John Amos Comenius (Czech Jan Amos Komenský; German Johann Amos Comenius; Latin: Iohannes Comenius) (March 28, 1592 – November 15, 1670) was a Czech teacher, scientist, educator, and writer. He was a Moravian Protestant bishop, a religious refugee, and one of the earliest champions of universal education. Comenius became known as the "Father of Modern Education."
Comenius was a visionary thinker who had many practical ideas in the field of education. His numerous publications include his famous children's textbook, Orbis Pictus, and Didactica Magna, in which he set forth a Christian program of learning from nature, which he viewed as God’s second textbook. Comenius' philosophy, called "Pansophism," was ahead of its time, advocating the unification of all knowledge combined with social reform to make it accessible to all people all over the world. Through the development and dissemination of this "universal knowledge," he believed that humankind would come to live in harmony, establishing a peaceful world.
Johann Amos Komensky (in English known as John Amos Comenius) was born on March 28, 1592. The birthplace of Comenius is not exactly known. There are two presumed locations: Komňa, a small village where his parents lived and from where he takes his name (Czech: Komňa = Komenský; Comenius is a Latinized form), and the most likely location, Nivnice, Moravia, now in the Czech Republic.
Comenius studied at Herborn in Hesse and at Heidelberg. They were universities where Protestants were allowed to study, and it was there that Comenius met figures who were influencing European scientific, theological, and philosophical thought. It was a period of great reforms. He was greatly influenced by the Irish Jesuit William Bathe, who wrote Janua Linguaram (The Messe of Tongues) as well as his teachers, Johann Piscator, Heinrich Gutberleth, and, particularly, Heinrich Alsted.
Invigorated by his studies, Comenius returned to Moravia in 1614, first to teach, and then to run a parish. His first efforts as a theologian and educator were compiling the very first Czech encyclopedia, called The Theater of All Things.
In the meantime, however, on the political front, the rapid deterioration of relations between the Czech Estates (the parliament consisting of the Czech nobility, and the only one in the land) and the Habsburgs eventually culminated on November 8, 1620, when the Catholic armies routed Czech Protestant forces at the Battle of White Mountain, just outside Prague. The defeat marked the end of the Protestant dream of religious freedom, and marked the beginning of forced re-Catholicization of the Czech lands, the so-called “Counter Reformation.”
During this period of the Thirty Years War, Comenius led his Protestant brethren into exile in order to escape severe persecution. He lived and worked in many different countries in Europe, including Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Transylvania, the Holy Roman Empire, England, the Netherlands, and Royal Hungary.
Comenius took refuge in Leszno, in Poland, where he led the gymnasium. He then went to Sweden to work with Queen Christina and the chancellor Axel Oxenstierna. From 1642-1648, he went to Elbing (Elbląg) in Polish Royal Prussia, then to England with the aid of Samuel Hartlib, who came originally from Elbing.
After the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Comenius and his exiled Brethren lost hope of returning to their homeland. Comenius was invited to establish a school in Hungary. Although the school failed, he was able to prepare the manuscript of his textbook, which was later published as Orbis Pictus (The World in Pictures).
Comenius eventually returned to Leszno, and during the Northern Wars in 1655, declared his support for the Protestant Swedish side, for which his house, his manuscripts, and the school's printing press were burned down by Polish partisans in 1656. From there, he took refuge in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, where he died in 1670. For unclear reasons, he was buried in Naarden, where his grave can be visited in the mausoleum devoted to him.
From the persecution and hardships he suffered in his life, Comenius came to develop a philosophy, called "pansophism," which emphasized political unity, spiritual redemption, and religious reconciliation, and cooperation in education. This philosophy of pansophism related education to everyday life and called for systematic harmonizing principles to be developed for all knowledge.
If Comenius aimed for any one ideal, it was a synthetic system that, instead of splitting up the disciplines or bodies of knowledge, would "bring together all knowledge into one consistent scheme." Comenius called his version of this massive enterprise "Pansophism," which was "the unification of all scientific, philosophical, political, and religious knowledge into one all-embracing, harmonious world view."
The basic pansophic principles set out by Comenius are as follows:
Comenius' book, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, published around 1620, is first and foremost an allegory, using imagery and devices popular in allegorical writing in Comenius' day. In the book, he presents the world as "a town" and all its inhabitants as its "dwellers," all who have lost their way in different labyrinths of their own making.
The story's narrator is the Pilgrim, who is accompanied on his journey by two highly questionable guides named Ubiquitous and Delusion. Upon the Pilgrim's wish they take him to the town to investigate, as Comenius puts it, "all things under the sun." There, he hopes to find not only underlying happiness but also meaning. Instead, the Pilgrim is shocked to discover the basest of human behavior: Hypocrisy, foolishness, and moral depravity, often leading to untimely death.
Even as the trio approach from afar, the Pilgrim senses things are somehow amiss. But, at least, the Pilgrim is fortunate in being able to see things as they really are. Though his guide Delusion gives him a pair of what could be called "rose-colored glasses," the glasses fit the Pilgrim poorly so that he sees over their rim. Unbeknownst to his guides, he views the world in its true form. And it’s not a pretty sight.
Comenius spares no one and no profession: Not the lower or higher castes, not the nobility, or the beggars, the philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, or knights. After experiencing a series of absurd situations one after another, the Pilgrim finally despairs. Men, Comenius suggests, had forgotten where to look for spiritual redemption. It is in The Labyrinth of the World's second part, The Paradise of the Heart, where the possibility for hope and renewal is addressed.
Salvation is to be found in the interior, in humanity's soul, in this case in the acceptance of Christ. Thus, in the end, this major work reveals the eternal hope for a better world, a theme that would become central to Comenius' thought and an important part of his legacy.
Although the book is actually a reflection of his own life experience, Comenius’ genius made it a perfect mirror of the life and struggles of people that were trapped in the life behind the Iron Curtain during the Communist era, inclusive of the “rose-colored” glasses, “Potemkin Villages,” and all.
Comenius' philosophy of pansophism presents the goal of education as the development of universal knowledge among all people, including women and children, and all nations. Comenius envisaged educated people as those who sought knowledge from all sources in order to become more like the God in whose image they were made—omniscient and universally compassionate. For Comenius, though, education was not for the rich or other elite, but for everyone. He advocated universal education, teaching children both in their native language as well as Latin, the universal language in Europe at the time. In this way, his educational system retained the uniqueness of individual culture while at the same time promoting the unity of humankind.
Comenius wrote several textbooks on education. These were so original that they won him the name "Father of Modern Education." He advocated the establishment of a universal system of education with opportunities that included women and peoples of all nations. Throughout his life, Comenius worked for educational, scientific, and cultural cooperation, enlightenment, and understanding. He was a philosopher, theologian, cartographer, but most importantly, the first modern educational theorist:
As the whole world is a school for the human race… so every individual's lifetime is a school from the cradle to the grave. (Comenius 1633)
To begin with, he saw children through Christ's eyes: Precious gifts from God to be cherished, rather than annoyances to be suppressed. For Comenius, children will be joint heirs of Christ just as much as their Christian parents. Some day they will rule in the Kingdom of God and judge the very devils. However unimportant they seem now, they are actually of inestimable importance.
Therefore, children are to be treated as if more precious than gold. They should be showered with love. Materials should be adapted to their ability to learn. Since a combination of words and pictures is more powerful than either alone, the two should be united in children's texts. Curricula should move from simpler to more complex, with repetition and review so that the learner will gain mastery.
Comenius' book, Orbis Pictus (1658), was the first picture book for teaching children and remained a standard text in Europe (and in America) for over 200 years. In it he expressed his views:
Children ought to be dearer to parents than gold and silver, than pearls and gems, may be discovered from a comparison between both gifts of God; for…Gold and silver are fleeting and transitory; children an immortal inheritance. … Never should children be punished for failing but rather helped and encouraged. The subjects taught should have practical use. Where possible, demonstration and direct observation should be the norm (Comenius 1658).
If Comenius' ideas sound highly modern, it is because they were not applied for centuries. It has taken the world a long time to catch up with Comenius, and there is much of value to be mined from his vast writings. Like modern educators, Comenius used pictures, maps, charts, and other visual aids. He even brought drama into the classroom. In his system, there were four grades, equivalent to pre-school, grade school, high school, and college. He was also an advocate of continuing education, believing that learning should be a lifelong process.
John Amos Comenius was a seventeenth century visionary and innovator. He tended to think in big pictures, and believed that much of life's learning should be woven together, a concept he called Via Lucis, or "way of light."
His ideas had both creative and practical perspectives. Comenius was the first person to use pictures in textbooks, and he was the first to recognize that the play of childhood was learning. He is widely regarded as the "Father of Modern Education," and advocated learning for all—including the poor and women, ideas that were unheard of in his day.
He wrote more than 200 books on his educational system of rounded curriculum and human betterment. He became world-renowned for his progressive views of education and was offered the first presidency of Harvard. Comenius, however, never lived in the United States, spending most of his life in exile in England and in Holland, where he died. Still, his work has affected human rights and the unity and freedom of humankind all over the world.
Centuries later, Comenius came to represent exile symbolically for thousands of Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, other Eastern Europeans, and Jews, who themselves were forced to flee in the twentieth century, following occupation by the Nazis, communist putsches, and Soviet-led invasions and occupations.
Most appropriately, the Comenius Medal, one of UNESCO’s most prestigious awards honoring outstanding achievements in the fields of education, research, and innovation, is named after him.
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