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date: 25 September 2018

Jan Amos Comenius

Summary and Keywords

Jan Amos Comenius (b. 1592) is widely recognized as a pivotal figure in the history of educational thought. Living during a period of great turmoil he promoted universal schooling as the means to engineer a perfectly harmonious world. His argument turned upon claims to scientific knowledge and a didactic method that could instill truth in all minds. As the ever expanding scholarship on Comenius demonstrates, many still find inspiration in this visionary project. But Comenius’ work must be read in the context of Early Modern thought. Convinced that life was situated in the divinely crafted cosmos pictured in the Book of Genesis, his overarching goal was to restore “the image of God in man” and realize the Golden Age depicted in prophecy. The school was to be a workshop for the reformation of mankind, a place to manufacture of right thinking and right acting individuals. I explore these epistemological and pedagogic arguments and demonstrate their role in his hugely successful Latin primer, Orbis pictus (1658). Comenius, I conclude, was a revolutionary thinker who married subtle observations about the process of learning with sophisticated instructional practices. However, given current views about human nature and the social good, these principles cannot be applied uncritically to contemporary educational problems.

Keywords: Comenius, pedagogy, science, religion, epistemology, literacy

Contemporary Interest in Jan Amos Comenius

The Moravian polymath Jan Amos Comenius (b. 1592; Čapková, 1970) is widely recognized as a pivotal figure in the history of educational thought and a tireless campaigner for peace and religious compromise. Living through one of the most brutal periods in history, the Thirty Years’ War, he articulated ideals of reason, freedom, and equality to explain how universal schooling could be used to engineer a perfectly harmonious world. As such, he naturally became an iconic symbol for many Europeans who suffered through the upheavals of the 20th century. After the First and Second World Wars and the fall of the Soviet Union, scholars and political leaders looked to his writings for inspiration in the planning of a more democratic future. Most prominently, Comenius was adopted as a founding father by UNESCO, the first “apostle” of its project to promote international peace through a scientifically-based education grounded in a commitment to natural rights and informed self-determination (Pavone, 2008).

Comenius’ vast oeuvre totaling more than two hundred works (many not published until the 20th century) has sustained a veritable industry of academic scholarship among continental thinkers. Like Dewey, many have found his arguments visionary. Over two hundred years before the establishment of public education in Britain he outlined a system of schooling for boys and girls of all classes. Moreover, readers of the Great didactic (1896) found a remarkably modern pedagogy, a sense-based curriculum that lead from the simple and concrete to the complex and abstract using developmentally appropriate lessons keyed to children’s interests. All learning, he promised, would be easy and pleasurable. Indeed, his hugely successful Orbis pictus (1658) transformed vernacular and Latin instruction by employing illustrations that captured the meaning of terms in the common experiences of life. For more than 150 years and through nearly 250 editions it was the preeminent language text in Europe and North America (Čapková, 1970). Even so, it is clear that Orbis pictus was not used in concert with Comenius’ theoretical views on education, which remained largely unknown until recent times. According to his translator (Comenius & Keatinge, 1896), “it was bought by thousands of parents who know little of Comenius, and cared less for his didactic principles. They found that children liked the pictures and picked up their alphabet, and a few words, easier in that way than any other” (pp. 78–79).

Indeed, Comenius’ didactic principles can only be understood in the context of early 17th-century assumptions about the world, human nature, and the purpose of life; ideas that are different, if not incommensurable, to those held by modern readers. He did not live in the open, evolving world described by Dewey but the divinely crafted cosmos pictured in the Book of Genesis. Viewed from this perspective, Comenius’ educational, religious, and political arguments start to look distinctively autocratic. Far from promoting the rights and freedoms of the liberal state, his goal was to construct a universal theocracy in which all men and women would understand and embrace their place in God’s natural order. Within this closed universe schooling would become the workshop for the reformation of mankind, an instrument for the manufacture of right-thinking and right-acting individuals. Guided by the light of truth, a rational, peace-loving, and spiritually focused population would restore “the image of God in man” and realize the Golden Age depicted in Scriptural prophecy.

How then does Comenius inform current thinking about education? Some scholars have looked to his instructional and curriculum innovations (Hábl, 2011; Jůvová & Bakker, 2015); some to his focus on the spiritual dimension of life (Murphy, 1995; Hábl, 2011); and some to the social and political goals of education (Goris, Meyer, & Urbánek, 2015). Others have found cautionary lessons about the dangers of utopian thinking (Holstun, 1987). Also important are studies that seek insight into the character of the early modern mind (Webster, 1975). While there are many paths into the ever-growing complex of Comenian scholarship, in what follows I offer a gateway to the epistemological assumptions that sustained Comenius’ (1896) “promise [of] a GREAT DIDACTIC,” a method for “teaching all things to all men … in such a manner as to lead to true knowledge, to gentle morals, and to the deepest piety” (p. 5).

The Instructional Turn in European Education

The term “didactic” was coined by German educators in the early 1600s—from the Greek didaskein, meaning to demonstrate, and the Latinized version of techne, “ikk”—in order to highlight new, efficient methods of instruction (Nordkvelle, 2004). It is curious that while didactics (with connotation of “putting in”) is used to denote the science of education on the continent, pedagogy (with the connotation of “drawing out”) became the approved term in the Anglo-Saxon world. Indeed, for English speakers “didactic” currently has a negative meaning implying dogmatic, formalized, even pedantic instruction.

As David Hamilton (1999) suggests, it is helpful to contrast didactic with another Greek term, dialectic—a form of argument in which ideas are created and then tested for their adequacy against experience. Broadly speaking, this is the constructivist process at the heart of progressive pedagogy. It was also the method employed by scholars within the medieval university as they struggled to master canonical texts. But as Hamilton argues, 16th- and 17th-century demands for effective and inexpensive schooling brought about fundamental changes in education. Rather than the long, complex, and disorganized initiation of students into the corpus of academic works, an “instructional turn” occurred that transformed learning into the methodical dissemination of knowledge.

The key figure in this educational revolution was Peter Ramus (1515–1572). By mapping knowledge into discrete categories, Ramus demonstrated how essential meanings could be communicated to ensure the orderly comprehension of any subject. The mass publication of his and similar textbooks unleashed a “pedagogic juggernaut” which evolved rapidly in the political and religious environment of the reformed German states (Hamilton, 1987). Thanks to the comprehensive and detailed research of Howard Hotson (2007) we now have a clear understanding of this important but historically neglected movement. Driven by the need to prepare well-schooled clergy, administrators, teachers, and other state officials, politically fragile principalities with limited resources looked to academies and gymnasia in the hope that the long and laborious system of classical training could be replaced with more efficient modes of instruction. Necessity was the mother of educational invention. Extending and amending Ramus’, insights, numerous pedagogic strategies evolved to meet practical needs. Particularly important were the works of Bartholomaus Keckermann (1572–1609), who sought to reconcile Ramus with Aristotle so that select students could be prepared for higher studies offered at more prestigious, traditional universities (Triche & McKnight, 2004).

By the turn of the 17th century the vanguard of this movement was the Reformed Academy at Herborn. Here Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588–1638) extended Keckermann’s project into an encyclopedic survey of all knowledge. Guided by a meticulously coordinated timetable, students were led in simple ordered steps through the basic principles of numerous disciplines. However, as Hotson (2007) explains, Alsted’s efforts to accommodate the complexity and ever-expanding growth of knowledge resulted in an eclectic amalgamation of learning that effectively undermined his search for intellectual order. Schooled under Alsted at Herborn, Comenius’ thought is situated within this pedagogic and epistemological problematic.

Comenius was also profoundly influenced by the practices and ideals of the Moravian Brethren, whose interests he served—ultimately as the Church’s final bishop—throughout his long and torturous life. As Daniel Murphy (1995) demonstrates, the Brethren’s core tenets of loving guidance, social harmony, and the free and rational acceptance of God’s word permeate all Comenius’ writings, sustaining his singular mission to promote religious and political unity through universal education. “What I wrote on behalf of the young,” he confessed, “I wrote not as a pedagogue but as a theologian” (Quoted in Campi, 2014, p. 260).

Following the teachings of Jan Hus (1369–1415), the Unitas Fratrum distanced themselves from the worldly excesses of the Catholic Church. Rejecting the pursuit of wealth and power, they extolled a simple life of piety styled on the example of the early apostles. Bound together in tightly ordered rural communities, men and women were taught the ethic of Christian brotherhood and the importance of regulating their lives by the lessons of Scripture. Adamant that faith is a matter of personal commitment, religion was divorced from the affairs of state—a significant principle given the confessional politics of the day. Praxis was more important than theology. It was better to secure an individual’s free and full commitment to God’s word than to insist on the precise understanding of the sacraments or the meaning of predestination. The details could be left to scholars. Indeed, preferring unity over doctrinal difference, the Brethren defended their practical faith as a middle path between Luther and Calvin, a means to bring all Christians under a single church (Atwood, 2009).

To realize these ends, the Moravian Church actively promoted literacy and the egalitarian values central to its communitarian ideal. Schools were opened across the region and an embracive order of church deacons, pastors, and judges charged with guiding the population’s adherence to God’s law. Social order was important, although reflecting the Sermon on the Mount, they employed a more loving discipline than that witnessed in Calvin’s Geneva. The Church also established several gymnasia and a seminary in Přerov, although the most promising students were sent on to Herborn and the University of Heidelberg to complete their theological training.

So it was, having committed himself to a life within the church, Comenius left his native Bohemia in 1611 for the religiously sound Ramist training at Herborn (Murphy, 1995). After two years working under Alsted and the biblical scholar Johann Piscator, he completed his degree in theology at Heidelberg. Returning to Přerov in 1614, he taught in the city’s Latin school for two years while preparing for ordination at age 24. He then entered the ministry, serving congregations in Olmütz and Fulneck until the region was engulfed by war. With thousands of Protestants fleeing the turmoil. Comenius took refuge on the estate of the church’s most loyal benefactor, Count Zerotin. His wife and two children, who stayed with family in Přerov, died of the plague. In this time of personal despair and religious searching, Comenius composed Labyrinth of the world and paradise of the heart (1971), one of the most important works of Czech literature. Presented though a dystopian allegory, it recounts his own spiritual rebirth, a turning from the chaos and irrationality of life to the harmonious and blissful order of being that comes when Jesus Christ, the “New Adam,” is accepted as the master of all thought and action (Atwood, 2009).

When Hapsburg authorities imposed Catholicism on Bohemia, Zerotin lost favor with Prague and Comenius was forced to escape the country; ultimately, in 1628, to join a large group of Brethren exiled at Leszno in Poland. For the next thirteen years Comenius devoted his time to church duties and teaching in the community’s grammar school. Driven by the conviction that repatriation was imminent, he looked to education as the means to reconstruct his homeland. Could he help establish a Christian community that expunged the sins of the Old Adam and restored the image of God within? This would require a powerful new method of instruction and an account of the human condition all could comprehend. Drawing upon the principles of Neoplatonic thought embraced by Alsted and so many other writers of the day, he looked to nature for inspiration (Hotson, 2013; Goodrick-Clarke, 2008). What did God’s creation teach about the purpose of life and the art of learning?

Combining Hermetic wisdom and Scriptural truth, Comenius (1651b) fused science and religion to describe how God crafted the universe. Careful reading of Genesis revealed the fundamental simples of matter, spirit, and light that constitute all bodies. Invoking the work of alchemists, he explained that heat from the Sun and stars agitated the amorphous material of the void permitting a spiritual force to organize the world in accord with God’s design. The first step was manufacturing the basic building blocks of Sky, Air, Water, and Earth from which all other things were formed. Change was explained by vapors; fine, loose particles that combined the elements into new entities. The “living bodies of Animals and Plants,” he asserted, are nothing but shops of vapours,” stills “perpetually vapouring, as long as they have life or heat” (p. 101). Everything had a place, every object a purpose; “the world being made up of a thousand parts, and particles of parts … [was] one, and undivided in its self” (p. 239).

Placed in this wondrous theater, human beings had been gifted the rational powers (the image of God) to understand the Almighty’s works so that they might tend to His creation and share in His glory. Rather than searching for wisdom among the pagan writings of ancient authors, the knowledge essential for life was to be found in the book of nature. Here the various crafts and trades lit the way. Art, Comenius (1969) explained, was “nature’s ape”; it revealed and copied the methods of God’s workmanship (p. 37). Accordingly, as the scientist sought to harness the properties of matter, he looked to examples of learning in the living world as a key to the ultimate technology, the art of all arts, didactics. Witness the many passages in The great didactic where he attempts to distil instructional precepts from the behavior of birds (Comenius & Keatinge, 1896, pp. 263–311). More helpful were his observations of young children. As demonstrated in the School of infancy (1858) and Pampaedia (Dobbie, 1986) there was much to learn from the spontaneous activities of youth. Early education had to be active, sense-based, and playful, albeit under a firm but loving discipline. Most important was the recognition that all learning was a process of imitation. The imperative was clear; to restore human nature from Adam’s sins, every care had to be taken to fashion the right environment, instill truth, and, as Plato counselled, preserve the mind from error, the root cause of confusion and evil in the world.

Comenius’ Quest for Universal Knowledge

The first step in Comenius’ path from chaos to order came with the remarkable success of his Janua linguarum reserata (1638). Quickly translated into all the major European languages, it soon became the Continent’s most popular Latin text. “Had Comenius written no other book,” Pierre Bayle wrote, “he would have rendered himself immortal” (quoted in Comenius & Keatinge, 1896, p. 24). Where other works focused on grammatical rules, Comenius utilized parallel columns of vernacular and Latin to teach the meaning of terms. Sentence after sentence described God’s works. From the elements to the stars, students learned about minerals, plants, animals, human beings, crafts, social institutions, and the history of the world’s peoples, until the “closure,” when, in final judgment, God would welcome his saints into heaven.

Emboldened by his success, Comenius (1969) turned to an even worthier project; he promised to open a “gate unto things themselves” (p. 47). It was much “better to be wise, than to be able to prattle a few Latine words” (p. 47). If the Junua taught students how to “distinguish things from the outside,” surely they should “comprehend what each thing is in its essence” (Quoted in Sadler, 1966, p. 121). As he started writing his Janua rerum Comenius reports eagerly reading a “book entitled Pansophia.” Finding only an abridgment of Aristotle, with “nothing appertaining to divine wisdom and the mysteries of salvation,” he decided to appropriate the “sublime” title “in the hope that I might square the matter more with my own little work” (Young & Comenius, 1932, p. 33). He would compose a Christian Pansophy to comprehend God’s works. Pivotally, where Alsted sought to accommodate all knowledge, Comenius (Dobbie, 1986) now looked to a knowledge of the whole. Understanding “the harmony of things and the proportions of all the related parts,” he argued, “is the vital factor which brings pure all-pervading light to men’s minds” (p. 85). Unlike previous encyclopedias which presented wisdom “like a pile of wood, very neatly laid in order” he would organize learning like a living tree “which by its inbred virtue spreads itself into boughs, and leaves, and yieldeth fruit” (Comenius, 1969, p. 24). Importantly, as this reference to fruit suggests, Comenius was convinced that his pansophy would be known by its practical value. It would enable all things to be taught to all men and women with all fullness. This did not mean that everyone would become proficient in every art and science, but rather that no one “shall be grossly ignorant about himself, or the created things, or God himself” (Comenius, 1938, p. 128). What could be of more value for the conduct of life? All must understand they were made in the image of God and placed on Earth for a purpose. For those who feared a literate population, Comenius (Dobbie, 1986) was adamant that far from breeding discount or rebellion, schooling the masses would ensure order and conformity (Dobbie, 1986, pp. 22–31). Appreciating their part within the whole, individuals would learn to regulate themselves, “even in the midst of their work and toil, by meditation on the words and works of God” (Comenius & Keatinge, 1896, p. 69).

But how could human beings acquire knowledge of God’s divine plan? Bacon’s experimental method offered one way to unlock the secrets of nature, but Comenius thought this a slow and uncertain project; moreover, it failed to explain “the universality of things.” Instead he looked to the union of sense, reason, and Scripture. All knowledge came from experience, but judgment—guided by the rational powers gifted by God—was necessary to correct error and illusion. The understanding also had its limits. Led by the imagination and limited to time and space, it was prone to confusion and fantasy. Thankfully, the revealed word provided an additional fountain of wisdom. Scattered through the Bible were general principles that could help resolve intellectual disputes and ensure God’s work was known with certainty. Clearly this would not be a simple task; as Comenius never tired of explaining, it was beyond the abilities of a single person. But if a College of Light were established, a cohort of pansophic scholars could complete this most valuable of all practical works. There was no more urgent task. If men and women could be taught the nature and purpose of life they would comprehend their real interests and will what was good and worthwhile. Truth would command the assent of all; dispute and contest would be replaced by unanimity of judgment and harmony of purpose. Everyone, the world over, could be taught to make the Almighty the ruler of their lives.

Following Alsted, Comenius interpreted astrological events as evidence of millennial prophecy (Hotson, 2013). Since the fall, God had employed earthquakes, floods, and famine to punish and correct human vices. He had used prophets to guide Mankind, and even sent His only son to teach the way of salvation. But now a more powerful instrument of reformation was at hand. In place of such external lessons Comenius revealed an internal means to improvement: education and the light of reason. “No matter how disorganized by the fall into sin,” mankind can, “through the grace of God and by certain methods, be restored again to harmony” (Comenius & Keatinge, 1896, p. 200). With “the skillful arrangement of time, of the subjects taught, and of the method” he claimed, “it will be no harder to teach school-boys in any number desired, than with the help of the printing press to cover a thousand sheets daily with the neatest writing” (p. 248). As we will see printing was more than a metaphor for Comenius; it provided the epistemological justification for his didactic method.

Without the means to pursue this ambitious project, Comenius’ plans remained little more than blueprints. An initial offer of patronage was lost when his “great Maecenas,” the Count of Leszno, met an untimely death. However, by 1636 Comenius had come under the orbit of Samul Hartlib, the politically well-placed “intelligencer” who traded in knowledge and influence among English Puritan elites. Schooled at a reformed academy in his native Poland, Hartlib understood and embraced Comenius’ theological, philosophical, and educational goals. Hearing that the author of the Janua had framed a path to Christian Pansophy he wrote with encouragement and funds eager to learn more. Comenius replied with a manuscript outlining his plan, which Hartlib published to generate interest and stir “liberality” (Young & Comenius, 1932, p. 36). A movement to establish a College of Light was soon underway. Hartlib became increasingly insistent; Comenius must leave his teaching duties and devote himself completely to the pansophic project. He had even hand-picked associates to aid in the cause. All that remained was to secure funding; support for a college and faculty would require a significant and permanent revenue source. Here Hartlib and his friends looked to the recently reconvened Long Parliament in the hope that a committee on educational reform might secure an endowment. Excited by Hartlib’s optimistic reports, Comenius arrived in London in 1641 under the impression that he had been summoned by the Government—only to find, with the King in Scotland, that the Commons had been adjourned. Forced to bide his time, he met with members of Hartlib’s coterie, scouted sites for the new institution, and worked on the metaphysical groundwork of his future task; The way of light (1668). But with the troubles in Ireland his initial optimism soon faded. As the country inched toward Civil War, interest in educational reform dwindled. Comenius had three options: accept the presidency of Harvard College in the American Colonies, help establish a pansophic university in Catholic Paris, or join with the wealthy Dutch businessman Ludovic de Geer in a scheme to reform education in Sweden. Given the political situation in Europe, earning the favor of the continent’s most powerful Protestant country offered the best hope for the return of the Brethren. So it was, much to Hartlib’s dismay, that Comenius turned from pansophy to didactics and the production of textbooks for Swedish schoolchildren (Murphy, 1995).

Nor was this a happy arrangement for Comenius. After extended discussions with the High Lord Chancellor of Sweden, Axel Oxenstierna, he reluctantly agreed to suspend his philosophical studies until he completed Latin texts for four grades of students (Spinka, 1943). Given that each book was to be accompanied by a grammar and a lexicon, this was no small task. For the best part of five years his ever active mind was shackled by the drudgery of philology. Responsibilities to the Monrovian Church also made great demands on his time, especially after he was appointed Senior Bishop of the Brethren in 1648. Even so, Comenius continued to perfect his plan. Before buckling down to his labors he completed a second manuscript for Hartlib, A patterne of univerall knowledge (1651b), detailing the method of argument to be employed in his future book of pansophy. Divisions, definitions, and precepts had to present the essence of things with a mathematical clarity none could doubt. Armed with such clear and distinct ideas, any mind could be lifted, as if by an intellectual ladder, to any truth. Everyone, he concluded, could be taught to “understand the same things, speak the same things, do the same things, and serve the Lord as one arme” (pp. 45–46).

Since to know an object was to understand how it was made, the work would start with the creation of the cosmos, describe how God gifted human beings with rational powers, explain Adams’s hubris and mankind’s fall into confusion, and, finally, reveal the measures God instituted for the gradual redemption of men and women. Each stage would be studied in a separate volume. The first would attend to the basic principles by which things were formed (Ideals); the second would trace how these properties operate in the course of events (Naturals); the third would survey the various arts and crafts (Artificials); the fourth would reflect upon the human condition (Spirituals); and the fifth would explore the best means to facilitate the reformation of mankind (Eternals). Proceeded by a text preparing the mind for learning and completed by a work demonstrating the application of wisdom, the whole project would encompass seven long books. This prospectus was ultimately realized in his lost masterwork, the General Consultation on the Reform of Human Affairs (commonly known to as the Consultatio), five parts of which—Panaguia (1987), Pampaedia (Comenius and Dobbie, 1986), Panegersia (1990), and Panorthosia (1993, 1995)—have been translated into English.

Comenius’ Didactic and the Structure of Orbis pictus

Concerned that Swedish masters make proper use of his school texts, Comenius prepared an accompanying manual, the Linguarium methodus novissima (1953), to discuss questions related to the teaching of Latin. This also provided an opportunity to present his mature thoughts on the science of education. Applying arguments developed in the Way of light, his “Analytic Didactic” offered a universal method of instruction distilled into 187 axioms.

Starting with the assertion that “there is nothing in the understanding that was not first in the senses,” he explained learning as a process of printing (p. 128). “God the creator first conceived images, forms, and ideas and then impressed them upon things. Things, in turn, impressed their likeness upon the senses, the senses upon the mind” (pp. 97–98). The same applied to human communication. Ideas from one person, transferred through writing, speech, and other media were inscribed in the minds of others. The brain was like a wax tablet; instruction was the art of making impressions. “The teacher is he who imprints knowledge, the student is he who receives it” (p. 102). “The highest law and guiding light, the center and circumference, the foundation and summit of the art” is to “teach everything through examples, precepts, and use of imitation” (p. 109). “Example, he continued, “is a sort of idea or original image (Axiom I), imitation a sort of image-making (Axiom II), precept a sort of instrument to guide imitation (Axiom III)” (p. 109). “The task of the teacher is to present the model … the task of the student is to pay attention, comprehend, and imitate” (p. 110).

As the opening illustration of Orbis pictus demonstrates, Comenius (Comenius & Hoole, 1970) saw education as a journey through the world. “The student,” he explains, “should follow the teacher at every turn, and the teacher should ever lead the way” (p. 1). One would attend diligently; the other would ensure their example was mastered “with utmost faithfulness” (Comenius & Jelinek, 1953, p. 116). This was not to be the forced march of traditional schooling. His own bitter experience under the rod provided ample proof that learning was not easily imposed upon the child. Lessons would start with what was known and proceed through steps—big or small, rapid or slow—that ensured comprehension. Discipline was essential. Like tongs holding iron to the anvil while the hammer beat its shape, so the teacher must grip the students’ attention in order to give the right stamp to their intellect. But external force was counterproductive; it was better to employ the internal mechanisms of respect, emulation, even anxiety. Physical punishment might be a last resort, but the classroom would run far more efficiently on an economy of praise and shame with constant testing, surveillance, and rewards. Given the remarkable capacity of the brain to form and remember impressions, Comenius was particularly concerned that the child be protected from false ideas. Once admitted, error was nearly impossible to remove. This demanded the strict censorship of any publication that did not accord with God’s teaching—a practice employed at the Herborn press.

By the time Comenius completed his work for the Swedish government, the political landscape of Europe had been redrawn by the Peace of Westphalia. Things did not work out well for the Brethren. Permanently exiled from Bohemia, Comenius was forced to oversee the demise of the church and the dispersion of its members. Following in the footsteps of Alsted, he journeyed to Hungary to open a pansophic school and promote educational reform (Földes & Mészáros, 1973). While he had some notable successes, religious contest among the faculty and public apathy soon soured him to the project (Spinka, 1943). By 1654 he was back in Leszno with his family and remaining members of the church. It was here, in 1658, that his library and vast trove of manuscripts were lost as troops raised the town in reprisal for Protestant support of the Swedish invasion of Poland. Comenius escaped to Amsterdam, to spend his final years under the patronage of the De Geer family, desperately rewriting his pansophic corpus as his health failed. Mired in theological controversies, his reputation quickly faded and his major writings, including the Consultatio, entrusted to his son-in-law, remained unpublished until their discovery in the 1930s (Rood, 1970).

The one truly significant text of this period to have an historical impact was Orbis pictus. Published on his return from Hungry with the aid of a German engraver, this visually striking primer was intended to be the child’s first book. It was designed to make initial impressions. On one hand visually engaging illustrations would capture children’s interests and lead them effortlessly to a comprehension of written language. Boys and girls, Comenius advised, should be encouraged to turn the pages, explore the pictures, sketch, and even act out scenes. Not only would this “merry pastime” train their senses for intellectual work, it would ensure they developed the love of learning necessary for formal schooling (p. xvi).

On the other hand, because there was nothing in the mind that did not come through the experience, he sought to lay a true and firm foundation for future instruction. The natural appeal of the drawings facilitated this process by fixing attention as core ideas were impressed upon the developing brain. The traditional toil of instruction resulted from the use of words without meaning and the irrelevance of content. In contrast, Comenius taught only what was evident, useful, and necessary. To this end, he offered a general encyclopedia of the world; the particulars would be filled in during later studies. Following the pansophic path from Ideals to Naturals to Artificals to Spirituals to Eternals, prime concepts were explained by annotated pictures that demonstrated the harmonious part–whole relations of God’s creation. More than a factual account of the 17th-century world, this was a morally prescriptive representation of a wise, good, and pious life.

Moving from simple to complex, learning started with a symbolic alphabet that taught the sound of letters through association with animal cries. Next came practice enunciating strings of syllables. Children would then work through the book reading the page titles with the aid of accompanying diagrams. After much repetition they would turn to the vernacular passages below. At this point a grammar could be employed to teach the parts of speech. Finally, when proficient in their first language, they would commence Latin, using the illustrations and parallel text to fathom the meanings of words. While the larger purpose of Orbis pictus no doubt escaped most parents and teachers, it is uncontestable that this remarkable work—foreshadowing contemporary children’s books—played an important part in the development of Western literacy.

Obviously, books alone would not reform human nature and restore the “image of God in man.” In The school of infancy (1631) he warned parents that children naturally imitate the behaviors they observe in others. Given the potent force of example, the greatest care had to be taken to ensure the virtuous conduct of the entire household. In his later writings Comenius (1993, 1995) extends this mandate to the entire community. Promising a “golden age wherein the brightness of true wisdom would influence the minds of all men,” he advocated a totalizing system of psychological controls (p. 51). In this didactic state language, the calendar, customs, laws, religious practices, the home, and all other social institutions would be regulated to ensure compliance with pansophic truths. At times Comenius sounds quite Orwellian. He demanded the censorship of dissenting opinion and silence before the word of God. Indeed, if mankind was to live under the monarchy of the Almighty children had to be taught that the human conscience operated “like your spy, your reporter, your future accuser and judge” (p. 22). The Old Adam had to be killed for Christ to reign within.

While this picture of reason, freedom, and equality may accord with life in the harmonious Eden of Orbis pictus, it is hard to see how it supports policies in an open society. Comenius’ expansive vision of education, his attention to the child’s natural powers, and his creative use of sense-based instruction were revolutionary. Indeed, there is much we can still learn from his sensitive and subtle insights, but his goal of regulating individuals to think and act in accordance with universal truths is clearly at odds with democratic ideals and the kind of creative problem-solving skills needed for life in an ever-changing world.

With these strictures in mind, Comenian scholarship still has much to offer. Analysis of his voluminous writings, together with contextual explorations of his many practical projects, can provide an unparalleled window into the political, religious, and epistemic landscape of the 17th-century world. Researchers can also explore Comenius’ influence on other educational and religious thinkers across the continent. For example, informed by Hotson’s (2007) analysis of Ramist pedagogy, historians could take a closer look at Comenius’ association with Hartlib and John Dury. This would help illuminate European influences on the educational aspirations of English Puritans, perhaps revealing, as John White (2011) speculates, the origins of the modern secondary school curriculum and its accompanying instructional methods. No doubt, Comenius’ writings will continue to be mined for pedagogic and political insights. At a time when attention is focused on narrow utilitarian goals, his concern with the whole child—their affective, intellectual, moral, and spiritual development—demonstrates a vital standard any philosophy of education must meet. The promise of peace through universal education also remains a potent message. The challenge will be to make sense of these ideals while recognizing the religious origins of Comenius’ pansophic vision and epistemological justification of his didactic method.


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