Updated: Jun 8
When you think of major influencers of Western Civilization or education, names come to mind like Descartes, Erasmus, Kant, Locke, Milton, Newton, Pascal, and Socrates. Many other contributors could be named for sure. However, the above list does not misrepresent a top echelon of personages who shaped the way we think in culture and society today. What amazes me is that while John Amos Comenius is colossal in this very same arena, he is a footnote to most today, whether scholarly or common. Yet, if we were to weigh Comenius’s work, we would see why we owe him a lot.
Starting his teaching in Fulnek—in what is now eastern Czech Republic—as Headmaster and pastor, Comenius began developing pedagogy. Czech lands were under civil war from 1618. By 1620 Catholic hegemony was practically a done deal in that region. Comenius went into hiding at first. While there, he penned his first magnum opus: The Labyrinth of the World -and- The Paradise of the Heart, a dystopian, semi-biographical allegory. Even though it was suppressed in the Czech land and was written in the less accessible Czech language, it went on to inspire the second best-selling book in history: Pilgrim’s Progress. By 1626, Comenius was forced to leave Czech lands because he and his followers—The Bohemian Brethren—would not submit to forced re-Catholicization.
Thus, Comenius led this persecuted sect out of Czech lands to Leszno – ( pronounced lĕsh’nô, or German Lissa) Poland: a center of the Protestant Reformation. During this period (1628–1641), Comenius worked on education differently. He developed new ideas and approaches based on his own experiences and synergized some of the notions of others into a practical theorem, which is pedagogy. This method and practice of teaching involve an academic subject with theoretical concepts. For example, Comenius wrote The Gate of Languages Unlocked and published it in 1631. He developed a new encyclopedic and linguistic textbook of 8000 words to teach Latin from a side-by-side comparison with Czech (and soon other languages). As a result, students could quickly pick up associations, making learning a language more approachable to a broader cadre of students and learning styles. This book was translated into many languages and used for more than two centuries.
Later Comenius published The Great Didactic (1657). This volume advocates learning from nature outside the immediate context of school. He felt education should be an everyday part of life. This book propounds the pedagogical idea of pansophy (universal knowledge). In this approach, learning is systematized into a gradation like today’s kindergarten, elementary school, secondary schools, and the university. Pansophy is about an encyclopedic understanding of interconnecting schools of thought—scientific, religious, philosophical—to give students broad learning that is accessible and relevant to their interests and needs in life. Instead of force-fitting students to absorb a set amount of information through rote and memorizations, Comenius’s approach functioned in outfitting them according to their bent and style of learning. This way, they would be best educated for their trajectory in life.
Comenius introduced the first children’s picture book, Orbis sensualium pictus -or- The Visible World in Pictures in 1658. This volume revolutionized education because it correlated objects to definitions, words, and spelling. This book contained more than 145 illustrations depicting everything from animals and insects to recreation to depictions of God and religious ideals in what some might call object lessons. Comenius’s work proved to be a mold for a continual line of other illustrated books used in schooling for the last 300 years. Comenius’s final admonition in this book, “A student should instead learn to “fear God, and call upon him, that he may bestow upon thee the Spirit of Wisdom,” depicts his devout nature and intent behind the book. The old proverbial adage that a picture is worth a thousand words makes The Visible World in Pictures a true innovation.
Other Books of Comenius
Comenius also wrote a volume called the School of Infancy for mothers of children under six. He felt that children could absorb significant understanding and be prepared to receive greater instruction because of their mother's specific efforts outlined in the book. He provided practical advice from feeding to exercise and guidance in gradualized training. In 1656 Comenius published a book titled, The School of Play. He emphasized the function of play as a pedagogically effective activity. Between times of instruction, morning and afternoon, he recommended time spent at play and exploring nature. Comenius promoted games and play as a way of augmenting learning. Play could consist of physical exercise and acting out of things learned. His pedagogical ideas involved enveloping the whole of a person’s senses and abilities. These were quite the innovations for the 17th Century.
Today, we owe a lot to John Amos Comenius concerning education. His work laid the basis for the likes of Fröbel, Rousseau, and Montessori. With more than 140 published volumes and another 40+ unfinished works—after having his manuscripts had been burned twice—Comenius’s contributions were no minor sideshow. Some of his books were still being printed as late as 1887 in the United States.
Comenius’s written works inspired the establishment of the Royal Society in England in 1662, and the Berlin Royal Academy of Sciences, founded around 1700. In the book The New Realities, notables like Peter Drucker hailed Comenius as the inventor of textbooks and primers.
John Amos Comenius was anything but small potatoes. The entire modern system of liberal arts schooling, even homeschooling, is built upon his models and ideas. To Comenius, children were precious, imminently inspirable, and capable beyond expectation IF they were given the right approach. Is this not what homeschooling parents desire? Comenius felt that if a student did not learn effectively, it was the teacher’s fault. Parents in the role of teaching through homeschool are much more attuned to their children. Amongst other things, Comenius gave the world recess for physical exertion and rest from tasks of the mind, which is highly effective.
His approach was borne from the study of people, how God made people, and the realization that techniques of his day in education and pedagogy were highly ineffective, if not cruel. His views were based upon scripture and how creative God is. He felt that education could solve or prevent many social ills. Without a doubt, John Amos Comenius was a phenom of phenoms in education, literature, philosophy, and theology. It is a shame that more do not know him and his work, for they would be far better off for having been exposed to him.
Comenius’s own word are inspiring
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. Much can be learned in play that will afterwards be of use when the circumstances demand it
How have you been inspired by what you’ve read here about John Amos Comenius? The new edition of Labyrinth of the World -and- The Paradise of the Heart features a 32 page section expanding upon what you’ve read here. See here: https://www.labyrinthoftheworld.com/