Eve Anderson was five years old when she first set foot in a PNEU school (Anderson, 2004, p. 10). Perhaps this early school experience affected her decision as a young woman to enroll in the Charlotte Mason College, formerly the House of Education:
I was fortunate enough to spend three years at the college, albeit nearly thirty years after the death of Charlotte Mason, but we were given a thorough understanding of the philosophy by reading (and narrating) her educational books. The spirit of Charlotte Mason lived on in her college. It was always a small college where each individual was an important person. Many of the lecturers had been trained at the college, and there were still people around who had known Charlotte Mason. (Anderson, 2004, p. 9)
In the sunset years of her life, she shared many of her experiences with the pioneers of the modern revival of the Charlotte Mason method; in 2004 she wrote:
In many ways during the last few years I have been the link between the past and the future in Charlotte Mason circles. (Anderson, 2004, p. 10)
Although her life has passed on to eternity, her writings still bear witness to her link back to Charlotte Mason. Many of her personal artifacts may be found in the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection, including her pair of undated notebooks entitled “History of Education.” These notebooks give us a glimpse into how the story of education was viewed by someone who was taught by teachers who “had known Charlotte Mason.” Her notebook contains her hand-written insights on education from the classical ages to more recent times. But one figure bears a unique title in her notes: John Amos Comenius, whom she called the “Father of modern teaching” (Anderson, n.d.a, p. 7).
We will see that there are many good reasons for Anderson to give Comenius that title. She summarized one of the primary reasons on page 8:
Instruction must be fitted to the child not child to instruction. Education is the right of every human being. He foretold what Montessori carried out. Nothing should be taught before it can be comprehended. Children should only be admitted to schools once a year. Schools should be an imitation of Heaven. (Anderson, n.d.a, p. 8)
Anderson situated Comenius in the history of education as the first in a new school of equational theorists who pointed to “sense” as the source of knowledge and learning (Anderson, n.d.b, p. 38):
According to Anderson, Comenius began a break from the classical tradition of education that enabled a new basis for education and paved the way for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Maria Montessori, and ultimately, Charlotte Mason.
John Amos Comenius
John Amos Comenius was born in 1592 in the village of Nivnice which is in the modern-day Czech Republic. His acquaintance with tragedy began at an early age:
Little is known about his family background. It is said that his father, Martin, was a miller… At the age of twelve, however, Comenius lost both his parents and two of his sisters to the plague. The family was divided, and John was sent off to his aunt in the nearby town of Stráz̆nice. (Louthan & Sterk, 1998, pp. 9-10)
Nivnice was a Moravian village, and “Comenius’s family were devout members of the Bohemian Brethren” (Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 11). The Brethren were a product of the Bohemian Reformation that began with Jan Hus (1369-1415). Comenius received a robust education at the Reformed gymnasium of Herborn which substantially influenced his personal philosophy:
Both Johann Fischer, the biblical exegete from Strassburg, and Johann Heinrich Alsted were among its faculty. Alsted had a profound influence on the young Comenius. A disciple of Peter Ramus, his anti-Aristotelian bias became an important part of Comenius’s thinking… Alsted’s emphasis on the Bible as the sole arbiter of truth also remained with Comenius. (Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 10)
After completing his education, Comenius was ordained a minister of the Bohemian Brethren. In this part of his life he experienced genuine happiness:
He was not appointed to any special charge till 1618, when he was set over ‘the most flourishing of all the churches of the Moravian Brethren, that of Fulneck,’ near Troppau. Along with his ministerial charge, he had the superintendence of a school recently erected; and he now began to consider more fully the subject of instruction, and to put his thoughts on paper. Here too he married, and for two or three years spent a happy and active life, enjoying the only period of tranquility in his native country which it was ever his fortune to experience. For the restoration of a time so happy he never ceased to pine during all his future wanderings. (Laurie, p. 31)
A life of wanderings began once war destroyed the peace of Fulnek:
The Thirty Years’ War broke out, and in 1621 Fulneck was taken by the Spaniards, and all the property of Comenius destroyed, including his library and manuscripts. (Laurie, 1892, p. 32)
Tragedy for Comenius continued:
War was not the only cause of Comenius’s sufferings. Fleeing the imperial army, he was compelled to leave behind his wife, who was pregnant with another child. She returned to her mother in Pr̆erov, and there, along with her two children, she died from the plague in 1622. (Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 13)
The flight from Fulnek eventually led him to Poland. Having lost his parish, his home, his library, his wife, and his children, he poured himself into what would become his life’s work: a new philosophy of education:
Comenius remained in Leszno [in Poland] until 1641. He served as pastor of his refugee band and also directed the local gymnasium. It was in this period that he wrote one of his most important works on education, The Great Didactic. (Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 13)
Comenius continued to write many books on education which were very well received. He becomes a superstar across Europe, but despite his fame, he was never able to return to his Bohemian homeland. The man who has been called “the father of modern learning” summarized the trajectory of his life as follows:
My life was a continuous wandering. I never had a home. Without pause I was constantly tossed about. Nowhere did I ever find a secure place to live. (Comenius, as cited in Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 9)
What was the nature of the educational ideas that brought this tragic sojourner to fame and which impacted the world of education forever? To properly answer this question, we must explore Comenius’s rejection of the classical tradition, and his new foundation for education.
Rejecting the Classical Tradition
As mentioned previously, Comenius’s initial studies in 1611 brought him under the influence of Johann Heinrich Alsted, who bequeathed to Comenius a bias against Aristotle and a trust in the Bible as the ultimate standard of truth. These views are reflected in Comenius’s most famous book on theology, entitled The Labyrinth of the World and The Paradise of the Heart. Comenius completed The Labyrinth in 1623, many years before he began writing his momentous The Great Didactic (Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 13). Often compared to The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Labyrinth is the great allegory of the Czech Language. However, it is an allegory that closely maps to Comenius’s own life. In the opening pages, Comenius wrote:
Reader, what you will read is no mere invention, even though it may bear resemblance to a fable; rather, these are true events that you will recognize once you have understood, especially you who know something of my life and circumstances. For the most part, I have described here adventures that I myself experienced over several years of my life. (Comenius, as cited in Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 9)
Thus, The Labyrinth may be understood as a symbolic autobiography. One of the most interesting portions of The Labyrinth is when he visits the school of classical education. His guide, named Ubiquitous, introduces the school as follows:
Now I will lead you among the philosophers, whose task it is to discover the means of correcting human deficiencies and to show where true wisdom lies. (Comenius, 1998, p. 102)
Comenius eagerly agrees to discover wisdom from these philosophers. But he is dismayed by what he finds:
But when he led me there and I observed the multitude of old men and their strange behavior and trivial antics, I stiffened. Indeed here Bion sat quietly; Anacharsis walked about; Thales flew; Hesiod plowed; Plato hunted in the air for ideas; Homer sang; Aristotle disputed; Pythagoras kept silent; Epimenides slept; Archimedes pushed back the earth; Solon wrote laws and Galen prescriptions; Euclid measured the hall; Cleobulus searched the future; Periander measured out duties; Pittacus waged war; Bias begged; Epictetus served; Seneca praised poverty while sitting amidst tons of gold; Socrates told everyone that he knew nothing; Xenophon, on the contrary, promised to teach everyone everything; Diogenes found fault with every passerby while peering out of a barrel; Timon cursed everybody. Democritus laughed at all this; Heraclitus, on the other hand, cried; Zeno fasted; Epicurus feasted; Anaxarchus proclaimed that all this was really nothing, but only seemed to be something real. There were many similar philosophers, and each one promulgated something special, which I neither remember nor wish to recall. “Are these then the wise men, the light of the world?” I exclaimed, observing this spectacle. “Alas, I had hoped for something else. These people are like peasants in a tavern. Each one howls his own song.” (Comenius, 1998, p. 102)
Immediately after rejecting classical philosophy, Comenius discovers the true source of wisdom:
Just then a certain man, dressed in the garb of a philosopher (he was called Paul of Tarsus), approached me and whispered in my ear: “If any one considers himself wise in this world, let him be a fool, that he may be made wise. Indeed the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’” (Comenius, 1998 p. 103)
Comenius proceeds to visit a series of halls and auditoriums, with one room dedicated to each of the seven liberal arts, comprised of the trivium and the quadrivium. Comenius describes the vanity he observes in the practice of each of these arts:
1. Among the grammarians
Then we came to an auditorium full of young and old who were drawing letters, lines, and points with writing implements. Whenever one wrote or said anything different from another, they either laughed at him or quarreled with him. Moreover, they hung words on the walls and disputed as to what belonged to which. Then they composed, separated, and rearranged them in different ways. Looking at this and seeing nothing in it, I said, “These are children’s games; let us go elsewhere.” (Comenius, 1998, p. 103)
2. Among the dialecticians
Going further, we entered another building where they made and sold eyeglasses. When I asked what they were, he replied that they were Notiones secundae. Whoever possessed them saw not only the surface but to the inner core… Some said that they could not see as deeply as had been promised; others affirmed that they could, and claimed to penetrate even the depths of the brain and intellect… But among this latter group I saw several people who, when they began to step forward, immediately fell over stones and logs and into pits. (As I have already said, the place was full of such obstructions.) “How is it that though everything can be seen through these glasses, yet they do not avoid these obstacles?” I inquired. (Comenius, 1998, pp. 104–105)
3. Among the rhetoricians
We entered another hall where many people stood with brushes discussing how words, either written or released from the mouth into the air, could be colored green, red, black, white, or whatever shade one desired. I asked why this was so.
“So that the listeners’ brain may be colored in this fashion or another,” my interpreter replied.
“Are these colors used for the portrayal of truth or lies?” I asked.
“Either one,” he answered.
“Then there is as much falsehood and vanity here as truth and benefit,” I concluded, and I went out from there. (Comenius, 1998, p. 103)
4. Among the arithmeticians
Meanwhile they recounted how in all of philosophy there was no more certain knowledge than theirs, for here there could be no error, no loss, no excess.
“What, then, is the purpose of this knowledge?” I asked.
Amazed at my stupidity, they began one after another to recount marvels to me. One told me without counting them how many geese were flying in a flock. Another told me how long it would take a cistern with five pipes to empty itself. A third told me how many pennies I had in my purse without looking into it. One even undertook to count the grains of sand of the sea and immediately wrote a book about it (Archimedes). Another, following his example (but wanting to show more subtleties), devoted himself to counting the dust flying in the sunlight (Euclid). (Comenius, 1998, p. 107)
5. Among the geometricians
There were many in this place drawing lines, angles, crosses, circles, squares, and points, each one quietly and by himself. Then one approached another, and they showed each other their work. One said that it should be done otherwise, another that it was done well. And so they quarreled. If one discovered some new line or hook, he cried out with joy and called others to show them. They envied him, pointed their fingers, and turned their heads. Each ran to his own corner and tried to do likewise. One succeeded, another did not. In time, the entire hall, the floor, the walls, and the ceiling were full of lines; and they allowed no one to tread on them or touch them. (Comenius, 1998, p. 107)
6. Among the musicians
Then we came to another room that was full of music, singing, and the clanging and strumming of various instruments. Some people were standing around them, observing them from above, from below, and from the sides. They bent their ears in their desire to grasp what the sound was, where it came from, where it was going, and how and why it either did or did not make noise. Some claimed that they already knew and rejoiced, saying that this was something divine and a mystery above all mysteries. Therefore, with great zest and frolicking, they took apart, put together, and transposed the sounds. But not one in a thousand succeeded in this endeavor; the others only watched. Whenever someone wanted to try out an instrument, it creaked and squeaked. This happened to me as well. So seeing a sufficient number of prominent people who considered this a childish game and a waste of time, I went away. (Comenius, 1998, p. 109)
7. Among the astronomers
Then Ubiquitous led me upstairs to a kind of gallery where I saw a crowd of people making ladders and setting them against the sky. Then they climbed up and caught stars; and stretching out strings, rulers, weights, and compasses, they measured their orbits. Some sat and wrote rules determining when, where, and how they should meet or diverge. I marveled at this human audacity, daring to raise itself to the skies and give orders to the stars. Having a desire myself for such a glorious science, I also began to study it eagerly. I tried my hand at it, but clearly observed that the stars danced to a different tune than that of the astronomers. They themselves perceived this and complained of “the anomaly of the sky.” They were always striving to place them in order, constantly changing their locations, bringing some down to earth or raising up the earth among them. In general, they contrived various hypotheses, but none of them agreed perfectly with the facts. (Comenius, 1998, p. 109)
After dismantling the seven arts of classical learning, Comenius finally sees something that appears promising:
The philosophers begged and exhorted all the passers-by to love the beautiful and to hate the ugly, praising the former and denouncing and abusing the latter as much as they could. This pleased me greatly, and I said, “At last I have found people who are doing something good for their generation.” Meanwhile, I noticed that those fine exhorters were no more partial to the beautiful than to the ugly pictures, nor did they refrain from the ugly any more than from the beautiful. In fact, not a few bustled very eagerly around the ugly ones. This sight attracted others also, and they dallied and amused themselves with these monstrosities. Then I said angrily, “Here I see that people say one thing and do another (as Aesop’s wolf commented); for what their mouths praise, their mind rejects; and what their tongue claims to abhor, to that their heart inclines.” (Comenius, 1998, p. 111)
Growing impatient from this final rejection, Ubiquitous issues his rebuke:
“I presume you are seeking angels among people!” the interpreter railed. “Will anything ever please you? You find fault everywhere.” (Comenius, 1998, p. 112)
Comenius does seem to find fault everywhere—until he meets Christ. Christ discloses the true model of education when He describes for Comenius the Holy Bible:
In place of all libraries, I give you this book in which you will find contained all the liberal arts. Your grammar will be the contemplation of my words; your dialectics, faith in them; your rhetoric, prayers and sighs; your science, examination of my works; your metaphysics, delight in me and in eternal things; your mathematics, calculating, weighing and measuring my blessings on the one hand, and the ingratitude of the world on the other. Your ethics will be my love, which will provide you with the rule for all your conduct toward me and toward your neighbors. You will pursue all this learning not in order to be seen [by others] but rather that you might draw nearer to me. And in all of this, the simpler you become, the more learned you will be. For my light illumines simple hearts. (Comenius, 1998, p. 191)
Comenius’s desire for this pure Christian philosophy may be traced to the influence not only of Alsted but also John Lewis Vies:
“Comenius received his first impulse as a sense-realist,” says Raumer, “from the well-known Spanish pedagogue John Lewis Vives, who had come out against Aristotle and disputation in favor of a Christian mode of philosophizing and the silent contemplation of nature.” (Monroe, 1900, p. 16)
Comenius’s experiences in the allegory of The Labyrinth are reflected in his writings on education. First, he expressed strong reservation about the classical writings themselves:
Comenius maintains at considerable length, and with occasional eloquence, the necessity of either banishing Pagan authors from schools, or at least of using them with caution. Realists like Comenius discouraged purely classical studies, not merely because they usurped the place which ought to be assigned to the study of subjects having a practical bearing on this life, but also because they obstructed or at least did not promote, the true ends of a Christian school. (Laurie, 1892, p. 130)
Comenius justified this approach based on the heavenly wisdom he described in The Labyrinth:
[Comenius] reminds his readers that it is the business of Christian schools to form citizens, not merely for this world, but also for heaven, and that accordingly children should read mainly those authors who are well acquainted with heavenly as well as with earthly things. (Monroe, 1900, p. 103)
Comenius was concerned that the classical writers not only misunderstood heavenly things, but also earthly things:
The writings of Campanella convinced [Comenius] of the unwisdom of the study of nature from the works of Aristotle. Books, Campanella had declared, are but dead copies of life, and are full of error and deception. We must ourselves explore nature and write down our own thoughts, the living mirror which shows the reflection of God’s countenance. (Monroe, 1900, p. 35)
Comenius felt that the classical writers were in error because they did not employ proper methods to discern truth:
To acquire a proper understanding of the world, Comenius argued that one needed the help of nature and the tools of empiricism. It is not surprising, then, that he castigated the stale art of memory and an overdependence on the supposed wisdom of the ancients. (Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 21)
In fact, it seems that the only reason he found for retaining the classical authors was to aid in language instruction, required for participating in contemporary European academic and professional life:
… command over the Latin tongue as a vehicle of expression was the prime necessity of the time for all who meant to devote themselves to professions and to learning… (Laurie, 1892, p. 223)
When [Comenius] has to speak of the … ancient classical writers,—he exhibits great distrust of them, and if he does not banish them from the school altogether, it is simply because the higher instruction in the Latin and Greek tongues is seen to be impossible without them. (Laurie, 1892, pp. 216–217)
But Comenius deplored the method of Latin instruction of his day, and described it as follows:
As to the study of the Latin tongue—good Heavens! how laborious, how intricate, how prolix! Mere scullions, cooks, and soldiers will learn one, two, or three foreign tongues more quickly than the pupils of our schools will learn Latin only; and these know little of it, and are dependent on their lexicons. This must arise from a bad method. Well may the distinguished Lubinus say, that, when he thinks of the immense labor, tedium, and loss in the teaching of Latin, he is disposed to think that the method must have been invented by some evil genius—an enemy of the human race. But why multiply testimony? I myself am an unhappy instance of wasted boyhood and youth—years misspent, the memory of which I recall with tears and sighs. But the past is irrevocable. Let us do better for our posterity. (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, pp. 82-83)
Just as Ubiquitous said, Comenius did indeed seem to find fault everywhere. Barbara Beatty’s evaluation is well-justified in light of the facts:
Comenius believed all children should be educated together because God had made all persons in His image. As traditional, classical methods of education had obviously failed to make men and women pious and capable of living together in harmony, he also thought new educational methods were necessary. Like later Enlightenment and romantic philosophers, Comenius looked to nature to provide the guidelines for a new pedagogy. (Beatty, 1995, p. 2)
A New Foundation for Education
As Beatty indicates, Comenius rejected the classical method of education and looked for a new foundation. He was prepared so start completely fresh, and he even felt that the tragedies of his own life had prepared him to make a new beginning:
[Comenius] found a consolation for his misfortunes in the work of invention, and even saw the hand of Providence in the coincidence of the overthrow of schools through persecutions and wars, and those ideas of a new method which had been vouchsafed to him, and which he was elaborating. Everything might now be begun anew, and untrammeled by the errors and prejudices of the past. (Laurie, 1892, p. 36)
He hoped to find a new foundation that would be stable:
… observing here and there some defects and gaps, I could not contain myself from attempting something that might rest upon an immovable foundation, and which, if it could be once found out, should not be subject to any ruin. Therefore, after many workings and tossing’s of my thoughts, by reducing everything to the immovable laws of nature, I lighted upon my Great didactic, which shows the art of teaching all things to all men. (Comenius, as cited in Monroe, 1900, pp. 142-143)
Comenius believed that “the immovable laws of nature” could be discerned by observing the natural world. Once understood, these principles could be used to develop a method of education:
By looking to nature, Comenius developed a rigorous pedagogical science that drew its laws by analogy from life. (Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 13)
Consistent with this commitment, we find Comenius constantly basing his educational recommendations not on the classical tradition but on the patterns he observed in the natural world. He tied virtually every one of his recommendations to some kind of precedent in nature. I will share just a few examples:
Nature attends to a fit time.
Birds do not begin the work of multiplying their species in winter. So with other natural operations, such as the growth in a garden; the season determines all. Right in the teeth of this, schools do not choose a fit time for exercising the minds of pupils; and they do not so accurately arrange the exercises as to insure that all things advance infallibly through their own successive steps.
Just as Nature chooses spring as the time of preparation for future products, so the right time is boyhood—the spring of life. The right time of the day is the morning hours, which is the spring of the day… (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, pp. 84-85)
Nature begins all its operations from within outwards‚ e.g. a tree grows from within, etc.
Teachers err herein, that instead of diligently explaining and articulating everything, they would acquit themselves of their task of instructing youth, by speaking, dictating, and exercising memory. (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, p. 86)
Nature begins all its formation from generals, and thence proceeds to specialize—e.g., it warms and nourishes the whole mass of the egg, and does not form first the head, then the wings, then the feet, but, having warmed the whole, it sends its creative force into the special parts, and there specializes… So with instruction, the outline should first be given. (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, p. 87)
Nature begins from pure elements.
The egg which is to be hatched is pure. The tender minds we seek to train should be free from distractions and uncorrupted. (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, pp. 89–90)
Nature predisposes matter so that it shall seek form.
The bird hatched desires to walk and to peck, and finally desires to fly.
(1.) The desire of knowing and learning is to be stirred up in boys in every way… (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, p. 90)
But Comenius did not only base his method on the precedent of nature. He also departed from classical tradition by insisting that knowledge itself was drawn primarily from nature through the senses. This decisive rejection of Aristotelian physics began with Comenius’s famous contemporary, Francis Bacon:
In 1605 there appeared a book which was destined to place educational method on a scientific foundation, although its mission is not yet, it is true, accomplished. This was Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, which was followed, some years later, by the Organon. For some time the thoughts of men had been turning to the study of Nature. Bacon represented this movement, and gave it the necessary impulse by his masterly survey of the domain of human knowledge, his pregnant suggestions, and his formulation of scientific method…
But Bacon not only represented the urgent longing for a co-ordination of the sciences and for a new method; he also represented the weariness of words, phrases, and vain subtleties which had been gradually growing in strength since the time of Montaigne, Ludovicus Vives, and Erasmus… It was the study of the realities of sense that was finally to place education on a scientific basis, and make reaction, as to method at least, impossible. (Laurie, 1892, p. 19)
Known as the “founder of modern realism” (Monroe, 1900, p. 23), Bacon urged a modern outlook which would not be tied to classical precedents:
Speaking again of classical culture, [Bacon] says: “These older generations fell short of many of our present knowledges; they know but a small part of the world, and but a brief period of history. We, on the contrary, are acquainted with a far greater extent of the world, besides having discovered a new hemisphere, and we look back and survey long periods of history.” (Monroe, 1900, pp. 26-27)
Bacon felt that this modern outlook had profound implications for the education of young people:
Instead of training children to interrogate nature for themselves, and to interpret the answers to these interrogations, instead of going straight to nature herself, the schools are forever teaching what others have thought and written on the subject. This procedure, according to Bacon, not only displays lack of pedagogic sense, but gives evidence of ignorance and self-conceit, and inflicts the greatest injury on philosophy and learning. (Monroe, 1900, p. 25)
Comenius read Bacon and was profoundly impacted by his ideas:
‘But when,’ [Comenius] says, ‘Bacon’s Instauratio Magna came into my hands—a wonderful work, which I consider the most instructive philosophical work of the century now beginning—I saw in it that Campanella’s demonstrations are wanting in that thoroughness which is demanded by the truth of things…’ He goes on … to say that he is convinced that it is not Aristotle who must be master of philosophy for Christians, but that philosophy must be studied fully according to the leading of sense, reason, and books. ‘For,’ he continues, ‘do we not dwell in the garden of Nature as well as the ancients? Why should we not use our eyes, ears, and noses as well as they? And why should we need other teachers than these our senses to learn to know the works of Nature? Why, say I, should we not, instead of these dead books, lay open the living book of Nature, in which there is much more to contemplate than any one person can ever relate, and the contemplation of which brings much more of pleasure, as well as of profit?’ It is this realism which explains his school-books and also his method. (Laurie, 1892, pp. 43–44)
Comenius took Bacon’s ideas of modern science and systematized them into a method of education. He wrote:
It is evident, therefore, that if we wish to develop a true love and knowledge of science, we must take special care to see that everything is learned by actual observation through sense-perception. This should be the golden rule of teachers: Everything should as far as possible be placed before the senses. (Comenius, as cited in Monroe, 1900, p. 98)
Because of his consistent and thoroughgoing application of his sense-perception rule, he is known as the head of the modern method of learning:
John Amos Comenius, … became the head, and still continues the head, of the Sense-realistic school. His works have a present and practical, and not merely an historical and speculative, significance. (Laurie, 1892, p. 24)
But Comenius did not only draw his pattern of education from nature. He also drew it from the teachings of Christ. For example, at the close of his life, his final educational utterance found the pattern for all education in the relationship between God the Father and God the Son:
‘The Idea of Didactic out of the Eternal Arcana.
‘The Son can do nothing of himself, save what he seeth the Father do; for what things soever he doeth, these doeth the Son likewise. The Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things.’—John 5:19.
From this flow the following propositions (since the ‘invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made,’ Rom. 1:20):—
1. That schools ought to be a kind of imitation of Heaven. (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, p. 212)
Furthermore, he looked to the words of Christ to find a new estimation of the nature of children:
And now, O Jesus Christ, Eternal Wisdom, who rejoiceth in the habitable parts of the earth, and whose delight is among the sons of men, who wast well pleased, when dwelling with us in the flesh, to converse with little ones and to think them worthy of thy embraces as being heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven, count worthy of Thy favor now those who do not disdain to serve Thy little ones; so that by means of them Thy Blessed Kingdom, here of Grace, there of Glory, may receive a goodly increase, worthy of Thee, the King of the Eternal World. (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, p. 214)
Since Comenius built upon a different foundation than the classical tradition, his method took a different form than classical education.
A New Model of Education
An educational historian wrote in 1900 of the sweeping scope of originality of Comenius’s method:
These reforms were not only far reaching, they were revolutionary; and they made possible the modern graded school.
“In scope and breadth of view,” remarks a modern historian, “the scheme was centuries in advance of its time, while many of the suggestions which it contained are but imperfectly carried into effect at the present day.” (Monroe, 1900, pp. 49, 64)
As already observed, one of Comenius’s innovations was to point to the senses, rather than books, as the source of learning. A second innovation of Comenius was to introduce a comprehensive curriculum that went well beyond the trivium and quadrivium of classical learning. He articulated the guiding principle for the curriculum as follows:
There is nothing in Heaven or Earth, or in the Waters, nothing in the Abyss under the earth, nothing in the Human Body, nothing in the Soul, nothing in Holy Writ, nothing in the Arts, nothing in Economy, nothing in Polity, nothing in the Church, of which the little candidates of Wisdom shall be wholly ignorant. (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, pp. 199–200)
In place of the seven liberal arts, Comenius proposed the following structure for the curriculum:
“1. Pansophia, or universal wisdom. This book should comprise the sum total of human wisdom, and be so expressed as to meet the requirements of both the present and future ages… Such first principles are God, the world, and common sense.”
“2. Panhistoria, or universal history. This work must comprehend the most vital facts of all ages… It might be arranged in six classes—Bible history, natural history, history of inventions, history of morals, history of the various religious rites, and general history.”
“3. General dogmatics. These have to treat of the different theories taken by human ingenuity, the false as well as the true, thereby preventing a relapse into vain speculations and dangerous errors.” (Comenius, as cited in Monroe, 1900, pp. 50-51)
In a highly innovative fashion, Comenius indicated that Pansophia and Panhistoria should be taught to all ages and all levels:
From the very beginning of their instruction, the (principles or) essential groundwork of all learning should be given. (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, p. 87)
This was a dramatic contrast to how education was conducted in era of Desiderius Erasmus:
School-instruction in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was substantially language-instruction; and the language chiefly, though not exclusively, taught was Latin. (Laurie, 1892, p. 154)
The whole field of what we now call Secondary Instruction was occupied with the one subject of Latin; Greek, and occasionally Hebrew, having been admitted only in the beginning of the sixteenth century, and then only to a subordinate place. This of necessity. Latin was the one key to universal learning. To give to boys the possession of this key was all that teachers aimed at until their pupils were old enough to study Rhetoric and Logic. (Laurie, 1892, pp. 34–35)
Against Erasmus and other classical educators, Comenius advocated that Latin instruction be deferred to later years:
First of all, the mother-tongue should be learned; then a modern language—that of a neighboring nation; after this, Latin; and, lastly, Greek and Hebrew… Comenius, it will be recalled, was at variance with his contemporaries in deferring instruction in Latin until the child was twelve years old. (Monroe, 1900, pp. 101, 119)
Comenius refused to attach any special significance to Latin and insisted on appreciation for the value and importance of the mother tongue:
Further, he objects to the superstitious attachment to Latin—the vernacular tongue, modern tongues, and the study of things being more important… In brief, the Vernacular School ought to teach all that will be of use for the whole of life, and this to all. (Laurie, 1892, p. 144)
It should be noted that Comenius saw no disharmony between synthesis and analysis, and indicated that “Perfect instruction in the arts is based on both synthesis and analysis.” (Monroe, 1900, p. 100)
A third major innovation of Comenius was to insist upon education for all children of all classes, and for both sexes, while still encouraging the bond between parent and child. Even the full title of The Great Didactic stated his call for universal education:
… that the entire youth of both sexes, none being excepted, shall quickly, pleasantly, and thoroughly become learned… (Comenius, as cited in Monroe, 1900, p. 84)
Comenius believed this could only be accomplished by schools, but he nevertheless insisted upon the fundamental rights of parents:
The care of children belongs properly to their parents, but they need the help of these specially set apart for education—preceptors‚ ludimagistri‚ professores—and there is, consequently, a need for schools and colleges. Schools should be instituted in every part of the empire, and the whole of the youth of both sexes should be sent to these. (Comenius, as cited in Laurie, 1892, p. 81)
In fact, in an extremely innovative fashion, Comenius even advocated that “girls and boys were to be educated together,” (Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 13) with a view towards the common life he expected to find in eternity.
In order to enable children from all classes to receive an education, Comenius even called for special provision for the poor:
There should be a public table for poor scholars, so that the res augusta domi should be an obstacle to none. (Laurie, 1892, p. 199)
But despite all the support from the state, Comenius never lost sight of the importance of the bond between parent and child. He especially emphasized the sacred connection between mother and infant, in defiance of the wisdom handed down from Plato:
For good and sufficient reasons the mother should nurse her own child. “How grievous, how hurtful, how reprehensible,” [Comenius] exclaims, “is the conduct of some mothers, especially among the upper classes, who, feeling it irksome to nourish their own offspring, delegate the duty to other women.” This cruel alienation of mothers from their children, he maintains, is the greatest obstacle to the early training of the child. Such conduct is clearly opposed to nature: the wolf and bear, the lion and panther, nourish their offspring with their own milk; and shall the mothers of the human race be less affectionate than the wild beasts? Moreover, it contributes to the health of the child to be nourished by its natural mother. (Monroe, 1900, p. 114)
The Knowledge of God
Another innovation from Comenius was to completely unify education and spiritual formation. For him, no classical philosophy was considered apart from Christian truth. Comenius wrote, “Let the Holy Scriptures be the Alpha and Omega of Christian schools” (as cited in Laurie, 1892, p. 129). He also insisted that “As all knowledge was to lead to God, and to God as revealed through Christ” (Laurie, 1892, p. 74). Comenius did not relegate the knowledge of God to church; rather:
… his whole purpose was to lead youth to God through things—to God as the source of all, and as the crown of knowledge and the end of life. (Laurie, 1892, pp. 75–76)
Comenius believed that education could, in fact, impart the knowledge of God to all people:
The educational spirit of the Reformers, the conviction that all—even the humblest—must be taught to know God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, was inherited by Comenius in its completeness. (Laurie, 1892, p. 217)
Rather than hearkening to a classical past, Comenius was a true progressive. He believed that a better approach to education could lead to a new kind of utopia on earth:
[Comenius] argued that education in turn would lead to both an ecumenical religious settlement and worldwide peace. (Louthan & Sterk, 1998, p. 16)
As with progressives of later centuries, he envisioned progress in science leading to a fundamentally better way of life:
The Advancement of Learning had filled Comenius, as well as other contemporary men, with hopes of a rapid and unparalleled progress in all the sciences, and a consequent improvement of the conditions of human life. (Laurie, 1892, p. 44)
A Pattern for the Future
Comenius’s progressive orientation inspired many of the progressive thinkers who followed. Will S. Monroe (1863-1939), First Professor of Education at Montclair, explained this as follows:
The present volume is an effort to trace the reform movement in education from Vives, Bacon, and Ratke to Comenius, who gave the movement its most significant force and direction; and from him to the later reformers,—Francke, Rousseau, Basedow, Pestalozzi, Fröbel, and Herbart. A variety of ideas, interests, and adaptations, all distinctly modern, are represented in the life-creeds of these reformers; and, in the absence of a more satisfactory term, the progressive movement which they represent has been styled realism—sometimes called the “new education.” (Monroe, 1900, p. v)
In the discussion which follows, I will focus primarily on Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Fröbel, and Herbart. I will accept the judgement of Dr. Christopher Perrin of Classical Academic Press that Rousseau and Pestalozzi should not be considered classical educators (Perrin, 2016). By showing how Comenius aligned with Rousseau and Pestalozzi, we can be confident that Comenius should also not be considered a classical educator.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) was an Enlightenment philosopher whose radical ideas on education were elaborated in the novel Émile. Monroe identified a primary commonality between Comenius and Rousseau regarding how children are viewed:
Comenius and Rousseau both emphasized the fact that school systems must be made for children, and not children for school systems. Neither reformer shared the schoolmaster’s customary contempt for childhood, but both urged that childhood must be studied and loved to be understood and trained, and both, if they had lived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, would have been enthusiastic advocates of child study. (Monroe, 1900, pp. 146-147)
The two progressives also were highly-committed sense-realists:
Sense training was fundamental in Comenius’ scheme of primary education. Nature studies—plants, animals, and minerals—were introduced from the first, that the child might early cultivate his powers of observation, and form the habit of acquiring knowledge at first hand. Rousseau likewise lays great stress on sense training…
Comenius, Rousseau, and, in fact, all the realists from Bacon to Herbert Spencer, have emphasized the thought that education should follow the order and method of nature… (Monroe, 1900, pp. 147-148)
Monroe also noted that neither thinker felt any particular tie to the mandates of the classical past:
Differing in many important particulars, a common ideal permeates the writings of the two reformers—an unbounded faith in the possibilities of youth, and a deep conviction that it is the business of teachers to view the world and nature from the standpoint of young and growing children, and to cling with less tenacity to points of view established by antiquity and convention. (Monroe, 1900, p. 149)
Rousseau clearly reflected the ideas of Comenius, and passed them along to the sense-realists who followed.
Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi
Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), Swiss educationalist, claimed to have read none of the classical literature on education. But he was directly indebted to Rousseau, and apparently to Comenius as well:
Pestalozzi was not widely read in the literature of education; in fact, the Émile was about the only such book he ever read, as he himself tells us. It is, nevertheless, apparent that he was quite as much influenced by Comenius as by Rousseau. The vital principle of his reforms—love of and sympathy for the child—had been as forcefully enunciated by Comenius as by Rousseau; and the saner and more practical character of Pestalozzi’s enthusiasm would lead one to suppose that he was less influenced by the author of the Émile than by the Moravian reformer. (Monroe, 1900, pp. 153-154)
Nature study as a form of education was not inherited from the classical tradition:
The Greek philosophers, if they paid attention to the natural world, did not find it a matter for firsthand exploration. (Glass, 2014, p. 100).
Rather, it was an innovation introduced by Comenius and enthusiastically adopted by Pestalozzi:
Children may be moderately introduced to objects of color, and thus taught to enjoy the beauty of the heavens, trees, flowers, and running water. In the fourth and following years they should be taken into fields and along the rivers, and trained to observe plants, animals, running water, and the turning of windmills. In both nature study and geography Comenius anticipated the Heimatskunde of Pestalozzi. (Monroe, 1900, p. 116)
Interestingly, geography as a field of study was almost unique to Comenius and Pestalozzi:
Comenius was the first of the educational reformers to recognize the importance of geography as a subject of school study; and although he had it taught in the schools he conducted, and gave it important consideration in his educational schemes, the study received no fresh recognition until the time of Pestalozzi. (Monroe, 1900, p. 156)
Both Comenius and Pestalozzi advocated education for all children, while at the same time affirming and celebrating the bond between mother and child:
Both reformers started with the child at birth, and made domestic education fundamental to their schemes. “Maternal love,” says Pestalozzi, “is the first agent in education. Nature has qualified the mother to be the chief factor in the education of the child.” (Monroe, 1900, p. 154)
Comenius and Pestalozzi stand almost alone among the great educational reformers in proclaiming the doctrine of universal education—training for the poor as well as the rich, for the lowly born as well as for the privileged classes, for girls as well as boys. (Monroe, 1900, p. 155)
Pestalozzi was a conduit of these ideas to the founder of the kindergarten.
Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852) was a student of Pestalozzi who is credited by some as being the father of modern education. But the precedent for his ideas can be found in Comenius:
The large obligations of the founder of the kindergarten to both Comenius and Pestalozzi cannot be gainsaid. (Monroe, 1900, p. 158)
Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781-1832) actually wrote to Fröbel about this link:
“Comenius proposes an entirely new basis of education,” Professor Krause wrote to Fröbel. “He attempts to find a method of education, consciously based upon science, whereby teachers will teach less, and learners will learn more; whereby there will be less noise in the schools, less distaste, fewer idle pupils, more happiness and progress; whereby confusion, division, and darkness will give place to order, intelligence, and peace.” He adds, “Comenius was the first to advocate Pestalozzi’s doctrine of observation (Nanchang).” (Monroe, 1900, pp. 158-159)
Krause believed that Fröbel could take the emphasis on observation and nature study and make it practical:
Krause looked upon Fröbel as the educational successor of Comenius and Pestalozzi. Fröbel, he thought, might show, as it had never been shown before, how the Pestalozzian doctrine of Anschauung was to be applied to the education of every child. (Hauschmann, as cited in Monroe, 1900, 159)
Monroe identified strong correlations between the views of Comenius and Fröbel regarding early childhood education, going as far as to say that Fröbel’s kindergarten was almost completely prefigured by Comenius:
He was thus, in a sense, the combined product of the philosophy of Comenius and the zeal of Pestalozzi, although working along lines carefully marked out by himself. It does not detract from the fame of Fröbel to say that most of the root-ideas of his kindergarten are to be found in [Comenius’s] School of infancy…
Comenius, no less than Fröbel, preached the gospel of self-activity, and demanded that play be given important consideration in the training of the child. (Monroe, 1900, pp. 159-160)
Regarding the treatment of women, both Comenius and Fröbel bypassed the entire western tradition and derived their ideals from the lips of Christ:
Fröbel joined with Comenius in demanding that women shall take a responsible part in the education of the child. Mr. James L. Hughes says in this connection: “The greatest step made toward the full recognition of woman’s individuality and responsibility since the time of Christ was made when Fröbel founded his kindergartens and made women educators outside the home—educators by profession.” (Monroe, 1900, p. 161)
Comenius’s “immovable foundation” in the teachings of Christ proved to be adequate in this respect to the founder of the kindergarten.
Johann Friedrich Herbart
Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841) was a German educationalist who also fit squarely in the modern school of sense-realism. As such, he too was indebted to Comenius:
Professor De Garmo, who has given us a most succinct statement of Herbart’s educational views, remarks, “that one of the main results of Comenius, Rousseau, and Pestalozzi is the firmly fixed conviction that observation, or the use of the senses, and, in general, the consideration of simple concrete facts in every field of knowledge, is the sure foundation upon which all right elementary education rests. This truth is now the acknowledged starting-point of all scientific methods of teaching.” (Monroe, 1900, p. 162)
Indeed, virtually every modern philosophy of education owes a debt to Comenius. When we read a summary of his contributions, we recognize the widespread elements of education that we take for granted today:
As educationalist, inspired by Bacon, [Comenius] successfully asserted the claims of experimental science in the elementary schools of his time, placed the mother-tongue on the list of subjects of instruction, and included in the conception of the school the idea of physical culture. By his demand for education of all children, including girls, who till then had been neglected, he became one of the fathers of modern elementary education. (Monroe, 1900, p. 172)
Eve Anderson was right. Comenius was the father of modern learning.
Before closing this historical survey of the influence of Comenius, we should briefly explore how Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) regarded him. Mason believed that Comenius’s ultimate goal was admirable but that he had not discovered the way to achieve it. In 1919 she wrote:
But what if all were for all, if the great hope of Comenius—“All knowledge for all men”—were in process of taking shape? This is what we have established in many thousands of cases, even in those of dull and backward children;—that any person can understand any book of the right caliber (a question to be determined mainly by the age of the young reader); that the book must be in literary form; that children and young persons require no elucidation of what they read; that their attention does not flag while so engaged; that they master a few pages at a single reading so thoroughly that they can ‘tell it back’ at the time or months later whether it be the Pilgrim’s Progress or one of Bacon’s Essays or Shakespeare’s plays; that they throw individuality into this ‘telling back’ so that no two tell quite the same tale; that they learn incidentally to write and speak with vigour and style and usually to spell well. (Mason, 1919, p. 98)
In her final published volume, Mason indicated that she had discovered the previously unknown secret of how to achieve the aim of Comenius:
Are we not justified in concluding that singular effects must have commensurate causes, and that we have chanced to light on unknown tracts in the region of educational thought. At any rate that GOLDEN RULE of which Comenius was in search has discovered itself, the RULE, “WHEREBY TEACHERS SHALL TEACH LESS AND SCHOLARS SHALL LEARN MORE.”
Let me now outline a few of the educational principles which account for unusual results. (Mason, 1925/1989f, p. 8)
While Mason certainly applauded Comenius’s vision of “All knowledge for all men,” she disagreed with many points in his method and introduced several innovations of her own. In order to fulfill Comenius’s “golden rule,” she had to discover “principles not worked on before” (Mason, 1922, p. 14).
Was Comenius Classical?
After reading the above survey, you may lean towards one of two responses. You may either:
- Acknowledge that Comenius proposed a method of education that is different from classical education, OR
- Assert that the definition of classical education needs to be broadened so as to include the method of education proposed by Comenius.
I hope that you will choose the first response. If you choose the second response, however, I think it is worth asking just how plastic a definition can be. A good definition has at least two attributes:
- It adequately covers the actual usage of the word or phrase, AND
- It has boundaries that enable us to identify items that don’t meet the definition.
Let us consider the definition of the phrase classical education in the light of those two attributes. Let’s start with usage. In their 2013 book on Christian classical education, Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain state:
The indispensability of the study of classical languages, both with respect to the form and content of classical education, is something that our schools will have to realize if they desire faithfully to remain in the classical tradition…
We believe this discussion has two major implications for schools in the Christian classical renewal. First of all, the three liberal arts of the Trivium must retain their integrity if we are to find the true integration afforded by the classical liberal arts model… For the integrity of the renewal, we must practice these arts in a form that respects their real nature…
The second implication for schools in the Christian classical renewal is that the study of the classical languages plays a central role in the acquisition of the liberal arts of the Trivium… For the integrity of the renewal…, we must not turn a blind eye to the importance of Greek and Latin. (Clark & Jain, 2013, pp. 40, 47-48)
Note that for Clark and Jain, the usage of the phrase classical education assumes a historically-grounded method that assigns a central role to the classical languages and an implementation of the liberal arts as traditionally understood. The definition of the phrase should support such usage. (And I think Clark and Jain are well-justified in their usage.) The reality, however, is that any definition that would support such usage would exclude Comenius. As we have seen, Comenius assigned no special place to the classical languages and rejected the traditional implementation of the liberal arts.
As for the second attribute, a definition must have boundaries that enable us to identify items that don’t meet the definition. If the definition of classical education is not crisp enough to exclude Comenius, then it can’t exclude Rousseau either. Or Pestalozzi. Or Fröbel. Or Herbart. Or even, according to Eve Anderson, Montessori. But if classical education encompasses all of these philosophies, then classical education is simply a synonym for … education.
If the word classical is plastic enough to mean everything then it is empty enough to mean nothing. If Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Fröbel, and Montessori are classical, then we are left with a word that has no meaning. Personally, I cannot accept that. Fortunately, common usage confirms that classical education refers to a real model of education practiced in history. A model of education that John Amos Comenius decisively rejected.
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