Comenius, Johann (1592–1670)
COMENIUS, JOHANN (1592–1670)
A prolific scholar on pedagogical, spiritual, and social reform, Johann Amos Comenius was born in the village of Nivnice in southeast Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), and became a minister in the Unity of Brethren church, a Protestant sect. Political and religious persecution during the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) drove Comenius from his homeland in 1628, and despite his earnest hopes for repatriation, Comenius never returned. He found refuge in Poland, England, Prussia, Hungary, and the Netherlands as a scholar and bishop of his church until his death in Amsterdam. Pained by the political and religious strife that plagued seventeenth-century Europe, Comenius authored more than 200 works as he searched for a method to alleviate human suffering while uniting all people and religions through a common appreciation of God.
Comenius is best known for his innovations in pedagogy, but one cannot gain an adequate appreciation of his educational ideas without recognizing his religious and metaphysical convictions. Despite the prevalent human suffering of his day, Comenius remained optimistic about the future of mankind, as he believed in the immanence of God and the imminence of God's kingdom on Earth. As God's creations, humans were necessarily good, not corrupt. Comenius also felt that Christ's Second Coming would end human strife but that people themselves could act in ushering the new millennium by engaging in pansophy, or the lifelong study of an encyclopedic system of human knowledge. By seeing the harmony among everything in the universe, all human beings would come to acknowledge God's glory and presence in themselves and in nature.
Specifically, Comenius characterized human life–from the mother's womb to grave–as a series of educational stages in which objects from nature would serve as the basis of learning. In this, he was influenced by the writings of the English statesman Sir Francis Bacon, an early advocate of the inductive method of scientific inquiry. Comenius believed that true knowledge could be found in things as they existed in reality and when one came to understand how they came about. As a result, Comenius urged all people to recognize the interconnections and harmony among philosophical, theological, scientific, social, and political facts and ideas. That way, one could reconcile three seemingly distinct worlds: the natural, the human, and the divine. Comenius felt that disagreements among religious, scientific, and philosophic enterprises arose because each held only a partial understanding of universal truth–but that all could exist harmoniously through pansophic awareness. Viewing the human mind as infinite in its capacity (as the benevolent gift of God), Comenius advocated universal education so that the souls of all people would be enlightened in this fashion. Through universal education and pedagogy, pansophy would eliminate human prejudice and lead to human perfection–a state of being that God had intended for man.
Comenius found fault with many of the educational practices of his day. In particular, he disapproved of the scholastic tradition of studying grammar and memorizing texts. He lamented the haphazard and severe teaching methods in european schools, which tended to diminish student interest in learning. Finally, comenius 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. For comenius, all of these educational shortcomings were especially urgent, as they hindered mankind's progress to the new millennium. As a result, he attempted to remedy these problems by authoring a number of textbooks and educational treatises.
Perhaps Comenius's most familiar work is the Great Didactic, which he originally wrote in 1632. As Comenius held the conviction that pansophy was necessary for the spiritual salvation of humankind, he reasoned that a good man (a rational being who understood God through nature), and ultimately a good society, could only be created if all people acquired encyclopedic knowledge. In order to guarantee that this would occur, Comenius delineated a universal teaching method or standard set of pedagogical postulates that would facilitate an effective communication of knowledge between the teacher and student. Delineating four levels of schools lasting six years each, Comenius was one of the first educators to recommend a coherent and standard system of instruction. Indeed, Comenius suggested that the universality of nature dictated that all people shared common stages of intellectual development. As a result, he reasoned, teachers needed to identify their students' stages of development and match the level of instruction accordingly. Lessons should proceed from easy to complex at a slow and deliberate pace. Furthermore, Comenius argued that the acquisition of new material began through the senses–an idea that reflected the rise of empiricism in the seventeenth century.
Ultimately, Comenius believed that the purpose of learning was eminently practical: not for ostentatious displays of rhetorical acumen, but for preparing for the Second Coming of Christ. Comenius derided the educational legacy of the Renaissance with its focus on classical grammar and even the Reformation with its mechanical teaching of the catechism. By employing the methods presented in the Great Didactic, however, Comenius argued that teachers could ensure that they produced knowledgeable and virtuous students who would continue to learn throughout their lives. In this way, he viewed teaching as a technical skill; if performed correctly, one could guarantee the results.
In 1631, Comenius published The Gate of Languages Unlocked, a Latin textbook. In it, he recommended that teachers employ the students' native language as a necessary frame of reference for unfamiliar words to become meaningful. Comenius also advocated that teachers begin with simple lessons for students to master before proceeding to more complex exercises. It became the standard Latin textbook in Europe and America throughout the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth centuries. One contemporary scholar has suggested that the incremental organization and explicit goals of the text anticipated the principles of mastery learning.
In 1658, Comenius wrote another Latin textbook, The World in Pictures, one of the first reading books to incorporate illustrations. Enormously popular in Europe and America, it was printed in the United States until 1887. Again, reflecting Comenius's belief that all learning began with the senses, The World in Pictures included numbered parts of illustrations, each of which corresponded to a word. It also presented a simplified vocabulary and specific examples to help students understand the relevant concept or rule. And like the Gate of Languages Unlocked, Comenius attempted to present lessons in a way that reflected the order of nature, although some scholars have noted that Comenius manipulated perspectives and exaggerated proportions to facilitate the lesson at hand. Some educators consider the World in Pictures a pivotal text in pedagogical innovation that opened the way for modern-day teaching instruments such as audiovisual aids and electronic media.
Frustrated by the fragmentation of European institutions of higher education, along with their tendency to impose knowledge authoritatively and discourage critical thinking, Comenius advocated the creation of a universal college. In Way of Light, which he wrote while visiting England in 1641 and 1642, Comenius outlined his vision for establishing universal textbooks and schools, a common language, and a pansophic college. Comenius believed that a pansophic college would contribute to the establishment of an intellectual and spiritual consensus in the world by propelling, steering, and coordinating the research of all scholars. This "college of light" would be located in a prominent and accessible locale and utilize a common language in order to facilitate the inclusion of all European scholars of prominence. It would also govern an ideal world and disseminate knowledge so that an understanding of God's creations and glory would not become the exclusive possession of the privileged. Such an institution would therefore unite all human beings in the world both culturally and religiously. Although the pansophic college never came about, Comenius's treatise inspired the establishment of the Royal Society in England (founded in 1662) and the Berlin Royal Academy of Sciences (founded in 1700).
Comenius's belief that knowledge and wisdom could be merged into a single pan-science drew the criticism of the French philosopher René Descartes, who sought to free science from theology in a quest to gain knowledge objectively. Indeed, Comenius's pansophic ideas fell out of favor by the late seventeenth century, as they became incongruous with the prevailing epistemological sensibilities of the Enlightenment.
In the past century, however, a number of educators revived the pedagogical elements of Comenius's legacy. They cited his emphasis on early childhood education and his aversion to corporal punishment as precursors to the German educator Friedrich Froebel's kindergarten idea. They lauded Comenius's call for universal education and a carefully graded system of schools. They noted his innovative use of learning aids such as the illustrations in the World in Pictures and his preference for focusing on actual things rather than rhetoric in education. Finally, they praised Comenius's desire to make learning enjoyable and more meaningful through the use of dramatic productions and other innovative methods.
Still, one must remember that these pedagogical innovations derived from Comenius's urgent desire for the alleviation of human suffering, the mending of political, epistemological, and spiritual divisions, and ultimately, man's gradual comprehension of God's will and glory.
See also: Philosophy of Education.
Comenius, Johann Amos. 1673. The Gate of Languages Unlocked, or, A Seed-Plot of All Arts and Tongues: Containing a Ready Way to Learn the Latine and English Tongue. London: Printed by T.R. and N.T. for the Company of Stationers.
Comenius, Johann Amos. 1896. Comenius' School of Infancy: An Essay on the Education of Youth During the First Six Years, ed. Will S. Monroe. Boston: Heath.
Lenk, Krystof, and Kahn, Paul. 1992. "To Show and Explain: The Information Graphics of Stevin and Comenius." Visible Language 26:272–281.
Sadler, Edward. 1966. J. A. Comenius and the Concept of Universal Education. New York: Barnes and Noble.
Small, Mary Luins. 1990. "The Pansophism of John Amos Comenius (1592–1670) as the Foundation of Educational Technology and the Source of Constructive Standards for the Evaluation of Computerized Instruction and Tests." International Conference on Technology and Education, March 1990. ERIC. ED325079, microfiche, 1–11.
Spinka, Matthew. 1967. John Amos Comenius: That Incomparable Moravian. New York: Russell and Russell.
Sevan G. Terzian
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