"Not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, should be sent to school." ~ John Amos Comenius, 1649
John Amos Comenius came from a poor family in what is now the Czech Republic. Forever dedicated to his native soil and people, his surname even means ‘the man from Komňa,’ the village of his birth. He was the youngest child and only son of five children. Tragically, he was orphaned at the age of twelve when his parents and two sisters died from the plague, which was rampant. Moving in with his aunt, he soon experienced more horrors in a religious conflict and lost his home again. In fact, all his life, Comenius lived in a period of the greatest religious intolerance, violence, and brutality in Europe. Still, instead of turning to despair and hate, the great genius would dedicate his life to the idea that education will bring peace to mankind.
Photo: John Amos Comenius, courtesy of the Comenius National Pedagogical Museum and Library, www.npmk.cz
Comenius started school when he was sixteen in Přerov in Moravia and then continued his education in German schools, including the University of Heidelberg. A highly religious man, he became the head of the Brethren school in Přerov upon his return and was ordained minister of the Unity of the Brethren, which was a branch of the Czech Reformation movement and gradually developed into a Protestant denomination. Unfortunately, the fate of Europe took a dark turn in 1618 as the 30 Year War broke out when Bohemian Protestant nobility threw the Holy Roman Emperor’s representatives out of a window at Prague Castle. The war brought more violence, famine, and death. His wife of four years Magdalene and their two sons died of the plague in 1622. Heartbroken, Comenius devoted himself to writing, penning one of his masterpieces, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, which explores a spiritual journey to the true meaning of life.
Photo: This is a view of the city of Brno, Czech Republic, from Spilberk Castle, overlooking the John Amos Comenius Church, nicknamed the "Red Church" after the bricks used to build it.
The anti-reformation movement forced Comenius into exile. In 1620, the Czech nation lost the historically famous Battle of White Mountain near Prague. It marked the first major victory of the Roman Catholic Habsburgs over Protestants. Religious persecution of non-Catholics followed, forcing Comenius to go into hiding. All his writings, stored in the town hall in Fulnek, were burned by the Catholics in 1623. While in refuge, Comenius met his second wife Dorothy, with whom he would have three daughters and a son. As Protestants were outlawed, Comenius led his family and the followers of the Unity of Brethren over the mountains in January of 1628 to Poland, settling in Leszno. Comenius remained in exile for the rest of his life; however, he continued to fight for and believe in the eventual liberation of the Czech people. His dream was not fulfilled until 1918.
Photo: John Amos Comenius, courtesy of the Comenius National Pedagogical Museum and Library in Prague, www.npmk.cz
Comenius found refuge in Leszno, becoming the local school’s headmaster. Up to then, education was available only to the elite classes, exclusively to boys. It was based on memorization and offered in Latin. Concentrating on teaching, Comenius observed students, found faults in the pedagogical approaches of the period, and formulated his own lessons accordingly. He wrote workbooks, booklets on teaching methods, and books on educational theory. He devised the idea that language lessons must relate words to things in reality. He urged teachers to use the students’ native language as well as Latin to explain the meanings of new words. His book The Gate of Languages Unlocked on the topic was published in 1631 and brought him international fame. Translated into eleven European and five Asian languages, it was the most read book in Europe, except for the Bible, at that time.
Photo: A stamp featuring John Amos Comenius, courtesy of the Comenius National Pedagogical Museum and Library, www.npmk.cz
Albeit his progressiveness was met with some opposition, the Brethren recognized Comenius’ wisdom and consecrated him as bishop in the Unity of the Brethren in 1632. Comenius believed in the immanence of God and the imminence of God's kingdom on Earth. Despite the raging war in Europe, he was confident that humanity will find a better way. Comenius saw children as God’s most precious gift, noting that “a child is a precious gem above rubies, but fragile above glass.” Advocating against corporal punishment, he urged love towards children, as they are the future. He thought that education should begin at a very early age with mothers being the teachers, publishing his views in the book The School of Infancy. It was the world’s first book which concentrated on fundamental pre-school education for children up to age six.
Taking his revolutionary ideas to the next level, Comenius understood that if mothers are the first teachers of their children, then it is crucial that girls be educated as well. Reflecting on his observations, he even acknowledged that many times girls’ minds are quicker. Centuries ahead of his time, the great humanist laid out his principle of universal education in the Czech Didactic in 1632, rewriting it later into the Great Didactic in 1657. He argued that “Not only children of the rich and noble shall be admitted to school, but all of them shall be treated the same way – noble or lowborn, rich or poor, boys or girls, in all cities and towns, villages or settlements, because those who were born, they were born as human beings and their main goal was to be educated for all human.”
Photo: Comenius Hall, Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA
Comenius further devised a system on how to teach all human beings. In the Great Didactic, he organized the school system in a way similar to the current American system, outlining kindergarten, elementary school, secondary school, and college and university levels. He believed in graded education and teaching children according to their age level and degree of understanding, bringing outside experience into the classroom. Lessons should begin with simple material, moving on to ones that are more complex. Teachers should be friendly, utilize the children’s native language, and help children remember material by repeating it, instead of demanding memorization. Students should travel to broaden their horizons. These concepts were groundbreaking at the time and earned Comenius a place in history as the “Father of Modern Education.”
Photo: Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia
Wishing to lead mankind out of suffering, Comenius maintained that only through an educational system of universal knowledge would the world achieve peace and harmony. He believed that ignorance was the cause of all wars. His ideas were heard far and wide. The great pedagogue received many invitations by those interested in his pansophic teachings. On the bequest of parliamentarians, Comenius travelled to England to reform public education in 1641. In The Way of Light, he portrayed his vision for establishing universal textbooks and schools, a common language, and a universal academy. When the English Civil War broke out, Comenius turned down an offer to become the first president of Harvard University and left for Sweden. In return for creating new textbooks while staying in Swedish controlled Elbing on the Baltic Coast, he asked that the Czech people be given independence at the end of the 30 Years’ War. The promise was not upheld at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, dashing Comenius’ hopes of returning home once again.
Photo: John Amos Comenius featured on a Czech banknote
Yearning to continue his writings, Comenius returned with his family to Leszno in 1648. Yet, tragedy stuck again just two days upon their return with the death of his wife. In sorrow, Comenius wrote the Testament of the Dying Mother: The Unity of Brethren, encouraging Czechs not to give up hope for self-governance. Left caring for his young children alone, Comenius married, for the third time, to Jana in 1649 and took his new family to Hungary to put his pansophic system into practice. To heighten curiosity and imagination, Comenius encouraged teaching through playing as learning should be enjoyable. He wrote several theater plays for his pupils in School as Play. Moreover, he penned his most influential work yet, The World in Pictures. It was the first illustrated language textbook in the world and was translated into twelve European languages, becoming the most popular children’s textbook for the next hundred years and more. It was printed in the United States until 1887!
Comenius returned to Leszno for a third time in 1654, but his stay was short lived as the Swedes invaded Poland. Seen as a traitor who helped the Swedes in the past, Comenius was again a fugitive. Polish forces besieged Leszno and burned it down, along with Comenius’ manuscripts. Comenius was able to escape with his family to Amsterdam, where he spent the rest of his life writing tirelessly, publishing forty-three works. His main wish was to convince nations to live in harmony, publishing his hopes in the General Consultation on the Improvement of Human Affairs. As another war broke out, this time between the Netherlands and England, Comenius never saw his dreams realized. At the end of his life, Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn portrayed his likeness in his painting, A Portrait of an Old Man. This year, as we remember the great pedagogue on the 350th anniversary of his death, Comenius remains a symbol of the Czech nation. His birthday is celebrated as Teachers’ Day in the Czech Republic and universities honor his name around the world. Moreover, UNESCO awards the Comenius Medal to individuals who have greatly influenced education.