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Sidebar: John Amos Comenius

Written by George Hein

John Amos Comenius—the last name is the Latinized form of Komensky and the middle one was bestowed on him by follow theology students in recognition of his love of learning and of mankind—was a towering intellectual figure in the seventeenth century.

He became a priest and later bishop in the Protestant/Moravian Unity of Brethren and spent a lifetime trying to bring about unity (or at least peaceful coexistence) among contending forms of Protestantism at a time of particularly fierce military struggles for dominance among European Christian factions. He even participated in efforts to reunite Protestants and Catholics. His own Brethren were exiled from Moravia when Catholic princes gained power and he lived precariously in exile for the rest of his life. For many years, a large settlement of Unity of Brethren survived in Leszno, Poland, under the patronage of a friendly nobleman allied with the Protestant Swedish crown, but always in danger of expulsion as the tides of the Thirty Years War ebbed and flowed in their favor. At age sixty-five, Comenius lost all his possessions along with a large library (which contained all his unpublished work, including a huge Czech-Latin dictionary on which he had worked for forty-six years) when Leszno was burned to the ground by Spanish troops. This was only one of a series of tragedies during his life; he had been orphaned as a teenager and a decade later bereft of his first wife and children, both calamities due to disease.

Besides a huge output of theological works, most promoting tolerance and love for fellow humans based on his deep Christian faith, others expressing his mystical faith, he took up pedagogy as his pastoral duties included education—schools were almost exclusively sectarian at that time, each affiliated with one or another church group. Unlike most clerical pedagogues, whose intolerance towards non-Christians and also towards adherents of other Christian sects was echoed in their schools, he argued that all men where children of God, and that "there are three fundamentals upon which the unity of mankind rests: natural unity of our common humanity; individuality of each person; and, finally, free will." (Spinka, p. 109). He preached that school should be pleasant for children and that corporal punishment be diminished and limited to dealing with transgressions, not, as was common, used as a prompt for intellectual effort. In Comenius' schools, children learned through experience, not only from texts. They produced plays, and music was taught as well as other arts. He advocated a developmental curriculum, adjusted to the progressive ages of children and that curriculum should start with the vernacular, not Latin (and certainly not with classics that children learned by rote but didn't understand). He produced one of the first picture books to facilitate learning about the world and advocated compulsory education for all including the poor and girls. Above all, he had fierce faith that his form of Christian education could save humanity and eventually lead to a heaven on earth.

In 1642, he was invited to Sweden to reform their school system and set it up based on his principles. There he was undermined by more partisan clerics who disagreed with his pansophic views and his continuing efforts at religious reconciliation. He was also bitterly disappointed that at the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648 Sweden allowed Moravia to be governed by the uncompromising Catholic Hapsburgs, perpetuating exile of his brethren. At other times, sympathetic sponsors invited him to England and Hungary to develop school systems (he refused other offers) but repeatedly adverse political climates thwarted his efforts. He ended his days, still an exile, in The Netherlands continuing his writing (all together he published well over 100 major works) and efforts at religious reconciliation.

While in England in the mid 1630s, it is thought that he was offered the presidency of Harvard, a young college in the wilderness in the British colonies.

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