The name of Johann Amos Comenius rarely echoes through the halls of modern academe, but his ideas about how we should educate ourselves remain alive, and his influence continues.
For instance, the American educational system of kindergarten, elementary, junior high, and high school levels is an idea that originated with Comenius. His influence runs far deeper than just the structure of a system, however.
Comenius was a Moravian writer, pedagogue, philosopher, and religious leader who lived in the 17th century and who developed ideas about education that today we would consider “natural” but during his time were thought to be “radical.” Comenius was born in 1592. His family was part of a religious sect known as the Unity of the Brethren, a Protestant denomination that had begun challenging the practices of the Catholic Church more than 100 years before Martin Luther famously did so. He was orphaned at the age of 10, but through good luck, he found adult mentors and was able to gain an education and graduate from the University of Heidelberg in 1613.
He was a deeply religious man who believed that human beings were made in the image of God. Those human beings could become more like God as they educated themselves about the world around them. Doing so would demonstrate to them the universality and harmony of God’s creation. In other words, Comenius believed that people were basically good and that education would make them better.
The belief in the goodness of mankind was not one that was strongly accepted during the era in which Comenius lived. In fact, many of the prevailing educational efforts consisted of practices designed to beat, often literally, the evil out of children. Comenius’s philosophy grew to strongly oppose such actions.
Comenius believed in the following concepts:
–That formal education should be available to everyone without regard for gender, nationality, religious faith, or race;
–That learning should be incremental, beginning with simple concepts and moving to more complex information as the simple concepts are understood;
–That parents should begin teaching their children about the world from birth;
–That education should be a life-long process;
–That the language of education, which was Latin, should be used to teach about objects and concepts; at the time of Comenius, the teaching of Latin grammar was emphasized; Comenius also thought that local languages should be used along with Latin to help a child learn;
–That education should be fun and enjoyable;
–That rote memorization was far less effective than the learning of ideas and concepts;
–That pictures should be used to help children learn;
Each of these ideas (except for teaching in Latin, which we have totally discarded) seems obvious and “natural” today, but many of Comenius’s contemporaries found them shocking and dangerous. Yet, during his lifetime, there was an intellectual ferment developing across Europe that opened up consideration of new ideas such as those of Comenius.
Comenius carried on an active correspondence with many of the leading intellectual lights of Europe even though, politically and religiously, times were turbulent. On a number of occasions because of his religious beliefs, Comenius found himself in opposition to local political and religious authorities and had to go into hiding or flee to friendlier territory.
Wherever he was, he continued to write and develop his ideas. He produced a mountain of books and materials to help educators and promote his ideas, including:
The Great Didactic – his magnum opus that became popular throughout Europe and contained many of his major ideas;
The School of Infancy, a book instructing mothers on how to begin teaching their children about the world;
Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures), published in 1658 and thought to be the first textbook to use pictures to help students understand what they were learning; the book was translated into many languages and used for the next two centuries throughout Europe.
Comenius died in 1670 in Amsterdam, where he lived for the last 14 years of his life. His ideas about education came under attack by the humanists of the Enlightenment, especially René Descartes, because they were so deeply tied to his religious philosophy. Comenius fell out of fashion, and while his contributions to pedagogy were often adopted, he was generally forgotten.
His fame and reputation were revived beginning in the 19th century in Germany. Today he is thought of as a founding father of modern educational systems.
Illustration: Two pages from Orbis Pictus
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