Learning from Nature

“To teach all things 
to all men 
and from 
all points of view.”

THESE ARE THE WORDS that have given Jan Amos Comenius a reputation in the history of educational thought. Hailed as a modern thinker; Comenius is honored by many for his insights into the learning process and methods of teaching that are suitable to it. Yet his contributions can only be analyzed properly within the framework of the 17th century, which has been characterized as an “age of science.” Comenius was a man of two worlds. He was medieval in some ways, modern in others; his originality shines in several instances, yet he reflects prevailing opinions, ideals and common sense that can be found in numerous other writers. Comenius was foremost a schoolmaster; his practical efforts in school reform and curriculum development earned him his status and shaped his theorizing on education. The study of this man’s educational ideas is a worthy venture, because several centuries of intellectual ferment flow into his thought and pass on to several more centuries of educational innovation.

Comenius stood firmly within the tradition of Renaissance humanism and of the Protestant Reformation, although he, like many others, was disappointed in some of the fruits of these movements. The scientific and literary humanism of the Renaissance was a reaction against the dead orthodoxy of medieval scholasticism. It liberated man’s reasoning capacities from the straitjacket of Aristotelian physics and logic, which had been married to Christian doctrine and stifled all exploration of the natural world.

Thus, in education, the humanists gave birth to the classical liberal arts curriculum. Greek and Latin were the primary subjects, and they were read with a new enthusiasm, perceived as the highest expression of the human spirit. Other disciplines were also important, especially mathematics, art, and the study of the natural world, astronomy in particular. Physical training once again found its way into the curriculum of many schools. Such an education would produce a cultured gentleman, a well-rounded person in whom knowledge and virtue would mix perfectly.

But by the 17th century, Renaissance humanism had begun to go the way of medieval scholasticism before it, degenerating into a rigid orthodoxy. Too absorbed with assimilating the learning of the ancients, the humanists could not focus on the proper questions for extending knowledge. The past had become excess baggage that slowed down any intellectual progress. The Protestant Reformation had also lost its driving force of evangelical zeal and dissolved into warring political factions grasping for territory to control and crushing all those within who would not conform.

This demise was reflected in the schools. A few classical authors dominated the curriculum and religious teaching had devolved into sterile catechisms. Luther’s initial interest in universal education had withered and any quality education that did exist was reserved for monarchy and aristocrats. The general populace remained largely illiterate.

An important figure in the transition from Renaissance thought to a more scientific perspective, and who probably influenced Comenius more than anyone else, was Francis Bacon (1561–1626). In many ways, Comenius was a popularizer of Baconian thought in continental Europe. Bacon, like Comenius, was a humanist but one who grapsed the need for a fresh look at the universe without the presuppositions of classical thought. This fresh look was obtained by an inductive method of scientific investigation. Observation of the environment would yield reliable ideas about the universe. By studying nature firsthand, man could find that unity of all knowledge and gain a mastery over nature.

While remaining devout in his faith, Bacon separated theological concerns from scientific pursuits. While the two categories would not contradict each other in his judgment, they were not to overlap with each other. Bacon’s contribution to science was a method of investigation. His concerns were still very much those of the Renaissance—the compilation of a universal knowledge and the formation of an international community of scientists/ scholars (Bacon wrote his own utopian scheme in The New Atlantis). The same is true of Comenius. He did not go much beyond Bacon. What he did, however, was apply Bacon’s new method to education.

“Teaching All Things to All Men”

An analysis of Comenius’ educational philosophy must begin with the notion of pansophism. Widely used by Renassaince thinkers who struggled for a synthesis of religion with philosophy and science, a pansophic system was considered a means to achieving personal virtue and worldwide peace. An understanding of truth so conceived would lead to knowing the good (and God who established the good) and thus doing and seeking the good.

Comenius defines pansophy as “a universal wisdom, i.e. the knowledge of all that is, in the way in which it is in reference to the purpose and the use of it. Three things then are required, viz: that everything is known by its essence, in its external forms and that everything clearly has a useful purpose.” (W. Rood, Comenius and the Low Countries) The useful purpose of all knowledge, according to Comenius, is to manifest the glory of God and to inspire man to love all that is good. While the scope of this universal knowledge is encyclopaedic, it does not mean knowledge of all data. By the 17th century, people realized that this was humanly impossible. Rather, it implied a way of organizing the facts of knowledge so they would express wisdom and constitute knowledge of practical utility. Both Bacon and Comenius shared this vision of an orderly structure of knowledge and carried the effort to achieve it beyond Renaissance thinkers by placing it upon a scientific foundation (hence the need for societies and colleges devoted to scientific investigation). Clearly, such a pursuit would require the lifetimes of more than one scholar. Comenius spent 40 years compiling his encyclopaedia only to lose most of it in 1656 when his house was burned.

A pansophic unity of all necessary knowledge had certain educational implications for Comenius. Books containing the universal knowledge were necessary. A system of schools which instructed children in this knowledge was essential but could only function with trained teachers. A college where the architects of this universal scheme could do their work was needed (Comenius favored England for the location of this college). Finally, a universal language was required. Comenius had given up on Latin and proposed inventing a new language combining the best of all. Unfortunately, interest in encyclopaedism had waned in Europe. Only the British were interested but they were too absorbed with political strife in the 17th century to give it much attention.

The Great Didactic

Comenius’s science of education is spelled out most clearly in The Great Didactic. He saw the didactic process as parallel with the growth of natural organisms. Nature refers to the visible physical world that expresses the character of its Creator. On a few occasions, Comenius used a mechanical model to describe nature, but mostly he implied an outward form corresponding to an inner, spiritual reality. In nature, Comenius observed a fundamental order and purpose and from these he deduced a set of universal principles applicable to education: nine of these principles are summarized in “Principles Comenius Observed in Nature Applicable to Education.”

These principles led to certain conditions for effective teaching. It should begin before the mind is corrupted and establish a proper moral foundation. The mind of the student must be prepared to receive instruction (by stirring up the desire to know) and should move from simple material to the more complex. The senses are the first stage of acquiring knowledge, followed by memory and understanding. The mental energies of pupils should not be dissipated over a wide range of subjects but focused on that which is appropriate to the age, interests and mental ability of the pupil. Children should be constantly helped in their learning, not punished for failing.

How can the teacher be assured that this knowledge which the student gains will endure? Comenius once again follows the footsteps of nature and identifies a host of principles. The subjects must have some practical use and be taught thoroughly, as the teacher points out resemblances between their content. Studying books should not be a substitute for direct observation and demonstration. The content must develop progressively in conjunction with the pupil’s abilities. Continual repetition of material that has been learned will give the pupil a sense of mastery.

The organization of schools is also discussed in The Great Didactic. Since teaching is developmental by nature, all education should proceed through stages. The first six years of a child’s life are spent in the home but may be the most critical years for education. The mother’s role is central to the process. She is the best teacher a child can have. Comenius prescribes a broad curriculum of introductory lessons and experiences (in more detail in The School of Infancy) for mothers to follow with their children. Morality and piety are uppermost in this curriculum but all the disciplines are represented.

Play activities have educational value. In the home environment, a child can develop proper habits and a right attitude toward authority. Comenius even suggests pre-natal care as part of the child’s education and places great emphasis on affection and love for children. To the contemporary parent, most of Comenius’s ideas are quite familiar, since they appear in countless numbers of books on parenting. Indeed, Locke, Pestalozzi and Rousseau repeated many of Comenius’s suggestions.

The next six years of the child’s life are to be spent in a primary school. Comenius urged the use of the native language only. Writing, mathematics, geography, history, music, religious instruction and simple crafts were all elements of the curriculum.

At the age of twelve, a child would enter the Latin school where he would remain for six years. Here he began to learn Greek, Latin and Hebrew using the language—teaching methods Comenius had developed. Other subjects included physics, math, ethics, geometry, music, astronomy, history, rhetoric and theology. Pupils would spend only four hours per day in the classroom and one—hour periods of instruction would be interspersed with physical recreation. Comenius wrote many dramas for his pupils which helped them act out what they had learned (a controversial move at a time when the theater was held in low regard by religious people).

At the age of 18, the industrious brilliant student could continue his education in a university where the entire pansophic system of knowledge would be the curriculum. Students were given complete freedom in their studies and could specialize in any areas of interest to them. The faculty devoted its energies to writing books. Unfortunately, this radical proposal was never implemented by Comenius, although it can be seen why German educators in the 19th century were so impressed with how Comenius had anticipated their program of higher education.

Comenius was one of few to propose educations for girls at all stages. In his judgment, girls were capable of learning everything boys could learn, although their roles in life might be different. Any other position is inconsistent if one places such high value on motherhood, and mothers are the first teachers of their children.

The Impact of Comenian Thought

Perhaps Comenius’s greatest contribution was his vision of universal education—teaching all persons all subjects in all ways. Few have thought about education in such broad terms. Although primitive in comparison, Comenius ranks with Dewey in this regard. Education stretches beyond the classroom to encompass all of life, yet it also enriches the classroom with an organized knowledge that includes all elements of the human experience and leads to the development of pupils as human beings.

Comenius lived at the edge of the modern era, and had glimpses into its future which mingled with his many traditional views. Although his own work was largely forgotten until the 1800s, Comenius strongly influenced educational philosopher John Locke, who in turn influenced Rousseau. Thus the Czech master paved the way for many modern educational structures and ideas. One wonders if even today, with the explosion of information and fragmentation of knowledge, the world needs a bit of the pansophy Comenius pushed so hard. CH

By Paul Heidebrecht

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #13 in 1987]

Paul Heidebrecht, Ph.D., is vice president of Christian Service Brigade in Wheaton, Illinois. He studied the history of education at the University of Illinois, Urbana.
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Principles Comenius Observed in Nature Applicable to Education

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This early work of Comenius’s concentrates on the first six years of a childs life.

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