Comenius, John Amos (Komenský)

views updated


Exponent of sense realism, writer, educator, and last bishop of Moravian Brethren; b. Niwnitz, Moravia (or at Coma, Moravia), March 28, 1592; d. Amsterdam, Netherlands, Nov. 15, 1670. Because he was orphaned very young, his formal education at the hands of relatives was irregular. Only at 17 did Comenius begin to study Latin at the Stráňice Latin School because of a desire to prepare for the ministry of the Moravian Brethren. His higher education took place at Herborn, Nassau, and Heidelberg, Germany, where he earned his degree. On returning to Moravia, Comenius taught in the Brethren's schools in Prerau, where he was ordained in 1614. As a pastor he opened his own school at Fulneck. To aid his students Comenius published Grammaticae facilioris praecepta, the first of his educational treatises.

In 1618 the Thirty Years' War broke the peaceful ways of Moravia; Spanish invasion and Protestant harrassment drove the Moravian Brethren into exile. Comenius settled with the Brethren at Lissa, in Poland, where their schools reopened according to their own curricula. In 1630 he published Pansophiae prodromus, a work on education. In 1631 Janua Linguarum reserata, a textbook to teach Latin by means of the vernacular, received international acclaim and was translated during his lifetime into 12 European and four Oriental languages. The Eruditionis scholasticae vestibulum, an edition of the Janua meant for younger children, and the Atrium for those who had advanced beyond the Janua, increased his reputation as a new leader in educational thought and practice.

Comenius used the same method in these three works: sentences conveying practical information arranged in parallel columns in both the vernacular and the language to be learned, e.g., Latin or Greek or another modern language. Most scholars credit Comenius with the discovery of this technique for teaching languages. To advance this method of language study, based on induction and learning real objects before learning the nouns that describe them, in 1658 Comenius produced the Orbis sensualium pictus, the first children's picture book, in which the objects in each picture bore a number that referred to a word. This system was then introduced into later editions of the Janua, Vestibulum, and Atrium. The Orbis sensualium pictus was printed in Europe for more than 200 years as a basic school textbook.

In his philosophy Comenius adopted a form of pansophism, a doctrine based on universal knowledge and teaching. Convinced that peace could exist on earth only when mankind united under the service of one God, in one religion, the Moravian exile advocated compulsory education for both sexes and all social classes, on a ladder plan in which each school led to a higher level and terminated with the College of Light, a haven for the learned of all nations. He reasoned that education would provide an equal level of knowledge for all men and thus lead to the acceptance of the unity of mankind and one universal religion. The Didactica magna (1638) is the best summary and presentation of Comenius's pansophism.

His educational theories and practices and his philosophical works led the nations of Europe to invite the Moravian leader to offer advice on their schools. In 1638 Swedish authorities, hoping to establish a national system of education, invited Comenius to reform their schools. England extended a similar invitation in 1641, but the political situation forced him to withdraw. His brief stay in England nevertheless resulted in the publication of The School of Infancy, the purpose of which was to instruct mothers how to teach young children correct speaking, observation, and religion. The pansophic group that welcomed Comenius to England was later influential in establishing the Royal Academy in 1662.

In 1648 John Winthrop, Jr., touring Europe in search of an outstanding theologian-educator to be president of Harvard (Cambridge, Mass.), is believed to have invited Comenius to accept the incumbency. In 1644 the Poles banished him from Lissa because he had welcomed Swedish troops when they captured the city during the Thirty Years' War. The Swedes again welcomed him, but after his attacks on Lutheranism, revoked their hospitality. In 1648 he was elected bishop of the Moravian Brethren, the last in the Bohemian-Moravian episcopal line.

Comenius had more influence on the educational theorists of the 19th century, which adopted his ideal of free, compulsory, universal education, than on his contemporaries. His pansophic and religious ideas, however, never attracted a wide following.

Bibliography: j. a. comenius, Analytical Didactic, ed. and tr. v. jelinek (Chicago 1953); The School of Infancy, ed. e. m. eller (Chapel Hill, N.C. 1956); The Great Didactic, tr. m. w. keatinge (London 1896). m. spinka, John Amos Comenius: That Incomparable Moravian (Chicago 1943).

[e. g. ryan]