John Amos Comenius, Pansophist
Yesterday I got off on a tangent, I discovered a new writer, yet another teacher and mentor among the many other dead white men who have taught me so much, and I ended up writing nothing. I am sorry, readers, but what can I say? I am a researcher by hobby and it bugs me no end when I come across somebody that I should know more about and I cannot. If I do not have the entire opus in etext form safely stored in my Ocean text database, I get antsy. The discovery I am talking about, my "it" guy of the moment, is John Amos Kominsky, better known as Comenius (1592-1670), titled "teacher of nations," and author of the masterwork, Didactica Magna.
I first heard of Comenius reading about my wife's homeland -- he was born in
"If, in each hour, a man could learn a single fragment of some branch of knowledge, a single rule of some mechanical art, a single pleasing story or proverb (the acquisition of which would require no effort), what a vast stock of learning he might lay by. Seneca is therefore right when he says: `Life is long, if we know how to use it.' It is consequently of importance that we understand the art of making the very best use of our lives."
Comenius was the educational reformer extraordinary, but he has been ignored I think because he was a religious thinker in an age when religious leaders were so fanatical that they were rapidly discrediting themselves in the eyes of cultured, worldly people. For example, most courses today teach that Rousseau's Emile was the first book to teach teachers to take their children off the rack, take them out of the dungeon and let them have free rein in natural surroundings. Not quite. Comenius taught that and publicized it around
"Much can be learned in play that will afterwards be of use when the circumstances demand it."
"The proper education of the young does not consist in 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."
"Who is there that does not always desire to see, hear, or handle something new? To whom is it not a pleasure to go to some new place daily, to converse with someone, to narrate something, or have some fresh experience? In a word, the eyes, the ears, the sense of touch, the mind itself, are, in their search for food, ever carried beyond themselves; for to an active nature nothing is so intolerable as sloth."
Comenius, far better than Rousseau (whose outlook was theoretical, he was no hands-on teacher but a philosopher) understood the need to intersperse academic instruction with physical education. Even today many schools are seriously considering cutting out recess. Phys-ed is thought of as peripheral, a luxury. If Comenius were as well known as he should be, such silliness would be dismissed before it arose.
"A tree must also transpire, and needs to be copiously refreshed by wind, rain, and frost; otherwise it easily falls into bad condition, and becomes barren. In the same way the human body needs movement, excitement, and exercise, and in daily life these must be supplied, either artificially or naturally."
Reading over some comments by Comenius, you can see a prototype of the Baha'i principle that the Master often called "Promotion of Education." There it is, growing in the bud. Consider,
"Not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, should be sent to school."
"Education is indeed necessary for all, and this is evident if we consider the different degrees of ability. No one doubts that those who are stupid need instruction, that they may shake off their natural dullness. But in reality those who are clever need it far more, since an active mind, if not occupied with useful things, will busy itself with what is useless, curious, and pernicious."
Even the Baha'i idea that girls get first dibs on schooling is there in the bud. Comenius understood that a literate mother is better prepared to be the first educator of the next generation. He therefore wrote the first handbook for young mothers in how to educate their tiny charges, and he wrote one of the first children's picture books, a graphical representation of which you can see if you Google hard enough. Neither of these, tots and moms, had ever got that kind of attention from a Dead White Man before. He pioneered what is known as the object lesson, where the teacher holds up some small object and then relates the theory in the form of a story arising from it. This had great influence in Christian pedagogy. He appreciated that the half-formed reasoning of small children responds best when something concrete comes first. Nor is this true only of children.
"If we examine ourselves, we see that our faculties grow in such a manner that what goes before paves the way for what comes after."
Sound familiar? If I were presented with that statement alone, not knowing who wrote it, I would guess it was by Rene Descartes. The Cartesian method, one of the founding discoveries of science, involves just what Comenius says here, breaking things down, then starting systematically with what is clearest and most irrefragable. Similarly, if I were presented with the following, I would have guessed it was written by John Lock, of Tabula Rasa fame,
"Aristotle compared the mind of man to a blank tablet on which nothing was written, but on which all things could be engraved. There is, however, this difference, that on the tablet the writing is limited by space, while in the case of the mind, you may continually go on writing and engraving without finding any boundary, because, as has already been shown, the mind is without limit."
You can read a short biography of Comenius at:
He was twice on the losing end of the bloody religious fighting that characterized the counter-reformation and, specifically, the Thirty Years War. Part of his genius was to see that the violence and fighting of war are caused by ignorance, and that the best way to snuff out that fire is to irrigate the ground with ample education. His "pansophism" seems to resemble in some ways the trinity of Baha'i principles known as the "three onenesses." Here is some more about his life and thought,
"His life was characterized by constant moving, despair and turmoil (this was part of the reason his second wife became ill and died). However, he composed many works on education and became famous all through
Comenius was no mean theologian either, and a famous painting depicts him leading the remnants of his church into exile in the dead of winter. He had to deal with the bugbear of Christian thought, original sin. In the little that I have been able to see of his writing so far, it is interesting to witness how cleverly he minimizes the ravaging effects of this pernicious dogma. He cuts away the garbage and goes right to the underlying virtue of his Faith, its emphasis on Spirit over the letter.
"In an age when people believed that human beings were born naturally evil and that goodness and knowledge had to be beaten into them, Comenius believed that they were born with a natural craving for knowledge and goodness, and that schools beat it out of them. Although he did not use the modern words (nor did the Victorian translator who made his work available in English), Comenius addressed such topics as: Education for everyone; Students' natural tendency to learn; Learning by easy stages; Financial aid; Career preparation; Extracurricular activities; and Lifelong learning."
Comenius's masterwork was "The Great Didactic," begun between 1628 and 1632, and published in 1649. It examined what I think is one of the most important questions in the world, especially now that global warming is confronting us with the urgent need to unite the world in heart and mind as fast as possible, we are faced with the question it asks: "Exactly what should be covered by school curriculum?" Comenius treats the whole curriculum, as a united whole, from infancy to university level. The "great Christian thinkers" website devoted to him encapsulates the thesis of Magna Didactica thusly,
"He wrote the book The Great Didactic (published in 1657 in
"He answered the question: `Is there a way to teach children pleasantly, but quickly at the same time?,' in a most biblical and helpful manner. The various schools of his day thought this was impossible. They leaned upon corporeal discipline to the extreme, and neglected the teaching of girls altogether. Comenius thought that learning should be done in the home (following thoughts surrounding catechizing that began during the Reformation) and thus by parents, which would have included the mother. If mothers, then, were not educated, then children would not be educated as well.
Like myself, like Immanuel Kant, and many others, Comenius was a great admirer of Frances Bacon. I love Bacon because he understood that what we most need in the world is confidence, is hope in the future, and that promoting education is a token of that faith, a leap of faith that says,
"Yes, I affirm life, I accept God when He says to choose life. I believe that knowledge is power and that learning promotes progress and that progress is good. We must be liberal modernists and believe we have the power to make a better world if we turn to God's enlightenment, look at nature, and work for a better world."
All this belief is inherent in modernism, and it is everywhere being insolently denied by reactionaries and post-modernists. This faith in progress is what Abdu'l-Baha argues for in his own masterwork, Secret of Divine Civilization. Such faith in knowledge and future Comenius too affirms, that we must believe in the exalted nature of the calling of the teacher, for they are the first reflections of God's holy Manifestation,
"There is in the world no rock or tower of such a height that it cannot be scaled by any man (provided he lack not feet) if ladders are placed in the proper position or steps are cut in the rock, made in the right place, and furnished with railings against the danger of falling over."