John Amos Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky) has been dubbed ‘the Father of Modern Education’, so it’s surprising that so few of us have heard of him.
Born in 1592 in Moravia, an area that is now part of the Czech Republic, the Protestant religious refugee was a theologian, philosopher, cartographer, scientist, writer, educator – and visionary.
His youth had not been totally happy. After his parents, who adhered to the Bohemian Brethren church, and two of his four sisters died, probably from the plague, Comenius went to live with an aunt. It was an unhappy time but when he reached secondary school, the headmaster spotted his talents and encouraged him to train for the ministry.
His early career as a young minister was interrupted by the Thirty Years War (1618-48), a war that saw Ferdinand 11 trying to re-Catholicise Bohemia. As a result, Comenius and other protestants went into hiding in the more tolerant Poland.
While in forced exile in a number of countries, he was appointed to restructure the Swedish education system and he was made bishop of the Unitas Fratrum, the Moravian church.
His growing interest in education began when he saw how far education could be improved. He criticised many of the educational practices of his day, in particular the scholastic tradition of studying grammar and memorizing texts. He also disliked the haphazard and severe teaching methods in European schools because they tended to sap students’ enthusiasm for learning.
“The proper education of the young does not consist of stuffing their heads with a mass of words, sentences and ideas dragged together out of various authors, but in opening up their understanding to the outer world so that a living stream may flow from their own minds, just as leaves, flowers and fruit spring from the bud on a tree,” he said.
He felt that all children – whether male or female, rich or poor, gifted or mentally challenged – were entitled to a full education, and he regretted that only a privileged few received formal schooling. What he wanted more than anything, was a revolution in methods of teaching so that learning might become rapid, pleasant, and thorough.
From these ideas grew his ‘pansophism’ philosophy – that the goal of education should be the development of universal knowledge among all people, including women and children, and all nations. Comenius envisaged educated people as those who sought knowledge from all sources in order to become more like the God in whose image they were made – omniscient and universally compassionate.
He believed in the amazing potential of children, saying:
“Children ought to be dearer to parents than gold and silver, than pearls and gems, may be discovered from a comparison between both gifts of God; for…Gold and silver are fleeting and transitory; children an immortal inheritance.”
For Comenius, all of the educational shortcomings he pinpointed were urgent, as they hindered mankind’s progress into the new millennium. He attempted to remedy these problems by authoring a number of textbooks and educational treatises, most notably, Orbis Pictus, the first encyclopaedic picture book for teaching children which remained a standard text in Europe (and in America) for more than 200 years; The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, an allegorical novel focussing on the persecutions and hardships of his life, and predating Pilgrim’s Progress, and Janua Linguarum Reserata (The Door of Languages Unlocked,) a book full of useful facts in both Czech and Latin. In it, Comenius advocated teaching Latin “nature’s way,” meaning teachers ought to pay attention to the mind of the child and to the way the student learned. In the book, he stressed the importance of making European culture accessible to all children and to do that, it was necessary that they learn Latin. Translated into German, the Janua soon became famous throughout Europe and was subsequently translated into a number of European and Asian languages. Comenius wrote that he was “encouraged beyond expectation” by the book’s reception.
He also wrote a Brief Proposal advocating full-time schooling for all the youth of the nation and maintaining that they should be taught both their native culture and the culture of Europe, and The School of Infancy—a book for mothers on the early years of childhood.
A man famous across Europe during his lifetime whose books were used for centuries after his death, Comenius’ legacy lives on.
He published 154 books on educational philosophy, he travelled extensively, living in England, Sweden, Hungary and in 1628, he settled in Amsterdam at the invitation of a wealthy family, the De Geers.
He died in 1670 and is buried in Naarden, where there is a museum in his memory.
Comenius would have regarded himself as more of a religious leader and social reformer than anything else, but today his label as ‘the father of modern education’ seems well-earned.
During his lifetime, it was Janua and Orbis that propelled him to ‘stardom’ across Europe. The continent looked to Comenius as a leader and embraced his vision for a more dynamic form of religion and for science to be an avenue of reform.
As a religious leader Comenius supported his Bohemian Brethren church in its darkest hour, and he inspired its later revival as the Moravian Church.
However, not all his theories were taken up. In particular, Pansophism, although thought-provoking, turned out to be too vague and grandiose for 17th century minds.
However, in the 19th century, Comenius’ reputation was revived by the increasing attention given to the study of the method and practice of teaching, especially in Germany. Today, his theories on education remain influential, with his stance as an international citizen, a European and his belief in the unity of mankind, are credos which resonate today.