November 15 marks an important anniversary that will pass unnoticed for most, at least in North America. It is the day on which the author of the following words passed away:

It is desired that not just one particular person be fully formed into full humanity, or a few, or even many, but every single person, young and old, rich and poor, of high and low birth, men and women, in a word, every person who is born: so that in the end, in time, proper formation might be restored to the whole human race, throughout every age, class, sex, and nationality.1

This opening salvo, drawn from the first chapter of one of his last books, sounds a call for universal education. It calls for educational opportunity to be available regardless of social distinctions of worth. It calls for all kinds of learners to be offered a holistic learning experience that does not simply prepare them for narrow roles, but helps them unfold as persons. I wonder what period of history came to mind as you read it? It always strikes me as sounding more recent in its emphases than its origin in a book written in the 17th century by an aging Moravian bishop. It was part of an ambitious seven-volume project on the universal reform of human affairs that was almost completed by John Amos Comenius (Jan Amos Komenský) before his death in 1670, then soon lost until its rediscovery in an archive in 1935. In the Pampaedia (Universal Education) Comenius set out one more time his vision for educational reform, a topic that had preoccupied him since his youth and informed a good portion of his more than 200 written works.

Comenius lived and worked during a time of war and plague and spent the bulk of his life as a refugee from his Moravian homeland. Yet to a significant degree he avoided having his vision turn narrow and inward under the pressure of circumstances and the fear of natural calamity or societal evil. He continued to insist on an expansive vision of collaboration with God’s desires for humanity through educational reform. His language was expansive not only in terms of which learners should be reached (“From human cultivation no creature is excluded except those that are not human”2) but in terms of how they should grow. Education, he continued, should not have a narrow focus or utilitarian aim, but should rather aim at developing a love of the good and the true, eloquence and self-control, and the capacity to interact wisely with the natural world, other humans, and God. Education should teach “omnes, omnia, omnino”3 – all manner of things, to everyone, with attention to all facets of their development. The goal should not be “ostentation and disguise”4 (education is not for padding your resume) but to cooperate in restoring the marred image of God in which humans were made.

That last phrase offers one clue as to where the insistence on universal educational provision is tethered in Comenius’s thinking. Humans are made in the image of God. This condition is not earned by being smart, or being male, or being young, or carrying a certain citizenship, or being born into wealth or status. It is given before human striving and earning gets going. Along with this givenness, there is human responsibility; in our fallen state, our actual living does not image God properly. Education, Comenius believed, could play a role under God’s providence in restoring us to what we were meant to be. Education did not replace salvation, but if salvation was the restoration of the whole person, education was not irrelevant. If a human, as he wrote elsewhere,5 is not an inert block of wood that can be carved into any shape the educator might wish, but is rather a living image that constantly shapes, misshapes, and reshapes itself in interaction with the opportunities provided by its surroundings, then the kind of education offered contributes to the image that emerges. If humans are made in God’s image, if they are educable and vulnerable to malformation, and if God seeks human cooperation in the renewal of all things, then education matters for humans, regardless of their status in the eyes of society.

A second clue comes a few paragraphs later. Comenius concludes his exposition of the reasons why universal, holistic education is necessary with the comment that it was for those reasons that he placed on the title page of his book an image showing the art of the tree pruner. At first glance this might seem like just a homely metaphor – as trees need pruning, people need formation. But this image of trees and gardening echoes throughout his writings with specifically biblical resonances. It alludes to the trees of Genesis 1-3 and the world of delight given to humanity to explore and name. It alludes to Jesus’ Father the gardener in John 15, where branches are pruned for the sake of fruitfulness. And it alludes to a chapter echoed in John 15, the parable of the unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5, where Judah is a “garden of delight” in God’s eyes—but only if there is justice in place of bloodshed, only if the cries of distress from the marginalized are heard and answered. Comenius wrote of reforming education in such a way that classrooms and learners might become gardens of delight, and the biblical resonances in his imagination made this not a romantic call for the little flowers to flourish in the sun, but a call for spiritual growth, justice, and inclusion of the marginal and distressed.

A third clue lurks at the beginning of another of his educational works, the Didactica Magna (The Great Didactic). In the opening chapter of that earlier work, Comenius begins his call for education reform with an appeal to everyone concerned with the formation of humans to attend to the dignity of their task and of the people in their care. He expresses this as an appeal directly from God:

I appointed you over the works of my hands and placed everything under your feet, sheep and oxen and the beasts of the field, the fowl of the air and the fish of the sea, and crowned you with glory and honor (Psalm 8). And finally, so that you would lack nothing, I gave you myself in a hypostatic union [nexu hypostatico], joining my nature with yours in eternity in a way granted to no other creature, visible or invisible. For which other creature in heaven or on earth can boast that God was manifested in its flesh and seen by angels? (1 Timothy 3:16)6

Humans are worthy of education, Comenius suggests, because of the incarnation, because in Christ human flesh has been dignified by being made one with his divine nature. Shall this event, marveled over by angels, be met with indifference regarding the kind of formation experienced by human creatures, partakers of that same human flesh, at the hands of their elders? If Christ was made flesh for the sake of humanity, rather than for some specific social group, then who is not worthy of education? Such is the logic from which the Didactica Magna takes its initial momentum.

Three-hundred fifty years have passed since Comenius died, aged 78, on November 15, 1670. Comenius would have been pleased with many of the ways in which educational opportunity has expanded since his day. I suspect that he would also still be asking importunate questions about whether we really educate as if the worth, potential, and need of all humans as made in God’s image, fallen but called into communion with God through the incarnation, fueled our vision of their educational potential. I suspect he would still be looking for an education that forms humans and not blocks of wood, for signs of a garden of delight emerging amid the continuing cries of distress.

Footnotes

  1. John Amos Comenius,Pampaedia I:6, my translation. Latin text: Johann Amos Comenius, Pampaedia: lateinischer Text und deutsche Übersetzung, ed. Dmitrij Tschižewskij, (Heidelberg: Quelle & Meyer, 1960).
  2. Comenius, Pampaedia, II:30.
  3. Comenius, Pampaedia, I:1.
  4. Comenius, Pampaedia, I:8.
  5. Comenius, Analytic Didactic, in Vladimir Jelinek, The Analytical Didactic of Comenius, trans. V. Jelinek (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 108.
  6. Comenius, Didactica Magna , I:3, my translation. Latin text: Joannes Amos Comenius, Opera Didactica Omnia (Prague: Academia Scientiarum Bohemoslovenica, 1957 [1657]). The existing English translation by Keatinge requires some caution. It is a loose (and rather dated) paraphrase that is at times especially unreliable when rendering theological statements.

David I. Smith

Calvin University
David I. Smith is Professor of education and Director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin University. He writes on teaching and learning at https://onchristianteaching.com.

3 Comments

  • Big thank you for this piece. I have two dear friends who teach at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, and I knew nothing of Comenius’s views and legacy. And what timely views they are for Christian higher education today, as it trends increasingly toward two-dimensional education: theological training and career prep. Comenius reminds us that there’s much more to learning than that, that the robust Christian liberal arts vision that so many small schools are struggling to keep afloat is worth fighting for–on theological grounds. Thank you

  • Phillip Nash says:

    Thank you David – another timely challenge for us to really grasp the essence and importance of our daily tasks, to keep the big picture big and present. Rest assured that some of us ( weak as we are) are striving to do just what Comenius envisaged.

    Phillip

Leave a Reply