Comenius, Johann Amos (1592–1670)

Johann Comenius was born Jan Amos Komensky¬ on March 28, 1592, in Nivnice in Moravian Slovakia (now part of the Czech Republic). After completing GRAMMAR SCHOOL in Prerov, he studied at the universities of Herborn and Heidelberg from 1611 until 1614. He returned to the grammar school in Prerov and taught there from 1614 until 1618. From 1618 until 1621 he had a position as a minister at the Bohemian Protestant Church in Fulnek.

During the Counter-Reformation the Bohemian Protestant Church was crushed and those who refused to convert to Catholicism were forced to leave the country. This forced Comenius to live in various, sometimes secret, locations from 1621 until 1628. In 1628, Comenius, together with a number of other families, went into exile in Lissa, Poland, where he taught at the local grammar school until 1641. From 1641 to 1642 he lived in England. From 1642 until 1648 he lived in Elbing, Sweden, where he worked on the improvement of the Swedish school system and wrote school books in line with his pedagogical changes. The years 1648 through 1650 saw him in Lissa again. From 1650 to 1654 he devoted himself to the task of reforming the school system in Hungary, returning to Lissa in 1654. When Lissa burned down in 1656, Comenius moved to Amsterdam, where he died on November 15, 1670.

Comenius's Thinking

Comenius's thinking can be described as belonging to the pansophic-theological school of thought, according to which all things are connected with each other within the framework of a fixed order, which ultimately is the result of God's Creation. The presence of God manifests itself in nature, in the rationality of the law of nature, and in the beauty and harmony of the world. The order of nature itself is based on a principle of reason that ensures that all things are interrelated and nothing gets mixed up. Part of this sense of order is given to humans by God in the form of what Comenius called ration, so that humans could actively contribute their share in the divine creation of order. Ration is the link between God and human. It is the divine in each person; it justifies human supremacy in preference to all other creatures and also calls people to account for their actions. Anyone seeking cognition of God's wisdom must, however, be familiar with all three of the "books" in which God has laid down His wisdom: nature, spirit, and the Bible.

Comenius repeatedly endeavoured to establish a fundamental connection between pansophic-theological thinking and his own theoretical and practical pedagogy. Since humans could comprehend the harmony between nature and

A page from the 1780 edition of Comenius's illustrated textbook Orbis sensualium pictus. Comenius's work, first published in 1658, was translated into a number of languages and served as a model for textbooks throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. .

God only through reason, he argued, the proper use of reason must be taught to man; therefore a "universal education" (Pampaedia) is necessary and will eventually result in a "universal reform of things human" (1991, p. 67). Education would ensure that people could fulfil their duties on earth, and this must be true for all children since all human beings can be educated and are basically capable of being taught and of learning. The process of teaching should itself be guided by the principle of contemplation. In keeping with the ideas of universal harmony, Comenius believed that all knowledge can be acquired only through use of sensual perception. He further recommended that only those things should be taught at school that may be of use in later life. For Comenius, all of these considerations meant that new teaching disciplines had to be developed, in which students would be treated and taught individually, according to methods that make studying less burdensome and more pleasant.

In his Didactica magna (The great didactics), which was printed in 1657, Comenius laid down and substantiated the objectives and methods for pedagogical undertakings committed to pansophic-theological thinking. "Didactics," he wrote, meant the "art of teaching," and he ventured to provide a "Great Didactic," that is to say "the whole art of teaching all things to all men, and indeed of teaching them with certainty, so that the result cannot fail to follow; further, of teaching them pleasantly, that is to say, without annoyance or aversion on the part of the teacher or the pupil, but rather with the greatest enjoyment for both; further of teaching them thoroughly, not superficially and showily, but in such a manner as to lead to true knowledge, purity in morals and innermost devotion" (1985, p. 11).

Comenius believed in the possibility of lifelong learning. Humans, he believed, from the moment of their birth, are equipped with the ability to acquire knowledge of things. In the teaching process he did not recommend trying to infuse things from the outside into the human mind; instead he believed one should "single out, unfold and reveal what lies hidden within…. Consequently there is nothing in thisworld that a human being, endowed with senses and reason, does not wish to comprehend. Man is filled with the thirst for knowledge" (1985, p. 38).

Lifelong Learning

The idea that education is necessary is underlined by Comenius in the following words: "So do not think that anybody who has not learnt to act in the manner of man can really be a man" (1985, p. 86) and again, "Everything that man wants to know he must learn first" (p. 47). All creatures born human are born solely for the purpose of "being individuals, namely creatures endowed with reason, master over other creatures, and the identical image of the Creator. Therefore each individual should be promoted in a manner that they can pass their current life usefully and prepare suitably for the life to come" (p. 34). He emphasized the idea of rational creatures guided by reason again by writing that "all those born as human beings require education … exactly for the reason that they are intended to be human beings rather than wild animals, simple beasts or unhewn blocks" (p. 49). Those teachings must begin early in life, however, "because life should not be spent learning, but acting" (p. 50).

All human beings should be taught alike, he believed, "Boys and girls, both noble and ignoble, rich and poor, in all cities and towns, villages and hamlets, should be sent to school" (p. 55). Each child, irrespective of origin and sex, should be educated, the only decisive factor being ability.

Comenius was also convinced of the importance of giving an education even to those "who may seem stupid or dull by nature. Especially those who are stupid are in particular need of cultivation of the mind. The more children are weak-minded and stupid, the more they actually need help to free themselves of their stupidity. It is not possible to find a mind so inept that its cultivation cannot progressively improve it…. The dull and weak-minded may never boast of greatachievements in science, nevertheless learning will at least improve the morality of their behaviour" (p. 56). The objective of universal education would be achieved by founding "schools as joint educational institutions for children in all the parishes, towns, and villages where people live together"(p. 55). Existing schools should be reorganized into "places of thorough and comprehensive education of the mind" (p.59), which would ensure that "the entire youth is educated there and everybody is taught everything." "All human beings should be led equally to the goals of wisdom, morality and saintliness," he wrote, because "all human beings … have the same nature after all" (pp. 60, 73). Additionally, schools should be organized so "that the slow would be mixed with the fast, the ponderous with the agile, the stubborn with the compliant" (p. 74).

Johann Amos Comenius lived in a time marked by disruption and crises as well as wars. At a time at which the public education system was open only to a small group of children, his major concern was that "all men are taught all things." Unfortunately his ideas on education were not generally accepted by society, and his suggestions on school systems have not yet been implemented, even in part. However, the author of the Didactica magna lives on in our memory as a forerunner of modern pedagogy, a great reformer and crusader.

See also: Basedow, Johann Bernard; Education, Europe; Locke, John.


Comenius, Johann Amos. 1985. Grosse Didaktik. Stuttgart, Germany: Klett-Cotta.

Comenius, Johann Amos. 1991. Pampaedia–Allerziehung. St. Augustin, Germany: Academia-Verlag.