In today's public-school classrooms, boys and girls learn together with others of their age and ability. They are given pictures and hands-on materials to connect abstract concepts with the observable world around them. Their teachers address them as whole people-not just brains for the memorization and regurgitation of facts.
But elementary education did not always look like this. Schoolchildren of today, though they do not know it, owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), a Moravian bishop often called "the Father of Modern Education."
A brilliant young man whose own experience of elementary schooling was anything but happy, Comenius called the schools his age had inherited from the medieval period "slaughterhouses of the mind." He was appalled by their oppressive strictness, their stress on abstract concepts unrooted in sense or experience, and their indifference to the moral and spiritual development of their young charges. And he set out to do something about it.
Sensitive to the developmental needs of children of various ages, Comenius divided elementary schools by grades. Believing that children must be wooed rather than coerced into learning, he invented the illustrated textbook and made experience and discovery part of the classroom environment. He taught that corporal punishment, if used at all, should be connected only with moral and not intellectual faults. He insisted that girls were as fully capable of learning at the highest levels as boys. And he preached that schools should teach all realms of knowledge, including morals and piety. The Moravian's reforms were both praised and implemented all across Europe, with over half of European schools eventually using his textbooks.
But behind these reforms lay a deeper vision. Comenius belonged to the Unity of the Brethren-a group of Pietist Christians descended from followers of the proto-Reformer Jan Hus. This small group of Czech believers had been persecuted and exiled from their mother country since early in the bloody religious conflicts of the Thirty Years' War. It was this background that birthed a vision in Comenius for a Christ-centered, universal education called "Pansophism." He believed that a broad-based educational program bringing together people of diverse backgrounds in a common understanding could help avert further strife.
Comenius was no naïve visionary. He knew the foolishness and futility of the world and expressed it poignantly in his rich allegory, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart. But he believed that education, though not in itself redemptive, could complement the gospel by fostering international restoration, unity, and peace. People have long understood that one potential benefit of a liberal education is the tolerance and generosity of spirit it can instill in its students. Rising above Europe's fractiousness, Comenius taught a strongly Christ-centered version of this old ideal.
Today, focused as we are on schooling ourselves toward technical mastery and economic ends, we could stand to learn this other, deeper lesson from Comenius. In fact, today's European Union has been doing just that. "Socrates," a government-supported, Europe-wide education initiative, has named its elementary-level program "Comenius." The program promotes the same values that drove its namesake's reforms of the 1600s: pedagogical innovation, transnational cooperation, and equal opportunity for all students (see http://europa.eu.int/comm/education/socrates/). May it recognize Comenius's Lord as well.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Chris Armstrongis associate professor of church history, Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, and senior editor, Christian History & Biography. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
More CT articles on education include our recent cover story on the renaissance of the Christian college.
Christian History Corner, a weekly column from the editors and writers of Christian History & Biography, appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:
5 Christian History Books for the Beach | Christian History & Biography staff suggest books for your summer reading list. (July 15, 2005)
When Theology Comes Alive | Living theology: that's what the 17th-century Pietists wanted to see. And so they invented church history. (July 08, 2005)
The Man Behind the Missions | A. T. Pierson who? Dana Robert's biography sheds light on a forgotten ancestor of the modern evangelical missionary movement. (June 10, 2005)
The Secrets of Spurgeon's Preaching | Why would thousands come to hear him speak? (June 03, 2005)
Preaching Augustine | The Christian Classics Ethereal Library came to my rescue in a homiletical emergency. (May 27, 2005)
Victorian Skeptics on the Road to Damascus | Former atheist Antony Flew's admission of the existence of God shocked believers and skeptics alike, but such a turnaround is far from unique. In the 19th century, many leading intellectuals who had once lost their faith ended up reconverting. (May 20, 2005)
In Search of the Real Balian | In Kingdom of Heaven, Sir Ridley Scott turns Balian of Ibelin into an agnostic, but what do we know of the Balian of history? (May 13, 2005)
How Could Christians Crusade? | Why followers of the Prince of Peace waged war. (May 06, 2005)
Uwe Siemon-Netto: Ignore History at Your Own Peril | UPI religion columnist decries the shallow Christianity of those who neglect the past. (April 15, 2005)
Signs of the Reformation's Success? | Reformation scholar Timothy George discusses Pope John Paul II's historical significance and this 'momentous' era of Catholic-evangelical dialogue. (April 8, 2005)
'Hymn for Easter Day' | Charles Wesley's 'Christ the Lord Is Risen Today' brings alleluia's historical significance to modern audiences. (March 24, 2005)
The Jewishness of the Nicene Creed | It was the Bible, not Greek philosophy, that shaped the theology of the Nicene bishops. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Still Fighting over Nicaea | The Anglican Communion dusts off and debates some of the Council of Nicaea's forgotten canons. (Feb. 18, 2005)
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