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John Amos Comenius: The Father of Modern Education in Contemporary Curriculum
The European Renaissance produced advances in art, literature, science, and mathematics at a level unprecedented since the ancient classical civilizations. Following on the heels of the Renaissance, the Reformation led to Protestants seeking to educate youth so that they could read scripture and Christian teachings, to ensure indoctrination and the continuance of their beliefs.
The contentious relations between the Catholic Church and the Protestant movement led to many Protestant clergy, philosophers, and supporters being exiled from Catholic territories. John Amos Comenius was one such philosopher and teacher who wrote extensively regarding the structure and needs of education. In addition to his education philosophy, Comenius was the last appointed bishop of the Moravian church. Because of his Protestant leadership, he was exiled from the Papal states, including his modern-day Slavic homelands (Laurie & Bardeen, 1892). Even though exiled, he remained solidly sought after from England to Poland, and indeed has been named the Father of Modern Education (Sloboda, 2018). His ideals, while radical during his lifetime have become the foundation for the American education system. Using the introduction page to his Didactica Magna or The Great Didactic (1635/1907), I will outline his principles of education, how contemporary curriculum reflects those principles, as well as how they speak to the future of the field.
Comenius’ Universal Education Ideal
Hamilton (2015) writes that Comenius’ “assumptions about the delivery of knowledge nourished the origins, ideology and appeal of modern schooling” (p. 591). Perhaps one of the most influential treatises on education, the title page to The Great Didactic (Comenius, 1635/1907) reads:
The Great Didactic: Setting forth The whole Art of Teaching all Things to all Men or A certain Inducement to found such Schools in all the Parishes, Towns, and Villages of every Christian Kingdom, that the entire Youth of both Sexes, none being excepted, shall Quickly, Pleasantly, & Thoroughly Become learned in the Sciences, pure in Morals, trained to Piety, and in this manner instructed in all things necessary for the present and for the future life, in which, with respect to everything that is suggested, Its Fundamental Principles are set forth from the essential nature of the matter, Its Truth is proved by examples from the several mechanical arts, Its Order is clearly set forth in years, months, days, and hours, and, finally, An easy and sure Method is shown, by which it can be pleasantly brought into existence. (p. 3)
The first item on Comenius’ agenda was to establish his belief in universal education. In a work of over 300 pages, his first statement following the title was an advocacy for all people to have access to a full education. Traditionally, literacy and a classical education had only been the privilege of the male children of wealthy families. Comenius (1635/1907) believed education was the right of all children, regardless of gender or social class. Comenius was not alone in his desire to see universal education; the second wave of Reformation philosophers bought into this concept with him (Laurie & Bardeen (1892). The premise was that both boys and girls should be educated so that they could better understand Christian scriptures and lead pious lives. Because of Comenius’ (1635/1907) view of the Mother-school discussed later, women needed to be fully literate and educated in all principles so that they could become the first teachers of their children. At a time when most people groups, including the dominating Catholic church, did not value education for girls or lower-class children, Comenius became a champion for education for all. While there were other voices supporting the education of girls so they would be literate to aid in the raising Christian children (Maviglia, 2016), Comenius (1635/1907) supported a full education of all people.
Hamilton (2015) connects the very root of the word education to the idea of universal education. He interestingly outlines that “the Latin etymology of the word education denotes a process of ‘leading out’; pedagogy is its classical Greek synonym; and ‘upbringing is its closest English translation” (p. 578). He goes on to claim that the idea of “schooling” is unique to human institutions, but an education synonymous with upbringing is a universal principle to the natural order of life—all animals bring up their young with knowledge to survive in the world.
Therefore, using his supposition, to deny any group the right to a full education is unnatural and ultimately unacceptable.
In addition to educating both boys and girls, Comenius (1635/1907) wanted to do away with class distinctions within the school environment (Comenius, 1635/1907; Maviglia, 2016). He supported children of all social classes being grouped together in classrooms, so they could learn from each other. Most aristocratic and upper-class families did not engage in what existed of public education during the Reformation. Comenius (1635/1907) envisioned an integrated public gymnasium—the German word for secondary school (Laurie & Bardeen, 1892).
If we were to impose Pinar’s (2009) question of “What knowledge is of most worth?” to Comenius’ worldview, then three categories emerge: Christian piety and spirituality, the liberal arts, and the sciences, with natural science of the upmost importance. The penultimate goal of education for Comenius (1635/1907), was to invoke the divine and bring learners to a better knowledge of their place in creation.
Pinar et al. (2008) reinforce Comenius’ central focus on the divine. While I do not wish the religious aspect of his work to be my primary focus in exploring his work, to exclude it would be an egregious—even sacrilegious—omission. Because so much of Christianity’s doctrines focus on good, righteous, and holy behavior, that was a main goal of education for writers and pedagogues during the Reformation (Maviglia, 2016; Menck, 2001).
Liberal arts education. Comenius (1635/1907) acknowledges the value of the liberal arts education that had been the staple of European education since at least the beginning of the Renaissance. As articulated by Laurie and Bardeen (1892), these subjects include grammar (including the native language, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew), dialectic, rheotric, arithmatic, geometry, music, and astronomy (p. 147-148). Comenius envisioned these subjects flowing sequentially since the linguistic subjects are necessary for understanding the maths and sciences, and math is a prerequisite to comprehending music and science.
Several hundred years after Comenius (1635/1907) writes of both rich and poor learners having access to a liberal arts education, Jane Addams instituted a summer school using a liberal arts curriculum for the working class of Chicago in 1891 (Pinar, 2015, p. 224). Pinar (2015) discusses Addams’ work within the context of her giving her life to public service. Comenius (1635/1907) too saw the lives of teachers as given in service to education. Both Addams and Comenius believed that access to a full spectrum of knowledge would give learners—both child and adult—knowledge which would translate into practical skills; these skills would provide the capability to think critically and to apply knowledge in ways which would improve the lives of the learners.
Spirituality. Returning to the introduction to The Great Didactic, Comenius (1635/1907) wanted learners “instructed in all things necessary for the present and for the future life” (p. 3). His Christian beliefs in a Heavenly life after death as the reward of salvation and a life morally lived drive the spiritual imperative inherent to his entire educational model. Comenius (1635/1907) believed that through education, students could reach their ultimate spiritual potential. Phillips (2012) argues that “the myth of our potential…lures us into the future, but without letting us wonder why such lures are required” (p. xiii). If a primary goal of education—both historically and contemporaneously—to help students reach their full potential as scholars and individuals is a myth as Phillips (2012) suggests, then Comenius (1635/1907) would encourage teachers to lure learners toward their spiritual potential until the student intrinsically desires education and God and has not doubt of its value.
Because Comenius saw teachers as a guide to spiritual revelation, he wanted for learners, from a very early age, to seek (his version of) religious truth since “knowledge, virtue, and religion are the contents of education and they are not offered to students from the outside, but they represent the nourishment caused by an inner need. In these terms, culture becomes a ‘call’ to which all human beings must respond in order to know God, themselves, and the world” (Maviglia, 2016, p. 62). From this stance, then, the call to religious knowledge and revelation is not a clarion call which cannot be ignored, but rather an invitation. However, Comenius (1635/1907) believes that all students who have the opportunity to observe moral, virtuous, Christian behavior will come to follow the precepts of his spiritual beliefs.
In contrast to Comenius’ (1635/1907) religious inclinations, Said (1994) argues that “the true intellectual is a secular being. However much intellectuals pretend that their representations are of higher things or ultimate values, morality begins with their activity in this secular world of ours” (p. 120). Comenius did value the early acquisition of morality and ethics from mimicking the behaviors from adults. In that sole aspect can the two viewpoints reconcile. However, for Comenius (1635/1907), the world was not a secular place at all; the world was the creation of his God and therefore everything in it, including the morals and ethics he hoped to educate into learners, was divine.
Renaissance and Reformation artists relied on art itself to convey religious meaning. Menck (2001) also explores the Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus, a textbook primer created to use in the Mother-school describe later. Menck (2001) concludes that the insight into the religious iconography pictures joined with the German and Latin accompanying text gives a sense of the social context surrounding Comenius’ work—specifically that religious instruction is capable through pictures independent of written language.
The divine aspects of the world were held in great mysticism for Reformation philosophers than for modern Christians. Comenius (1635/1907) claims that every action of Jesus’ life had a mystical meaning (p. 105). While mysticism threads itself through his writings (Laurie and Bardeen, 1892; Maviglia, 2016), he was able to maintain his mystic beliefs while also writing concretely about education, reflecting a synthesis between the mystical heritage of earlier Christianity and the emerging Realism of the Renaissance and Reformation.
Synthesizing the polarizing viewpoints of contemporary art and spiritual mysticism, Morris (2016b) argues that “artwork can lead to mystical experience. Painting, playing a musical instrument, reading poetry, getting tattooed can all open the door to the mystical” (p. 71). While Comenius (1635, 1907) would probably frown upon tattoo as an artform, he surely believed in the power of contemplating art to inspire a spiritual experience.
Morris (2016b) further argues that “being spiritual or being a mystic does not mean that you do not live in the world; it means you live more deeply in the world. Rather than transcending the world through mystical ideas, one should move more deeply into the mess that is our reality. Prophetic thought is not ungrounded thought” (p. 83). Comenius (1623/1998; 1635/1907) could not separate his mystical spirituality from the natural, real world. In considering his views on spirituality and the importance of natural sciences, he considered the natural world to be the very grounding force which brought his faith into reality.
I find it interesting that Comenius continally puts the liberal arts ahead of the sciences, but never to the exlcusion of them. During my time in eudcaiton, I have seen the empahasis of STEM classes, to the point my literature classes had the least access to technology and even print sources of any other academic discipline within the schools I taught. I have struggled with this disparity and the neglect the humanities and arts have felt in the past two decades. Without the ability to read and comprehend, how may a student learn about the sciences? About the ever-changing field of technology? The students I have taught struggle to connect the historical concepts in literature to the history classes they have taken. Because we do not contextualize all academic subjects in the same knowledge sphere, students compartamentlaize individual course material, and thereby fail to form a cohesive framework for their learning to coagulate wholistically.
A study by Krupa and Confrey (2017) showed that students—particularly minorities and students in high-need schools—performed much better on mathematics exams when taught through an integrated approach. When algebra and geometry were not presented as discreet disciplines, students were able to score higher than students who were taught subject matter separately. While using a standardized test to numerically evaluate a student’s learning is problematic (Pinar, 2004), Krupa and Confrey’s (2017) study still strongly suggests that students can grasp mathematical subjects when they are taught integrated.
Nature as teacher. I find it difficult to separate the natural from the spiritual regarding Comenius. Two hundred years after the Slavic pedagogue wrote, the American Transcendentalists would again strongly invoke the power of nature as a teacher. Thoreau went into the woods at Walden Lake and philosophized on the problems with education and how they may be remedied by a relationship with the natural (Thoreau, 1985, Willson 1962). Ironically, during his stint as a school teacher in Canton, Massachusetts, his observations aligned with Comenius’ ideal classroom. Thoreau saw students punished for learning and wanted no part of that authoritarian system. He wanted students to learn for the love of it. He also found the classrooms to be uninviting and intellectually stifling to the imagination (Willson 1962). Comenius (1635/1907) described classrooms with artwork and pictures, comfortable seating arrangements, and access to nature.
Granted, Comenius (1635/1907) did not wish to transcend the physical world. He did however want learners to appreciate the natural world and all the knowledge it had to offer. Morris (2016a) writes of “eco-poesis” in which “scholars read, write, and think in relation-to-the-world. Thus, reading, writing, and thinking are ecological acts” (p. 389). Comenius (1635/1907) very much belived in the didactic power of nature in addition to its inherence to the learning processes involved in thinking and understanding the world’s operation—that the harmony of nature (Maviglia (2016) could be the greatest teacher.
If learners absorb truth and knowledge from nature, then Abram’s (1997) belief in language being inherent to non-human animals (p. 77-78) would mesh well with Comenius’ philosophies. Morris (2016b) agrees and argues that “most people pay little attention to the world, to nature and its creatures” (p. 149). We can learn from animals—they should not be discounted as less than humans but appreciated for the divine we can glean. Comenius (1635/1907) repeatedly refers to humans as animals, and not derogatorily or as a synonym for ignorance. Rather he values all creatures and considers humans as part of the natural order of earth’s animals. He also refers over 30 times to creatures in The Great Didactic (Comenius 1635/1907), mostly referring to animals and their contribution to natural education.
Structure of Schools
The Great Didactic clearly set forth Comenius’ (1635/1907) vision for the structure of education, from the birth of a child through university. He titled each of his schools and alloted each six years of instruction—so this sequential education would nearly comprise the 25 years Comenius claimed it takes for the human mind and body to fully mature. Within the following levels of education, Comenius believed that “learning proceeds sequentially [not unlike “mastery teaching in the U.S….] at the pace indicated by students’ abilities. For the first time, the pedagogical focus shifted to the individual” (Pinar et al., p. 810). Whereas contemporary education forces learners into grade-level distinctions and leaves little room for individualized rates of learning, Comenius (1635/1907) envisioned a more open educational structure that would allow students to progress at individualized rates. With that in mind, he still allotted six years per school division as a guideline.
The Four Schools. The first of Comenius’ (1635/1907) schools is the Mother-school, where a child would be taught the basics of language use, counting, interaction with the natural world (natural science), as well as family, spiritual, and community relationships. Comenius contends that every home should have a Mother-school, and this foundation for a child’s education is vital to his future learning. The parents, family and community are responsible for fostering a child’s curiosity and foundational literacy (Laurie & Bardeen, 1892) until the time comes for him to learn from master teachers.
Ages 6-12 would see a learner in Vernacular chool, or grammar school. Much the same as the American model of the elementary school, these six years would teach learners the basics of their native language, natural science, mathematics, religion, and ethics. Comenius (1635/1907) envisions a school day of four sections, two each before and after a lunch break. For the Vernacular school, he proposes no more than four daily classes, with the afternoon for repetition of the morning’s new informaiton (p. 272). He also proposes that textbooks should be course-specific, written plainly, inviting so as to instill in students a love of reading. At this stage, students gain an increasing handle on language skills so that the mastery of their native language will segue into learning classical languages and philosophies when they move on.
After the Vernacular school, students would enter the Latin school, or gymnasium, the equivalent to American secondary school. Comenius (1635/1907) is adamant that students at this level receive instruction in all of the (contemporaneous) liberal arts—so that a learner may master philosophy—and all the sciences (p. 274). By the time a student completes his gymnasium, he or she should be well versed in any discourse needed for practical living and philosophical understanding.
Comenius (1635/1907) adds a chapter in his The Great Didactic on university level learning as well. While that is not the main purvue of his reform, he felt obligated to address the full spectrum of education. Again, his vision for university is evident in higher education today. He suggested Latin school teachers to recommend students who show th hightest aptitude for learning as a profession to universities which would then require an entrance exam to ensure academic standards were maintained across scholars from various provinces. For learners who progress to study university, they would be mentored and taught by masters who would then oversee oral comprehensive exams and ultimately a dissertation which would needs past muster from interdisciplinary faculty. Also, Comenius advocated for university students to travel extensively, since visiting other places would only contextualize their learning.
Within the four school models, Comenius argued that all learners have a place. Over 300 years later, the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, policymakers sought to improve educational experiences for students with disabilities. Learning disabilities and learners with exceptional capabilities were included in the legislation. The first three hundred or so years of American education ignored, miseducated, or undereducated many students who fit into the legal categories set forth in IDEA. Comenius (1635/1907) stated throughout his works his belief that all people can learn, regardless of intellectual ability. He believed that the very culture of his school models would improve the lives of any learners, even the ones who had less scholastic aptitude. He writes, “Let none be denied unless God has denied him sense and intelligence” (Comenius, 1635/1907, p. 67).
Play versus the Puritan work ethic. William Doll (1979) expounds on the dichotomy which exists within the Puritan heritage of American schools. The work ethic ascribed by the Puritans did not allow for children to play. Play is not a form of frivolity which does not accomplish the Puritanical goal of holiness. The irony in the Puritan mindset is this: Comenius was a major influence in the Reformation, and he had influence in both England and Holland—the very locations from which Puritans left to come to America. Granted, the Puritans wanted to purify the Anglican and European Protestant churches, so perhaps their eschewing of the idea of learning as play fits with the adage idle hands are the devil’s workshop. If play was considered idleness, then encouraging play rather than work would be heresy for Puritans.
Doll (1979) contends (from a post-structuralist stance) that as American society moves from an industrial to a post-industrial society, that play and leisure, in the vein of Ancient Greece, are becoming more important as the struggle of a hand-to-mouth industrial existence wanes. Additionally, he recounts Dewey’s emphasis on the connection between play and work, and how that connection is crucial in the early development of young learners—play has the same influence as play upon a learner when learning is the outcome of that play.
Comenius (1635/1907) agrees that children learn best through play in their early education. In laying out his ideal for the physical spaces within a school, he notes that there should be an outdoor area on the school grounds for students to play in nature since both play and immersion in nature are integral parts of education (p. 179-180). He goes on to assert that learners should have the opportunity to play at various professions, skills, and occupations so they may explore those areas which interest them when choosing vocations or considering higher education.
Another benefit of the work-play relationship lies in the continual occupation of the mind. For Comenius, (1635/1907), the imperative of constant activity causes learners to “learn to endure toil if they are continually occupied, either with work or with play” (p. 214). He purports that whether a child chooses a career involving manual labor or one of higher learning and thinking, the play they work at will lead to useful skills and relationship building which will benefit the child as s/he grows up.
Comenius (1635/1907) contends for lofty pedagogical goals:
Let the main object of this, our Didactic, be as follows: To seek and to find a method of instruction, by which teachers may teach less, but learners may learn more; by which schools may be the scene of less noise, aversion, and useless labour, but of more leisure, enjoyment, and solid progress; and through which the Christian community may have less darkness, perplexity, and dissension, but on the other hand more light, orderliness, peace, and rest. (p. 4)
The most striking phrase of this mini-manifesto at the beginning of The Great Didactic is the phrase “teachers may teach less, but learners may learn more.” Independent thought, independent from teachers. That is the mark of a student-centered classroom.
At the risk of unintended irony, I am inserting a note regarding textbooks in a section about learner-centered education. Hamilton (2015) and Menck (2001) refer to Comenius as the inventor of the modern textbook. He called for the use of ability level specific texts in every subject matter to be available for learners. He also purported that those texts should be vertically aligned so that learners could build on prior knowledge as their studies progressed. Indeed, he advocated picture books in homes to teach children from infancy of the world around them. Sloboda (2018) notes that Comenius encouraged that “newly conceived educational aids and books should be prepared. A fundamental example of this is Comenius’s language book Orbis Sensualium Pictus, which Encyclopedia Britannica labelled as the oldest picture book (comic book) for children already in 1887” (p. 8). Comenius believed that textbooks should be visually interesting because learners learn through what they see—not just the written word. This visual interest is an extension of the Renaissance penchant for art and the visual aesthetic, but it also aligns with the contemporary pedagogical practice of accommodating multiple modalities in learning, specifically visual learners. In the quote at the beginning of this section, he expresses a desire for students to learn and learn contentedly. He saw interesting textbooks as a means to that end. Therefore, his view of textbooks does align with the conceptualization of a learner-centered environment.
Phillips (2012) sagely writes, “Without frustration there can be no satisfaction” (p. 14) and that frustration “suggests a future” (p. 14). The frustrator seeks to cause change in the person frustated. Applying this concept to pedagogy, teachers cause frustration to cause students to learn. If a student is frustrated by a new concept or a realization of their ignorance on a subject which they wish to learn more of, then the student becomes an independent learner who can access the teacher as a guide to the information. Frustration creates a desire for resolution, but that necessitates finding a solution. Problem-solving is a primary skill that learners need to hone in order to apply knowledge to situations outside of the classroom. Some of the best teaching moments I have witnessed within the walls of my own classroom have been when students’ interest piqued by a concept I introduced and they wanted to discover deeper information on their own.
Comenius (1635/1907) reiterates the concept that students should remain occupied by work or play repeatedly in The Great Didactic. He belived that continual action would generate better learning, which in turn would discourage inactivity and laziness. Said (1994) extends that belief by arguing that “thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertnetss of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along” (p. 23). Comenius believed in absolute truth within the framework of his relgious beliefs. He expressed his desire for education to lead to truth so that learners—and future adult Christians responsible for more future learners—would not be deceived by the evil and anti-Christian sentiments he perceived in the world.
Returning to Comenius’ goal of perpetuating Christian morality, Menck (2001) acknowledges that goodness and morally correct behavior must be contextualized to the time and place specific to a work. He then explores how teachers influence learners to achieve moral instruction, concluding that teachers “tell stories and they compose pictures, simple ones at the beginning, more complex ones later on. And, they methodically arrange classrooms in such a way that the product of classroom work is convincing to the pupils’ minds, so that they are prepared willingly to act in a humane way in the outside world” (p. 271). While Menck (2001) echoes Comenius’ outline of the psychological impact and intellectual arrangement of the classroom, it also begs the comment that the physical arrangement of a learning space is important to Comenius (1635/1907). Classrooms should be comfortable spaces for students to explore texts, including space for play for younger students. Seating arrangements should encourage discussion and collaboration among students and with teachers as they facilitate learning.
In a learner-centered classroom, the teacher facilitates, but also impacts students through behavior as well as bias and autobiographical influence. Comenius (1635/1907) argued that because teachers weild that influence, that teachers should be of high moral standards and knowledgable in the disciplines which they teach. Salvio (2007) describes “education’s social imagination” by saying “my specific interests cohere around acts of disavowing old emotions that haunt the pedagogical landscape at the very moment that new ideas are broght forth through learning and teaching” (p. 15). He warns that teachers need to be mindful of their influence on learning—how they shape or stagnate or strengthen it. When crossed with the relgious agenda within Comenius’s pedagogical ideal—that is for teachers to be paragons of virtue, Salvio’s caution echos a Moravian bishop’s worldview.
Salvio (2007) also recounts a writing workshop in which Anne Sexton and John Holmes participated which fostered utual critique and group growth, not traditional master-student relationship (p. 96-97). While Comenius (1635/1907) did not see younger students as equals to their instructors, he does address the mutual benefit to both instructor and student at the univeristy level.
An Exiled Pedagogue from the Reformation Aligns with the Present and Future
Said (1994) writes, “There is a popular but wholly mistaken assumption that being exiled is to be totally cut off, isolated, hopelessly separated from your place of origin” (p. 48). Perhaps since so much of the Old Testament revolves around exile, and Christ himself was exiled from his own hometown of Nazareth, leaders of the Reformation, like Comenius, considered a mark of pride to thrive in exile, just as the fathers of their faith did (Laurie & Bardeen, 1892). Abram (1997) explains that the first written alphabet was contemporaneous the Hebrew captives’ exodus from Egypt (p. 195). The alphabet allowed the recording of cultural religious beliefs and histories, many of which are of exile—the banishment from the Garden of Eden, slavery in Egypt, wandering the wilderness. Comenius lived much of his life in exile. Indeed he was the last Moravian bishop because, like the Israelites before them, the Moravians found themselves exiled from their homelands..
Recent curricular connections to Comenius. In What is Curriculum Theory? Pinar (2004) outlays three guiding principles in curriculum studies during the last five decades. First is a focus on the “project of understanding, which involves the concept of curriculum conversation” (p. 19). With his prolific writing and publications, Comenius very much was in the curriculum conversation of his day, and he continues to hold his place. He sought to see an equitable educational system to improve the lives of students and the communities in which they lived.
Part of the contemporary conversation revolves around standardization of curriculum. In his article “Race to the Top and Leave the Children Behind,” Tanner (2013) argues that the prevalence of standardized testing driving educational decision-making has caused a regression to the “skill-kill-drill” (p. 5) pedagogy of the 1800s. In contrast, Comenius wanted to use subject matter taught in school to interconnect all disciplines within the schematic of a learner’s knowledge—inviting a more wholistic view of the world and how the academic subjects interrelate. Tanner (2013), in criticizing the contemporary trend of segregating subjects claims, “No subject should be purely ‘academic’. All studies should connect with the life and nature of the learner, thereby generating working power to go on learning.
No education reform can succeed if the curriculum ignores or violates the psychosocial nature of the learner and the democratic prospect” (p. 9). The literal re-forming of the education process that Comenius hoped to inspire collates well with the reform Tanner (2013) encourages—the return to a wholistic curriculum and do away with the specialized charter schools provided in the Race to the Top legislation. He claims America’s success in education is proven by the track record of our economic growth, social mobility, and the desire of people around the world to come to American universities to capstone their educations.
Pinar’s (2004) second principle is that “as educators, we should not simply be out for social engineering, but we should look at curriculum to understand it as a whole. Second, is an intellectually independent…and academic field dedicated to understanding, and based primarily on research and theory in the humanities and the arts, not upon the social and behavior sciences” (Pinar, 2004, p. 19). And third, Pinar (2004) calls for “a shift from the emphasis on teaching…to curriculum, especially interdisciplinary configurations” (p. 19). Comenius’ (1635/1907) educational model cannot be separated from wholistic education, the humanities, or interdisciplinary studies. Those principles are the very foundations of his entire paradigm and thousands of pages of work that have been reprinted in numerous languages.
Applying a reformationist’s beliefs to the future of literacy. Pinar (2004) claims that “by imagining the future, the future becomes the present” (p. 126). I argue that Comenius’ (1635/1907) entire The Great Didactic is his imaginings of the future of education—a future in which education is universal, in which learners become better members of their communities, in which knowledge increases exponentially.
Even beyond my assertions, however, Sloboda (2018) makes the bold assertion that a seventeenth century pedagogue advocates for modern media literacy. In The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, Comenius (1623/1998) writes in the tradition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress—an allegorical pilgrimage in which the main character seeks spiritual revelation. Sloboda (2018) superimposes his view of media literacy onto Comenius’ allegory:
Comenius notices the rise of newspapers in Europe in the late 16th century. In his Labyrinth of the World, he welcomes a pilgrim into a city full of whistlers and various sounds of their whistles. The whistling is a metaphor for various types of news and newspapers (and the ‘whistlers’ are paper-boys or journalists). Comenius notes that some whistling tones are pleasant and other are obtrusive; he warns the reader of this. He also warns of reception behaviour where people seem to try to listen to as many ‘whistles’ as possible, and mainly to the most pleasant-sounding ones. According to Comenius, this could be dangerous. On the other hand, he notes that avoiding the tones of the whistles could be harmful, too. One should know at least some of the whistling sounds. With this metaphor, Comenius formulates something that we would nowadays call media literacy. (p. 6)
At its core, media is simply the mode through which information is distributed. The primary media for information dissemination during Comenius’ life was print. Indeed, “Comenius wrote one hundred and thirty-five books and treatises, most of which were translated during his lifetime into all the languages of Europe and several languages of Asia” (Warner 2017/2015). The written word obviously held value for Comenius. Therefore, it stands to reason that Sloboda (2018) draws on Comenius’ value of information dissemination and applies it to the changing media forms we have today. He notes that Comenius advocated for school newspapers, a trend that resurfaced in the early 1900s. If Comenius had such a pansophic view of education (Maviglia, 2016; Sloboda, 2018), then he would very likely support the integration of media literacy into contemporary education. Additionally, I argue that Comenius would value media literacy and media education because, especially with the increasing technicality, media literacy is interdisciplinary. It draws on writing, rhetoric, as well as mathematics and science aspects of technology.
While discussing the historical context of media, it is worth noting that the vast barrage of media available today continues to influence public opinion and policy makers in an unprecedented and exponential capacity (Sloboda, 2018; Tanner, 2013). Educational theorists and practitioners must continue to evolve the field to suit the needs of the ever-changing face of the learner. Our learners of today and tomorrow are not in Christian-European classrooms of the Reformation. Maviglia (2018) claims that Comenius’ “pedagogy was not a mere expression of the refusal of traditional education, but rather and more fundamentally it was the product of a new understanding of the concepts of man and life, in which the ration and scientific explanation played a major role” (p. 58). Therefore, it logically follows that as humanity continues to increase in the concepts of life—as new technologies, scientific studies, and intellectual theories form—that education should continue to morph to better serve the needs of future generations.
While I am fascinated with the concept of a seventeenth century bishop a proponent of contemporary media literacy, I think his focus on literacy itself offers a remarkable contrast to the current trend I see with my students. Reading comprehension is decreasing, and books hold less appeal as students have constant access to screens that provide more visual stimulation. As American education moves toward another seemingly endless wave of reform, I would like to see a return to an emphasis on literacy. All other academic disciplines are dependent upon a learner’s ability to read and comprehend the material which he is given to read and learn—even if that material is presented in a digital format. After all, the availability of digital texts gives scholars access to a wealth of information that people like John Amos Comenius could only dream of.
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