Have you ever heard Comenius dismissed as “not classical” because he is called “the father of modern education?” (I have.)
Since I have a strong presentiment that few people are going to read Comenius’ Great Didactic for themselves (although you can if you want to, and for free), I’m going to tell you the two reasons that he is so called. The first is because he suggested a rather arbitrary system of grades or levels for children to move through, in part because he began education with pre-school children, and so felt the need for a natural progression in difficulty as they moved up. A simple, practical idea, with nothing particularly sinister about it, and any educational program dealing with groups instead of individuals would need something similar.
The second reason is that he proposed education for all children–both boys and girls–and not just the wealthy. Now there’s a modern idea, but not one most of us would find objectionable.
And that’s it. Comenius’ view of education is profoundly Christian (which is why, I suspect, Charlotte Mason found his views so appealing), and most of what he has to say about education and its purposes would be tossed by modern secular educators. His views are also deeply classical, or liberal, so that Mark Van Doren writes of him in Liberal Education:
Thus Comenius, the title page of whose Great Didactic promised that it would set forth “the whole art of teaching all things to all men”–to “the entire youth of both sexes, none excepted.” It was a noble vision, and it has never been realized. We teach our entire youth, but we do not teach them enough.
Charlotte Mason shared Comenius’ vision for education for all, but she also wanted them to have the same kind of education Comenius wanted–a liberal education informed by Christianity.
Comenius objects to schools which pursue intellectual perfection but ignore virtue:
Can any one defend the condition in which our schools have been ? An hereditary disease, sprung from our first parents, pervades all classes, so that, shut out from the tree of life, we direct our desires inordinately towards the tree of knowledge, and our schools also, permeated by this insatiable appetite, have hitherto pursued nothing but intellectual progress. (The Great Didactic)
Comenius shares Charlotte Mason’s opinion that the mind grows naturally when it is properly fed:
Education shall be conducted without blows, rigour, or compulsion, as gently and pleasantly as possible, and in the most natural manner (just as a living body increases in size without any straining or forcible extension of the limbs ; since if food, care, and exercise are properly supplied, the body grows and becomes strong, gradually, imperceptibly, and of its own accord. In the same way I maintain that nutriment, care, and exercise, prudently supplied to the mind, lead it naturally to wisdom, virtue, and piety).
And if we knew what Comenius really wanted education to accomplish, would we call him “the father of modern education?” Most modern educators consider even a mention of God to be taboo, unless it be to warn against those who believe in him. Comenius felt very differently.
The most useful thing that the Holy Scriptures teach us in this connection is this, that there is no more certain way under the sun for the raising of sunken humanity than the proper education of the young. Indeed Solomon…turned at length to the young and adjured them to remember their Creator in the days of their youth, to fear Him, and to keep His commandments, for that this was the whole duty of man (Eccles. xii. 1 3).
The next time someone tells you that Comenius is the father of modern education, remember that there are only two rather harmless reasons for that, and that in reality, it’s rather a shame that modern educators don’t pay a lot more attention to him than they actually do. If we had adopted his methods and ideas more fully, or even Charlotte Mason’s (they have much in common), modern education would be very different from what it actually is. And emphatically, much better.