On this day, March 28, 1592, the wife of a humble miller in Southern Moravia, in the present-day Czech Republic, bore a son who would become perhaps the most important pedagogue of the 17th century, a pioneer of modern education. His name was Jan Amos Komensky, or, as he became known internationally by his Latinized name, Comenius.
Relatives reared the young Comenius after he lost his parents early in life. He attended a Latin school, then studied philosophy and theology at Herborn Academy and Heidelberg University. Returning to Moravia, Comenius became a school principal and priest in his church, the Unity of the Brethren.
Comenius committed himself to teaching and study in a life filled with tragedy. His wife and child died of the plague, his house burned, and he and his faith community were violently driven from Moravia and settled for a while in Poland, where Comenius was ordained bishop of his church in 1632. Poland would provide no permanent home, for during the Swedish-Polish War Comenius lost all of his possessions once again, including a valuable library and the manuscript on which he had worked for more than four decades, a Bohemian-Latin and Latin-Bohemian dictionary.
He crisscrossed Europe, turning down invitations to teach in England and France, and refused even the presidency of Harvard University. Eventually he settled in Amsterdam, where friends provided for him a final lodging.
Looking back on his unsettled life in 1699, one year before his death, the 78-year-old Comenius wrote, "My entire life was a pilgrimage. . . . I changed continuously the place of my stay, having nowhere a permanent residence. But now I can see my heavenly home."
Comprehensive human undertaking
Comenius's legacy, the fruit of his trying "pilgrimage," is considerable. His works on education were translated into nearly all European and several Asian languages. As an innovative educator, he tried to see education from the perspective of the child and student, developing appropriate curricula and materials that would engage all human senses at the various stages of development.
Education for Comenius is an ongoing and comprehensive human undertaking, which is moral and religious while also conveying languages and the arts.
Education begins in the child's home, followed by primary public schooling, and for those who later attend an academy or university, a solid secondary education.
Comenius also advocated basic universal education for all groups of society, rich and poor, male and female, and even those who had learning disabilities. In his Great Didactic of 1632, he wanted to educate "not the children of the rich or of the powerful only, but of all alike, boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets."
Some principles and values distinguished this pedagogy. Comenius wanted to educate young people in an environment free of fear, that is, without the physical punishment so characteristic of his day.
He sought to expose students to what they could see with their eyes, hear with their ears, smell with their nose, taste with their tongue, and touch with their fingers. To engage all senses in the learning process, Comenius among other things made ready use of illustrations in his textbooks.
Beyond his innovations as an educator, Comenius was also a spiritual writer of great sensitivity and the author of an important hymnbook. He cherished especially a saying of the Lutheran irenic theologian Peter Meiderlin, which he also passed on as a motto for his church: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
The educational ideals of Comenius are most strongly articulated, adopted and advanced in the work of the Moravian educator and administrator Paul Layritz (1707-1778), who himself wrote an educational classic, "Reflections on a Reasonable and Christian Education of Children." Layritz completed this book, published in 1776 in German, in St. John's in 1773, while the elder and his wife Sophia waited for a ship to take them to their fellow Moravian missionaries to Nain, Labrador.
In Labrador, Comenius's advocacy of literacy and a universal education has borne fruit in schools conducted continuously in the Inuit language for boys and girls on the north coast since 1780.
So it is quite fitting that today's school in Hopedale, the Amos Comenius School, is named after this great educator of the early modern period.
Hans Rollmann is a professor of Religious Studies at MUN and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.