Comenius, Johannes Amos

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COMENIUS, JOHANNES AMOS (15921670), the "grandfather of modern education." Born Jan Amos Komenský in Nivnitz, Moravia, he was orphaned early and did not begin school until the age of sixteen. He died in Amsterdam, a lifelong refugee from religious wars, the last bishop of the Moravian and Bohemian Brethren, formerly known as the Old Church.

Said to be unoriginal in philosophy, Comenius's genius lay in teaching. His philosophy and his teaching were forged from personal experience with both religious intolerance and bad schooling. He was convinced that international tensions were grounded in religious differences, which in turn were grounded in lack of knowledge of the order of nature as well as of others' religions.

His grand strategy was "Pansophia," a philosophy of universal knowledge based on a universal language built on a universal education that included women. Invited to England to develop a system of education, he was prevented from carrying out his program by the Civil War. He visited Sweden and planned the reformation of schools there only to flee the outbreak of war in 1648. He returned to Leszno, Poland, whence he had fled from Nivnitz as a young man, and where he had done most of his writing, but was forced by the war between West Prussia and Poland to escape to Amsterdam in 1655, losing in this final move all his manuscripts.

For Comenius, schools as he found them were "the slaughterhouse of the mind," devoted as they were to the dreary and sometimes desperately enforced study of Latin in a world where that language was no longer used. In his schools there was to be no "stuffing and flogging," but, rather, a reasonable following of "the lead of nature." "A rational creature should be led," he wrote, "not by shouts, imprisonment and blows, but by reason." Nothing was to be learned "for its own sake," but "for its usefulness in life." Everything was to be learned by practice: "Let the students learn to write by writing, to talk by talking, to sing by singing, to reason by reasoning." Comenius likened education to nature, where the existence of objects was prior to the development of language. "The principle of succession," he wrote, in which "nature prepares the material before giving it form, develops everything from within, always ending in particulars, makes no leaps [and] advances only from strength." Knowledge, therefore, comes most naturally through the senses: "The sense of hearing should be conjoined with that of sight, and the tongue should be trained in coordination with the hand." Objects were to be brought into the classroom for use in teaching.

His plans for state schools, radical in his century, are now generally accepted. Schools were to open at a uniform date each year and holidays were to be frequent but short. According to his plans, a definite learning task would be assigned to each hour of the day; after each class there was a recess. The length of the day was longer the higher the grade. Comenius proposed that each teacher have a separate room and all learning be done under the teacher's supervision; there was to be no homework. Comenius hoped for the establishment of a central college which was to be provided with facilities for both advanced learning and teacher preparation. From a generation so trained, he believed, a Christian republic might grow. "There is no more certain way under the sun," he wrote, "to raise a sunken humanity."

Comenius's Dictionary of Tongues and All Sciences was translated into Arabic and Russian, as well as into other European languages, and the students of three continents thumbed its pages. Orbis pictus (The visible world), published in 1658, was his most famous text; it was illustrated, featured parallel passages in Latin and in the student's vernacular, and was intended to be employed by students at a rate commensurate with their individual abilities. These texts were based on earlier works: Gate of Tongues Unlocked (1631) and Labyrinth of the World (c. 1623). His best-known work is Didactica magna, written between 1628 and 1632. It has influenced teaching methods in the Western world more, perhaps, than any other book of educational theory.


A good biography of Comenius is Matthew Spinka's John Amos Comenius: That Incomparable Moravian (Chicago, 1943). A good analysis of his contribution to education is John E. Sadler's J. A. Comenius and the Concept of Universal Education (London, 1966).

Wayne R. Rood (1987)