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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Johann Amos Comenius (1592–1670)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Burke Aaron Hinsdale (1837–1900)
JOHANN AMOS COMENIUS, the Slavic educational reformer, was born March 28th, 1592, at Nivnitz, a village of Moravia. His family belonged to the small but well-known body that takes its name from the country,—“the Moravian Brethren,” or simply “the Moravians,” whose origin goes back to Huss, the Bohemian reformer. The Brethren are known for their simple evangelical faith, their humble fraternal lives, their interest in education, and particularly their devotion to the cause of missions. Comenius was a Moravian, a minister, and a bishop, and he illustrated the best ideas and inspirations of the Brotherhood in his teachings and life.  1
  The parents of Comenius died when he was still a child, and he fell into the hands of guardians, who allowed his education to be neglected. He received his elementary education in one of the people’s schools that sprang out of the Hussite movement. When sixteen years of age he attended a Latin school, and at twenty he was studying theology at Hebron College, in the duchy of Nassau. Next he spent some time in travel and in study at Heidelberg, and returned to Moravia in 1614, being twenty-two years of age. Too young to be ordained to the ministry, he was made rector of a Moravian school at Prerau, near Olmütz, where his career as a teacher and educator began. His attention had already been turned to the teaching art as practiced in the schools, both by observation and by reading the schemes of educational reform that had been propounded. In 1616 he was ordained to the pastorate, and two years later he was set over the flourishing church of Fulneck, where he also had the supervision of a school. Here he married, and “for two or three years,” says Professor Laurie, “spent a happy and active life, enjoying the only period of tranquillity 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.”  2
  Soon the Thirty Years’ War broke out, and in 1621 Fulneck fell into the hands of the Spaniards, who dealt with it according to their usual habit in such cases. Comenius lost all his property, including his library and manuscripts, and became for the rest of his life an exile. His wife and child he lost soon after. He had been so unfortunate as to incur the enmity of the Jesuits. We cannot follow him closely in his wanderings. For some time he lived in secrecy in Moravia and Bohemia. Then he found a resting-place at Lissa, in Poland, where in 1621 he published a little work that at once made him famous. This was the ‘Janua Linguarum Reserata’ (the Gate of Tongues Unlocked), which was translated into the principal languages of Europe and several languages of Asia. The next year he was elected chief bishop of the Brethren, and henceforth there came upon him daily, as upon the great Apostle, the care of all the churches. Still he never ceased reading, thinking, and writing on educational matters, and was often engaged in the practical work of teaching. He visited England, called there to confer with the Long Parliament in reference to the reform of education. He visited Sweden, where he discussed education and learning with the great Oxenstierna. Then he lived for a time at Elbing in East Russia. Next he was called to Transylvania and Hungary on an educational errand, and then returned to Lissa.  3
  In the course of the war this town was destroyed, and Comenius again lost all of his possessions. The great Pansophic dictionary that had engaged him for many years went with the rest,—a loss, he said, that he should cease to lament only when he should cease to breathe. His next home was Amsterdam, where he set himself to collect, revise, and supplement his writings on didactics, and where they were published in four folio volumes in 1657. At some time, according to Cotton Mather, he was offered the presidency of Harvard College. After the publication of his works he lived thirteen years, employed in teaching, in writing, and in pastoral labors. He died November 15th, 1671, in his eightieth year, having fully merited Von Raumer’s characterization:—“Comenius is a grand and venerable figure of sorrow. Wandering, persecuted, and homeless during the terrible and desolating Thirty Years’ War, he yet never despaired; but with enduring truth, and strong in faith, he labored unweariedly to prepare youth by a better education for a better future.” In 1892, on the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth, the educators of the world united to honor his memory, and at that time a monument was erected at Naärden, Holland, the little village where he died and was buried. At Leipzig there is a pedagogical library founded in his honor on the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth, which numbers more than 66,000 volumes.  4
  Comenius wrote one hundred and thirty-five books and treatises, most of which were translated during his lifetime into all the languages of Europe and several languages of Asia. Not all of them related to education; he wrote voluminously on religious subjects also. To name and characterize his didactic works would far transcend the limits of this notice; we can do no more than draw an outline of his pedagogical system.  5
  Early in the Renaissance the ancient literatures took complete possession of the minds of scholars and teachers. As these literatures were nowhere the vernacular, the schools were made machines for teaching the Latin and Greek languages. Sometimes the results were better, sometimes worse. We may hope that Comenius spoke of the schools at their worst estate when he said that they were “the terror of boys and the slaughter-houses of minds,”—“places where hatred of literature and books was contracted,”—“where what ought to be poured in gently was forced in violently,” and “where what ought to be put clearly was presented in a confused and intricate manner, as if it were a collection of puzzles.” “Ten years,” he said, “are given to the study of the Latin tongue, and after all the result is disappointing. Boyhood is distracted for years with precepts of grammar, infinitely prolix, perplexed, and obscure, and for the most part useless. Boys are stuffed with vocabularies without associating the words with things, or indeed with one another.” For the time it was impossible, even if desirable, to overturn the established system; and Comenius, while still at Prerau, addressed himself to the problem of simplifying the teaching of Latin. His first book, ‘Grammaticæ Facilioris Præcepta,’ written for his own pupils, was published at Prague in 1616. The great impression that the ‘Janua’ produced, shows how ready men were to welcome anything that promised to mitigate the evils of the prevailing methods of teaching.  6
  But deeply interested as he was in teaching languages, Comenius still saw that this was by no means the great educational question of the time. Early in life he had become a disciple of the new inductive philosophy; and of all the titles that have been conferred upon him, that of “the Bacon of education” is the most significant. The impression that he received from Bacon was most profound. Several of his titles, as ‘Didactica Magna,’ ‘Pansophiæ Prodromus,’ and ‘Silva,’ suggest titles before used by his master. Looking at education from the Baconian point of view, Comenius proposed to make it an inductive science. He found in nature the great storehouse of education material. “Do we not dwell in the Garden of Eden,” he demanded, “as well as our predecessors? Why should not we use our eyes and ears and noses as well as they? and why need we other teachers than these in learning to know the works of nature? Why should we not, instead of these dead books, open to the children the living book of nature? Why not open their understandings to the things themselves, so that from them, as from living springs, many streamlets may flow?” Holding these views and putting them effectively before the world, he became the founder of the pedagogical school known as the Sense-Realists. But much more than this, he had the rare merit of seeing that modern education must be built on the basis of the modern languages; and so he proposed to call the elementary school the “vernacular school,”—things before words, and vernacular words before foreign words.  7
  Comenius’s best-known books are the ‘Didactica Magna’ and the ‘Orbis Sensualium Pictus.’ The first was written in Czech, the author’s vernacular, one of the best of the Slavonic dialects, during his first residence in Lissa; but was not published until a later day, and then in Latin. It is a general treatise on method. “After many workings and tossings of my thoughts,” he says, “by setting everything to the immovable laws of nature,” he lighted upon this treatise, “which shows the art of readily and solidly teaching all things.” The ‘Orbis Pictus,’ which was only a modification of the ‘Janua,’ first appeared in 1657. Hoole, the English translator, renders the Latin title thus: ‘Visible World; or a Nomenclature and Pictures of all the Chief Things that are in the World, and of Men’s Employments Therein.’ The ‘Orbis Pictus’ has been called ‘Children’s First Picture-Book,’ and it obtained much the widest circulation and use of all the reformer’s works. It was written to illustrate his ideas of teaching things and words together. Its keynote is struck by the legend, “There is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the sense.” The lessons, of which there are one hundred and ninety-four words, are given in Latin and German, and are each illustrated with a copper cut. While the book is wholly unsuited to our use, it is still an interesting pedagogical memorial, archaic and quaint.  8
  But Bacon’s influence on Comenius was far greater than has yet appeared. The philosopher had large conceptions of the kingdom of knowledge, and the disciple accepted these conceptions in their most exaggerated form. He became the founder of ‘Pansophia’: men could attain to universal knowledge if they were rightly taught and guided. When his eye had once caught this vision, it never wandered from it to the day of his death. He projected a Pansophic school, and spent half a lifetime in seeking a patron who would help him to realize his dream. Save some of the first ones, his didactic treatises were written as means to a Pansophic end. The books that have made him immortal he counted but as dust in the balance, compared with the piles of manuscripts that he produced devoted to all knowledge. In fact, he almost despised himself because, partly persuaded by his patrons and advisers and partly compelled by the necessities of livelihood, he gave so much time to things didactic. Thus Comenius was like Bacon, in that his real service to the world was something quite different from what he proposed for its benefit. He was like Bacon also in this, that he put forth the same work—practically so—in more than one form.  9
  The mistakes of Comenius lie upon the surface. He entertained exaggerated views of the results to flow to mankind from the enlargement of knowledge, he greatly overestimated the value of method, and so, very naturally, greatly magnified what the human mind is able to accomplish in the field of learning. He carried much too far his sensational principles, and seriously underestimated the ancient learning and letters. But these mistakes, and even Pansophism itself, may be not only excused but welcomed; since they undoubtedly contributed at the time, and since, to educational progress.  10
  It must not be supposed that Comenius had no precursors. Bacon had disclosed to men his vision of the kingdom of knowledge. Rabelais had published his realistic views of education and his vast scheme of studies. Montaigne had delivered his criticisms on current teaching and submitted his suggestions for reform. Mulcaster had given to the world his far-reaching anticipations of the future. Ratich, the John the Baptist of the new movement, to whom Comenius was probably most indebted next to Bacon, had gone far in revolt from the existing régime. But it was left to Comenius to give the new pedagogy a shaping and an impulse that well entitle him to be called its founder.  11
  Comenius has still other credentials to permanent fame. He advocated popular education, contended for the union of knowledge with morals and piety, proposed the higher education of women, propounded the existing tripartite division of education, and devised a system of graded instruction for schools of a decidedly modern character. His place in the educational pantheon is secure; but not so much by reason of his didactics, which are now largely antiquated, as by reason of his spirit. As Mr. Quick has said:—“He saw that every human creature should be trained up to become a reasonable being, and that the training should be such as to draw out the God-given faculties. Thus he struck the keynote of the science of education.”  12

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