The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 11

Author: S. S. Laurie  | Date: A.D. 1638

Educational Reform of Comenius

A.D. 1638

S. S. Laurie

John Amos Comenius (1592–1671) is now generally recognized as the founder of modern education. Just what his work has been is best left to Mr. Laurie, the leading authority upon his life. What the schools were before his time is almost too dreary a picture to attempt to draw. Everything was hopelessly haphazard, almost hopelessly uninteresting. Only in the schools of the Jesuits was anything approaching skill employed to stimulate the learner. If a child did not advance, the teacher held himself no way responsible. The lad was adjudged a dullard and left to remain in his stupidity with the rest of the blockhead world.

The chief work of Comenius, the Didactica Magna, was probably finished about 1638, and was shown in manuscript to many persons at that time. Its ideas as to education were widely accepted, and its influence and that of its author spread rapidly over much of Europe. The publication of his works was delayed until 1657.

In the history of education it is important to recognize the existence of the two parallel streams of intellectual and spiritual regeneration. The leaders of both, like the leaders of all great social changes, at once bethought themselves of the schools. Their hope was in the young, and hence the reform of education early engaged their attention.

The improvements made in the grammar-schools under the influence of Melanchthon and Sturm, and in England of Colet and Ascham, did not endure, save in a very limited sense. Pure classical literature was now read—a great gain certainly, but this was all. There was no tradition of method, as was the case in the Jesuit order. During the latter half of the sixteenth century, the complaints made of the state of the schools, the waste of time, the barbarous and intricate grammar rules, the cruel discipline, were loud and long, and proceeded from men of the highest intellectual standing. To unity in the Reformed churches they looked, but looked in vain, for a settlement of opinion, and to theschool they looked as the sole hope of the future. The school, as it actually existed, might have well filled them with despair.

Even in the universities Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, and with them the scholastic philosophy, still held their own. The reforms initiated mainly by Melanchthon had not, indeed, contemplated the overthrow of Aristotelianism. He and the other humanists merely desired to substitute Aristotle himself in the original for the Latin translation from the Arabic, necessarily misleading, and the Greek and Latin classics for barbarous epitomes. These very reforms, however, perpetuated the reign of Aristotle, when the spirit that actuated the Reformers was dead, and there had been a relapse into the old scholasticism. The Jesuit reaction, also, which recovered France and South Germany for the papal see, was powerful enough to preserve a footing for the metaphysical theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and the schoolmen. In England, Milton was of opinion that the youth of the universities were, even so late as his time, still presented with an "asinine feast of sow-thistles." These retrogressions in school and university serve to show how exceedingly difficult it is to contrive any system of education, middle or upper, which will work itself when the contrivers pass from the scene. Hence the importance, it seems to us, of having in every university, as part of the philosophical faculty, a department for the exposition of this very question of education—surely a very important subject in itself as an academic study, and in its practical relations transcending perhaps all others. How are the best traditions of educational theory and practice to be preserved and handed down if those who are to instruct the youth of the country are to be sent forth to their work from our universities with minds absolutely vacant as to the principles and history of their profession—if they have never been taught to ask themselves the question, "What am I going to do?" "Why?" and "How?" This subject is one worthy of consideration both by the universities and the state. It was the want of method that led to the decline of schools after the Reformation period; it was the study of method which gave the Jesuits the superiority that on many parts of the Continent they still retain.1

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 Organum. 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. Bacon was not aware of his relations to the science and art of education; he praises the Jesuit schools, not knowing that he was subverting their very foundations. We know inductively: that was the sum of Bacon’s teaching. In the sphere of outer nature, the scholastic saying, "Nihilest in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu," was accepted, but with this addition, that the impressions on our senses were not themselves to be trusted. The mode of verifying sense-impressions, and the grounds of valid and necessary inference, had to be investigated and applied. It is manifest that if we can tell how it is we know, it follows that the method of intellectual instruction is scientifically settled.

But Bacon not only represented the urgent longing for a coordination 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. The poets, also, had been placing nature before the minds of men in a new aspect. The humanists, as we have said, while unquestionably improving the aims and procedure of education, had been powerless to prevent the tendency to fall once more under the dominion of words, and to revert to mere form. The realism of human life and thought, which constituted their raison d’ être, had been unable to sustain itself as a principle of action, because there was no school of method. 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.

The thought of any age determines the education of the age which is to succeed it. Education follows; it does not lead. The school and the church alike march in the wake of science, philosophy, and political ideas. We see this illustrated in everyepoch of human history, and in none so conspicuously as in the changes which occurred in the philosophy and education of ancient Rome during the lifetime of the elder Cato, and in modern times during the revival of letters and the subsequent rise of the Baconian induction. It is impossible, indeed, for any great movement of thought to find acceptance without its telling to some extent on every department of the body politic. Its influence on the ideas entertained as to the education of the rising generation must be, above all, distinct and emphatic. Every philosophical writer on political science has recognized this, and has felt the vast significance of the educational system of a country both as an effect—the consequence of a revolution in thought—and as a cause, a moving force of incalculable power in the future life of a commonwealth. Thus it was that the humanistic movement which preceded and accompanied the Reformation of religion shook to its centre the medival school system of Europe; and that subsequently the silent rise of the inductive spirit subverted its foundations.

Bacon, though not himself a realist in the modern and abused sense of that term, was the father of realism. It was this side of his teaching which was greedily seized upon, and even exaggerated. Educational zeal now ran in this channel. The conviction of the churches of the time, that one can make men what one pleases—by fair means or foul—was shared by the innovators. By education, rightly conceived and rightly applied, the enthusiasts dreamed that they could manufacture men, and, in truth, the Jesuits had shown that a good deal could be done in this direction. The new enthusiasts failed to see that the genius of Protestantism is the genius of freedom, and that man refuses to be manufactured except on suicidal terms. He must first sacrifice that which is his distinctive title to manhood—his individuality and will. That the prophets of educational realism should have failed to see this is not to be laid at their door as a fault; it merely shows that they belonged to their own time, and not to ours. They failed then, as some fail now, to understand man and his education, because they break with the past. The record of the past is with them merely a record of blunders. The modern humanist more wisely accepts it as the storehouse of the thoughts and life of human reason. In the life of man eachindividual of the race best finds his own true life. This is modern humanism—the realism of thought.

Yet it is to the sense-realists of the earlier half of the seventeenth century that we owe the scientific foundations of educational method, and the only indication of the true line of answer to the complaints of the time. In their hands sense-realism became allied with Protestant theology, and pure humanism disappeared. They were represented first by Wolfgang von Ratich, a native of Holstein, born in 1571. Ratich was a man of considerable learning. The distractions of Europe, and the want of harmony, especially among the churches of the Reformation, led him to consider how a remedy might be found for many existing evils. He thought that the remedy was to be found in an improved school system—improved in respect both of the substance and method of teaching. In 1612, accordingly, he laid before the Diet of the German empire at Frankfort a memorial, in which he promised, "with the help of God, to give instruction for the service and welfare of all Christendom."

The torch that fell from Ratich’s hand was seized, ere it touched the ground, by John Amos Comenius, who became the head, and still continues the head, of the sense-realistic school. His works have a present and practical, and not merely a historical and speculative, significance.

Not only had the general question of education engaged many minds for a century and more before Comenius arose, but the apparently subsidiary, yet all-important, question of method, in special relation to the teaching of the Latin tongue, had occupied the thoughts and pens of many of the leading scholars of Europe. 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. Of these writers on the teaching of Latin, the most eminent were Sturm, Erasmus, Melanchthon, Lubinus, Vossius, Sanctius (the author of the Minerva), Ritter, Helvicus, Bodinus, Valentinus Andre, and, among Frenchmen, Coecilius Frey. Nor wereAscham and Mulcaster in England the least significant of the critics of method. Comenius was acquainted with almost all previous writers on education, except probably Ascham and Mulcaster, to whom he never alludes. He read everything that he could hear of with a view to find a method, and he does not appear ever to have been desirous to supersede the work of others. If he had found what he wanted, he would, we believe, have promulgated it, and advocated it as a loyal pupil. That he owed much to the previous writers is certain; but the prime characteristic of his work on Latin was his own. Especially does he introduce a new epoch in education, by constructing a general methodology which should go beyond mere Latin, and be equally applicable to all subjects of instruction.

Before bringing his thoughts into definite shape, he wrote to all the distinguished men to whom he could obtain access. He addressed Ratich, among others, but received no answer; many of his letters also were returned, because the persons addressed could not be found. Valentinus Andre wrote to him in encouraging terms, saying that he gladly passed on the torch to him. His mind became now much agitated by the importance of the question and by the excitement of discovery. He saw his whole scheme assuming shape under his pen, and was filled, like other zealous men, before and since, with the highest hopes of the benefits which he would confer on the whole human race by his discoveries. He resolved to call his treatise Didactica Magna, or Omnes omnia docendi Artificium. He 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 untrammelled by the errors and prejudices of the past.

Some scruples as to a theologian and pastor being so entirely preoccupied with educational questions he had, however, to overcome. "Suffer, I pray, Christian friends, that I speak confidentially with you for a moment. Those who know me intimately know that I am a man of moderate ability and of almost no learning, but one who, bewailing the evils of his time, is eager to remedy them, if this in any be granted me to do, either by my owndiscoveries or by those of another—none of which things can come save from a gracious God. If, then, anything be here found well done, it is not mine, but his, who from the mouths of babes and sucklings hath perfected praise, and who, that he may in verity show himself faithful, true, and gracious, gives to those who ask, opens to those who knock, and offers to those who seek. Christ my Lord knows that my heart is so simple that it matters not to me whether I teach or be taught, act the part of teacher of teachers or disciple of disciples. What the Lord has given me I send forth for the common good." His deepest conviction was that the sole hope of healing the dissensions of both church and state lay in the proper education of youth.

When he had completed his Great Didactic, he did not publish it, for he was still hoping to be restored to his native Moravia, where he proposed to execute all his philanthropic schemes; indeed, the treatise was first written in his native Slav or Czech tongue. In 1632 there was convened a synod of the Moravian Brethren at Lissa, at which Comenius, now forty years of age, was elected to succeed his father-in-law, Cyrillus, as bishop of the scattered brethren—a position which enabled him to be of great service, by means of correspondence, to the members of the community, who were dispersed in various parts of Europe. Throughout the whole of his long life he continued this fatherly charge, and seemed never quite to abandon the hope of being restored, along with his fellow-exiles, to his native land—a hope doomed to disappointment. In his capacity of pastor-bishop he wrote several treatises, such as a History of the Persecutions of the Brotherhood, an account of the Moravian Church discipline and order, and polemical tracts against a contemporary Socinian.

Meanwhile his great didactic treatise, which had been written in his native Czech tongue, was yet unpublished. He was, it would appear, stimulated to the publication of it by an invitation he received in 1638, from the authorities in Sweden, to visit their country and undertake the reformation of their schools. He replied that he was unwilling to undertake a task at once so onerous and so invidious, but that he would gladly give the benefit of his advice to anyone of their own nation whom they might select for the duty. These communications led him to resumehis labor on the Great Didactic, and to translate it into Latin, in which form it finally appeared.

Humanism, which had practically failed in the school, had, apart from this fact, no attractions for Comenius, and still less had the worldly wisdom of Montaigne. He was a leading Protestant theologian—a pastor and bishop of a small but earnest and devoted sect—and it was as such that he wrote on education. The best results of humanism could, after all, be only culture, and this not necessarily accompanied by moral earnestness or personal piety: on the contrary, probably dissociated from these, and leaning rather to scepticism and intellectual self-indulgence.

At the same time it must be noted that he never fairly faced the humanistic question; he rather gave it the cold shoulder from the first. His whole nature pointed in another direction. When he has to speak of the great instruments of humanistic education—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. Even in the universities, as his pansophic scheme shows, he would have Plato and Aristotle taught chiefly by means of analyses and epitomes. It might be urged in opposition to this view of the anti-humanism of Comenius, that he contemplated the acquisition of a good style in Latin in the higher stages of instruction: true, but in so far as he hid so, it was merely with a practical aim—the more effective, and, if need be, oratorical, enforcement of moral and religious truth. The beauties and subtleties of artistic expression had little charm for him, nor did he set much store by the graces. The most conspicuous illustration of the absence of all idea of art in Comenius is to be found in his school drama. The unprofitable dreariness of that production would make a reader sick were he not relieved by a feeling of its absurdity.

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. In this way, and in this way only, could the ills of Europe be remedied and the progress of humanity assured.While, therefore, he sums up the educational aim under the threefold heads of Knowledge, Virtue, and Piety or Godliness, he in truth has mainly in view the last two. Knowledge is of value only in so far as it forms the only sound basis, in the eyes of a Protestant theologian, of virtue and godliness. We have to train for a hereafter.

In virtue and godliness Comenius did not propose to teach anything save what the Reformed religion taught. His characteristic merits in this department of instruction were:

1. Morality and godliness were to be taught from the first parents and teachers were to begin to train at the beginning of the child’s conscious life.

2. Parents and teachers were to give milk to babes, and reserve the stronger meat for the adolescent and adult mind. They were to be content to proceed gradually, step by step.

3. The method of procedure was not only to be adapted to the growing mind, but the mode of enforcement was to be mild, and the manner of it kind and patient.

Had Comenius done nothing more than put forth and press home these truths he would have deserved our gratitude as an educationalist.

But he did more than this. He related virtue and godliness to knowledge. By knowledge Comenius meant knowledge of nature and of man’s relation to nature. It is this important characteristic of Comenius’ educational system that reveals the direct influence of Bacon and his school. To the great Verulam he pays reverence for what he owed him, but he owed him even more than he knew.

In this field of knowledge, the leading characteristic of the educational system of Comenius is his realism. We have pointed out, in contradiction of the assumptions of the modern sensationalist school, that the humanists were in truth realists, and it may be safely said that there can be no question among competent judges as to the realism which ought to characterize all rational and sound instruction. The question rather is as to the field in which the real is to be sought—in the mind of man, or in external nature. As the former may be called humanistic-realism, so the latter may be called sense- or naturalistic-realism. Of the latter, Comenius is the true founder, although hisindebtedness to Ratich was great. Mere acquisition of the ordered facts of nature, and man’s relation to them, was with him the great aim—if not the sole aim—of all purely intellectual instruction. And here there necessarily entered the governing idea, encyclopdism or pansophism. Let all the sciences, he said, be taught in their elements in all schools, and more fully at each successive stage of the pupil’s progress. It is by knowledge that we are what we are, and the necessary conclusion from this must be, let all things be taught to all.

It is at this point that many will part company with Comenius. The mind stored with facts, even if these be ordered facts, will not necessarily be much raised in the scale of humanity as an intelligence. The natural powers may be simply overweighted by the process, and the natural channels of spontaneous reason choked. In education, while our main business is to promote the growth of moral purpose and of a strong sense of duty, we have to support these by the discipline of intelligence, and by training to power and work rather than by information. On the other hand, only those who are ignorant of the history and the recognized results of education will wholly abjure realism in the Comenian sense; but it has to be assigned is own place, and nothing more than this, in the education of a human being. The sum of the matter seems to be this, that while a due place in all education is to be assigned to sense-realistic studies, especially in the earlier years of family and school life, the humanistic agencies must always remain the most potent in the making of a man.

Comenius and his followers again confound knowledge with wisdom. He affirms that "all authors are to be banished from school except those that give a knowledge of useful things." Wisdom is certainly not to be opposed to knowledge, but it depends more on a man’s power of discrimination, combination, and imagination than on the extent of his mental store of facts. Were it not so, our whole secondary education, and all the purely disciplinal part of our university instruction would be very far astray. If the ancient tongues are to be learned simply with a view to the sum of knowledge they contain, it would be absurd to waste the time of our youth over them. It would be better to impose on our universities the duty of furnishing guaranteedtranslations for the use of the public. We shall not, however, involve ourselves in controversy here, as our object is merely to point out, generally, the strong and weak points of our author.

Next in importance to pansophy or encyclopdism, and closely connected with it, is the principle that a knowledge of words and of things should go hand in hand. Words are to be learned through things. Properly interpreted, and under due limitations, this principle will, we presume, be now generally accepted. We say, under due limitations, because it is manifest that the converse preposition, that "things are learned through words," is easily capable of proof, and is indeed, in our opinion, the stronghold of humanistic teaching in its earlier or school stages.

It is in the department of method, however, that we recognize the chief contribution of Comenius to education. The mere attempt to systematize was a great advance. In seeking, however, for foundations on which to erect a coherent system, he had had to content himself with first principles which were vague and unscientific.

Modern psychology was in its infancy, and Comenius had little more than the generalizations of Plato and Aristotle, and those not strictly investigated by him, for his guide. In training to virtue, moral truth and the various moralities were assumed as if they emerged full-blown in the consciousness of man. In training to godliness, again, Christian dogma was ready to his hand. In the department of knowledge, that is to say, knowledge of the outer world, Comenius rested his method on the scholastic maxim, "Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu." This maxim he enriched with the Baconian induction, comprehended by him, however, only in a general way. It was chiefly, however, the imagined harmony of physical and mental process that yielded his method. He believed that the process of the growth of external things had a close resemblance to the growth of the mind. Had he lived in these days he would doubtless have endeavored to work out the details of his method on a purely psychological basis; but in the then state of psychology he had to find another thread through the labyrinth. The mode of demonstration which he adopted was thus, as he himself called it, the syncretic or analogical. Whatever may be saidof the harmony that exists between the growth of nature and of mind, there can be no doubt that the observation of the former is capable of suggesting, if it does not furnish, many of the rules of educational method.

From the simple to the complex, from the particular to the general, the concrete before the abstract, and all, step by step, and even by insensible degrees—these were among his leading principles of method. But the most important of all his principles was derived from the scholastic maxim quoted above. As all is from sense, let the thing to be known be itself presented to the senses, and let every sense be engaged in the perception of it. When it is impossible, from the nature of the case, to present the object itself, place a vivid picture of it before the pupil. The mere enumeration of these few principles, even if we drop out of view all his other contributions to method and school-management, will satisfy any man familiar with all the more recent treatises on education, that Comenius, even after giving his precursors their due, is to be regarded as the true founder of modern method, and that he anticipates Pestalozzi and all of the same school.

When we come to consider Comenius’ method as applied specially to language, we recognize its general truth, and the teachers of Europe and America will now be prepared to pay it the homage of theoretical approval at least. To admire, however, his own attempt at working out his linguistic method is impossible, unless we first accept his encyclopdism. The very faults with which he charged the school practices of the time are simply repeated by himself in a new form. The boy’s mind is overloaded with a mass of words—the name and qualities of everything in heaven, on the earth, and under the earth. It was impossible that all these things, or even pictures of them, could be presented to sense, and hence his books must have inflicted a heavy burden on the merely verbal memory of boys. We want children to grow into knowledge, not to swallow numberless facts made up into boluses. Again, the amount that was to be acquired within a given time was beyond the youthful capacity. Any teacher will satisfy himself of this who will simply count the words and sentences in the Janua and Orbis of Comenius, and then try to distribute these over the schooltime allowed them. Like allreformers, Comenius was oversanguine. I do not overlook the fact that command over the Latin tongue as a vehicle of expression was necessary to those who meant to devote themselves to professions and to learning, and that Comenius had his justification for introducing a mass of vocables now wholly useless to the student of Latin. But even for his own time, Comenius, under the influence of his encyclopdic passion, overdid his task. His real merits in language-teaching lie in the introduction of the principle of graduated reading-books, in the simplification of Latin grammar, in his founding instruction in foreign tongues on the vernacular, and in his insisting on method in instruction. But these were great merits, too soon forgotten by the dull race of schoolmasters, if, indeed, they were ever fully recognized by them till quite recent times.

Finally, Comenius’ views as to the inner organization of a school were original, and have proved themselves in all essential respects correct.

The same may be said of his scheme for the organization of a state system—a scheme which is substantially, mutatis mutandis, at this moment embodied in the highly developed system of Germany.

When we consider, then, that Comenius first formally and fully developed educational method, that he introduced important reforms into the teaching of languages, that he introduced into schools the study of nature, that he advocated with intelligence, and not on purely sentimental grounds, a milder discipline, we are justified in assigning to him a high, if not the highest, place among modern educational writers. The voluminousness of his treatises, their prolixity, their repetitions, and their defects of styles have all operated to prevent men studying him. The substance of what he has written has been, I believe, faithfully given by me, but it has not been possible to transfer to these pages the fervor, the glow, and the pious aspirations of the good old bishop.

1 Mr. Laurie’s work was written in 1881. Considerable changes have since been made along the lines which he suggests.


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Chicago: S. S. Laurie, "Educational Reform of Comenius," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 11 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 193–205. Original Sources, accessed September 23, 2023,

MLA: Laurie, S. S. "Educational Reform of Comenius." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 11, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 193–205. Original Sources. 23 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: Laurie, SS, 'Educational Reform of Comenius' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 11. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.193–205. Original Sources, retrieved 23 September 2023, from