachers were untrained farmers or ministers and the curriculum comprised the four R’s: reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. The German bible and the hymnal were the main text books and the language of the classroom was Low German. Pupils recited mechanically memorized lessons. The best reciters were the best pupils. Corporal punishments of all kinds, such as kneeling upon peas, whipping with the ever-present rod, cuffs on the head and body, covered up wretched teaching.,
The primary purpose of the elementary school was to provide children basic literacy and numeracy skills. While all Mennonites needed to read the Holy Bible, many feared that any further education encouraged children to question traditional beliefs, which could only lead to unwanted innovations.
Community leadership made sure no interpretations strayed too far from the norm. Mennonite leaders would not hesitate to shun or ban individuals from the community if their biblical opinions contradicted those of the clergy. In fact, when in 1860 one group of Mennonites practiced their faith in a more vigorous manner and proselytized others, a rift developed that has still not fully healed to this day.
After fifty years of deplorable conditions in the schools, Mennonite renaissance man and benevolent dictator Johann Cornies described the state of Mennonite education thus:
In a room of a miserable looking house which is the dwelling of a schoolmaster, his wife and children, sits the teacher dressed in a linen gown; he wears a cap on his head, and the ever-present pipe is in his mouth. He is surrounded by dirty books, paper, and instruments of all kinds for punishment. Around a table a group of pupils are seated in no recognizable order. On the walls of the dark room hang saws, planes, shoemaker’s knee-straps, and other household tools. The stove is hung with old stockings, trousers, and other articles of clothing. A little baby is crying in a cradle which one of the school girls has been asked to rock. A hen with her chicks and some pigeons are roaming about among the feet of the children.
By the mid-19th century Cornies had ingratiated himself to the Russian authorities to where he was in charge of everything. He was the Mennonites’ direct conduit to government and government’s conduit to the Mennonites. Besides numerous agricultural and industrial reforms, he modernized Mennonite education. He broadened the curriculum to include history, literature and geography, he improved the school buildings and fired incompetent teachers, raised teacher salaries and established teacher certification, and he organized school inspections to ensure quality control.
By the time Gerhard started school Mennonites had a mature education system. Elementary schools featured a seven-year program, followed by a four-year high school curriculum. High school graduates entered the fourth or fifth year of an eight-year commerce school curriculum. Students could attend teacher training schools in Khortitsa or Halbstadt, Molochna. Girls were limited to an eight-year course at the Halbstadt school whose goal it was, according to Reinmarus, “produce good Mennonite housewives… where natural history, mathematics and literature were considered minor matters when compared to hand crafts and religion.”
 Roser, Max, Literacy rates around the world from the 15th century to present – Our World in Data, with data from various sources, http://www.ourworldindata.org/data/education-knowledge/literacy. Accessed November 1, 2016.
 Mironov, B.N. 1991, Istoriya v cifrah (History in Figures) page 135, Leningrad, quoted in Three Centuries of Russia’s Endeavors to Surpass the East and to Catch Up with the West: Trends, Factors, Consequences, by Vitali Meliantsev, http://www.cas.miamioh.edu/havighurstcenter/papers/ THREE%20CENTURIES%20OF%20RUSSIA%27S%20ENDEAVORS.pdf, accessed September 14, 2017
 “Adult literacy rate, population15+ years (both sexes, female, male).” UIS Data Centre UNESCO. August 2015, Retrieved 19 November 2015.
 Wiens, Herbert, Volk auf dem Weg: Deutsche in Rußland und in der GUS: 1763 – 1997 (A People on the Move: Germans in Russia and in the Former Soviet Union: 1763 – 1997.) 1997. Translation from German to English by Ingeborg W. Smith, Western Springs, Illinois, Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Rußland, Reg. Raitelsbergstraße 49, 70188 Stuttgart, https://library.ndsu.edu/grhc/history_culture/history/people.html. Accessed November 24, 2016
 Friesen, John W., Mennonite Education: The State of the Art, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol 1, 1983, page 135.
 Ibid., page 137-8.
 Harder, M.S., A Pioneer Educator – Johann Cornies, Mennonite Life, Vol III, No. 4, October 1948, page 5.
 In my time as a student in a Mennonite private school, I was struck on the head by a Mennonite teacher wielding a math book, to which I replied with a solid kick to his shin.
 Staples, John, Religion, Politics, and the Mennonite Privilegium in Early Nineteenth Century Russia, Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol 21, 2003, page 75.
 Harder, op. cit., pages 6-7.
 Reinmarus, A. (Penner, David Johann), Anti-Menno, Beiträge Zur Geschichte Der Mennoniten In
Russland, Zentrol-Volker-Verlag Moskau, 1930, page 50.