The author would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of Vladimír Urbánek and Tomáš Havelka of the Department of Comenius Studies, Czech Academy of Sciences, who provided helpful bibliographies, suggestions for further research, and access to contemporary Comenius scholarship in the early writing stages of this Digital Collection. In addition, the author thanks Kara Johnson and Sophia Croll of The Newberry Library for their expertise, assistance, and encouragement at every stage.
Jan Amos Komenský (1592-1670 CE), better known by his Latinized name, Ioannes Amos Comenius, was born in the Margraviate of Moravia, one of the Lands of the Bohemian Crown of the Holy Roman Empire in modern-day Czech Republic. Orphaned at twelve, Comenius did not attend school until the age of sixteen, was a religious refugee for most of his life and, owing to the sectarian catastrophes of the Thirty Years’ War, his house and possessions were publicly burned on multiple occasions. He is also one of the most famous thinkers on education in history, immensely influential after his death and during in his lifetime, when he was courted by several European governments to reform their developing educational systems. In addition, Cotton Mather, a prominent Puritan clergyperson and prolific writer (notoriously involved in the Salem Witch Trials with his father, Increase Mather) reports in his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) that Comenius was offered the presidency of a colonial Harvard College in 1654 (which he turned down). He was an early advocate of formal universal education for all young people, believing that every child could learn and understand with good teaching and access to educational resources. The highest UNESCO medal, a large public university in Bratislava, Slovakia, and even an asteroid bear his name. Jean Piaget, the immensely influential 20th century Swiss developmental psychologist, said that Comenius was the first to conceive a “full-scale science of education” in the history of European education.
Comenius’s outstanding reputation rests partly on the success and influence of a simple children’s book, the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (the “The Sensible World in Pictures”), published in 1658. It was a revolutionary text because Comenius paired simple sentences for children about the world around them with pictures.
The book was encyclopedic. In other words, Comenius thought he could give young people a comprehensive introduction to the world over the course of just a few hundred pages. Large woodblock illustrations graced every page, as Comenius aimed for a book that satisfied children’s natural desire for illustration and example. He thought that students’ schooling in his time, which relied on rote memorization and rarely engaged children’s senses, made the “work of teaching and learning goeth heavily onward, and affordeth little benefit.”
The book was explicitly international in its aspirations. It was first published in a bilingual Latin-German edition, then quickly translated into numerous European languages in following years. This multilingual approach also served as a forward-thinking language pedagogy (as anticipated in Comenius’s earlier Ianua linguarum reserata, ‘The Gate of Languages Unlocked’). And it foresaw Comenius’s own attempt to create a new universal language—his ‘panglottia’—as a means to achieving lasting peace among European countries. In the Orbis, young people learned both their native language and Latin on a nature method, one-to-one association between word and image, rather than through rote memorization of charts and paradigms and constant access to a dictionary.
This collection asks us to reflect on Comenius’s Orbis—its aims and supposedly universal scope—and engage with both its world (orbis) and our world. In particular, we will ask ourselves what things are visiblein Comenius’s ‘universal’ children’s encyclopedia and what things are invisible. What assumptions does Comenius make in the Orbis? How did his Orbis show what he found valuable for children to learn about?
In this Digital Collection for the Classroom, we will ask what ideas Comenius puts at the center of his Orbis (world). We will also consider its afterlife in the minds of some of North America’s Protestant colonial settlers, who, inspired by Comenius, sought supposed divine evidence of humankind’s essential similarity and, even, a conjectured universal ancestral language in the Indigenous peoples they encountered, reeducated, and converted. Below we see a part of the legacy of those efforts, a multilingual dictionary for the purpose of conversion of Indigenous peoples developed by David Zeisberger, a member of the Moravian Church, a descendant of Comenius’s own Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren).
We will also look other selections in Comenius’s works for a fuller, more complicated picture of Comenius’s vision for education. These reflections will help guide us in a vital inquiry for today:
What should all people know? In other words: What should our goals for required, mandatory schooling be? Should there be one curriculum for universal education? As computers, the internet, pandemics, conflicts, and distance learning continue to disrupt traditional modes of schooling, what should form the ‘core curriculum’?
What education do all of us deserve as children? What has been most powerful and lasting for us in our own education? Was it knowledge? Or something else? Which elements of our education help lead us to living a good life?
Who or what should provide this education? What educational resources does a child need? A teacher? A classroom? A book? A computer? A team? An Internet connection? A home? A family? A community?
What knowledge is for everybody? Given the many differences in identity and experience for students, how do we decide what knowledge should be for everyone? Further: A schooling that works for every child is sometimes suggested as the aim of democratic education. Does such a school exist?
Is there such a thing as ‘universal knowledge’ for every student? If so, should it be taught in the same way for every student? If there isn’t a clear ‘universal knowledge’ that all students should know, what are the other possibilities of education? What would it mean for school to instill character traits or life-skills?
These are the questions with which Comenius was deeply concerned. His entire life was devoted to providing a system of education available to every single person on the planet at every stage of life. His hope for this new system of education was nothing less than world peace.
In a time where the place of education in society is hotly contested, Comenius’s questions become our own.
Cosmos: Center(s) of the World
What did Comenius think everyone should learn? And how should they learn it?
In short: Comenius thought we ought to learn about the cosmos—the entire world—in successive levels of complexity over the entire human lifecycle. We do this through our own powers, senses, and life experiences, through well-crafted learning resources, and through our teachers. Comenius did not think that people ought to learn about the cosmos in a haphazard, unordered way throughout a lifetime. Rather than merely advocating lifelong learning, he in fact advocated for lifelong schooling, and proposed formal institutions for every stage in the infant, child, adolescent, and adult learning process.
On the one hand, Comenius is refreshingly modern. He believes that we learn through our senses, perfectly adapted to our environment by God. This world, all around us, should be the subject of all our learning. Each of us, he thought, has everything in our person we need to learn about the world. And he really means everyone of us has this capability; in his time, he was controversial for advocating that young girls and women receive the same education as boys and men. With the right educational texts and caring teachers, he thought, each person can achieve the knowledge necessary for a flourishing human life (and, importantly for him as a quasi-universalist Christian, everything necessary for our salvation). On the other, he has a universalistic optimism which many have lost, never had, or have challenged. Comenius thought the ultimate aim of education is cultura universalis (a ‘universal culture’) and an eradication of ‘rudeness’—i.e., in his view, human tendencies to harm, violence, and prejudice. He envisioned this ‘universal culture’ as the basis of a perfect education which could be the same for every person of every people on earth.
This cultura universalis, brought about in people through good education, results in emendatio rerum humanarum (‘improvement of human affairs’). People learn to becomebetter, and really do in fact become better human beings through proper education, and in so doing make human society better.
Comenius’s belief in the inherent worth and ability of all human beings had its limit, however. In fact, belief in a cultura universalis rooted in Comenius’s European Christian worldviewalso contributed to Comenius’s dismissive views of non-European cultures of peoples around the world. In his Orbis he says that the Indians worship ‘monsters’ and writes at another point that North American Indigenous peoples are ‘white for the harvest,’ suggesting that they are prime subjects for conversion (see Robert Fitzgibbon Young, Comenius and the Indians of New England, London, 1929, p.5). He also dismisses Mohammed’s prophecies as “fits of epilepsy” in the Orbis.
Comenius thought that through a universal education program (which he thought possible in his lifetime) lasting peace and worldwide human harmony were possible. Amid a life constantly disrupted by war, his motto embodied this vision for world peace arrived at through education: Omnia sponte fluant, absit violentia rebus: “Let all things flow of their own accord; let violence be absent from everything.”
The famous Orbis Sensualium Pictus (‘The Sensible World in Pictures’) bears out this simple vision of education. Comenius thought a young person would read from its pages at their own pace and from their own interest, drawn on by its pictures and their natural desire to discover and learn.
In its pages we find descriptions of everything Comenius thought important for a young person to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. It formed the backbone of the Comenian education program, the first stage of what he envisioned would be a huge societal reform across the world: lifelong schooling (not learning) which he called Pampaedia (‘education for everyone’).
The topics of the Orbis center Comenius’s educational program, giving us a clear idea of just what his cosmoslooked like. As we shall see, it is of course nota clearly universal picture, but rather a deeply situated seventeenth-century European picture of the cosmos.
Accordingly, Comenius’s universe begins with Comenius’s God, an abstract, philosophical picture to be sure (but clearly in the Christian theological tradition of the trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit):
Comenius imagines young people learn both about the cosmos and language itself through the Orbis. In this case, Comenius’s original Latin text has been translated into English. Indeed, the power of Comenius’s Orbis as a powerful language-learning document (in addition to its being part of a larger project of a ‘children’s encyclopedia’) help to explain its enduring popularity through the centuries.
The Comenian cosmos builds out from God by beginning with pictures and descriptions of ‘heaven’ (sky) and ‘earth’, the traditional Greek four elements, and an impressive mini-encyclopedia of land and sea animals, plants, and terrains. Comenius then introduces human beings. His choices, here, make clear how and what he centers in his universal education scheme:
Comenius thinks that knowledge of the human being must begin with this ‘universal’ history—in this case, the so-called Fall of Humankind described in the Hebrew Bible. Comenius continues by describing the lifecycle of these beings:
- Drawing on the information and images above, what can we say about Comenius’s idea of the cosmos (world)? What is it? What did he think was central to the cosmos?
- Comenius thought all knowledge could be taught to everyone. Do you agree? Comenius uses God as a starting point above. What would you start with?
- Comenius’s motto is contained in one of the above images. What do you think it means? Why would he append it to his educational books? How might it connect to his views on learning about the universe?
Childhood: Learning with Joy
At the start of Charles Hoole’s 1658 English translation of the Orbis Pictus, Comenius gives us his own vision for its use for young learners of Latin and English. In it we see a distinctly modern philosophy of education (fully explained in the famous Great Didactic).
We see Comenius’s focus on joyful learning—learning not by extrinsic punishment nor reward, but rather by the intrinsic features of what is learned. Further, we see Comenius’s belief in the innate desire for young human beings to learn, grow, and understand the world around them.
This learning, Comenius thought, could begin with the Orbis Pictus Sensualium for the youngest children, what he calls a ‘little Book…of no great bulk, yet a brief of the whole world, and a whole language: full of Pictures, Nomenclatures, and Descriptions of things’
. (xiv) Its pictures would render school no longer a ‘torment’, but rather a delight, as he held that young people had an inborn desire to learn through the senses.
His book, further, would make easy the processes of deeper learning:
[This book will] serve to stir up the Attention, which is to be fastened upon things, and even to be sharpened more and more: which is also a great matter. For the Senses (being the main guides of childhood, because therein the mind doth not as yet raise up itself to an abstracted contemplation of things) evermore seek their own objects, and if they be away, they grow dull, and wry themselves hither and thither out of a weariness of themselves: but when their objects are present, they grow merry, wax lively, and willingly suffer themselves to be fastened upon them, till the thing be sufficiently discerned. This Book then will do a good piece of service in taking (especially flickering) wits, and preparing them for deeper studies.xv
Latin and English support the senses throughout the Orbis, providing two ways for young learners to explore and understand the pictures provided for each of the objects Comenius wishes to describe. Comenius compares his book to a ‘dual garment’ around a person: Latin and English provide successive and complementary layers with which to learn both the names of objects and about those objects’ relationships to other things in the world.
Comenius then invites the readers of this introduction—teachers, principally—to do something remarkable. He asks that teachers simply present his Orbis to students for free exploration, manipulation, and replication (through drawing, tracing, doodling). In an era where physical punishment was common (which he notes in the Orbis itself, though he was strictly prohibitive of the practice), Comenius rather suggests that teachers provide students ample free-play and student-centered learning experiences with his book. He writes:
Let [this book] be given to children into their hands to delight themselves withal as they please, with the sight of the pictures, and making them as familiar to themselves as may be, and that even at home before they be put to school.
Then let them be examined ever and anon (especially now in the school) what this thing or that thing is, and is called, so that they may see nothing which they know not how to name, and that they can name nothing which they cannot shew.
And let the things named them be shewed, not only in the Picture, but also in themselves; for example, the parts of the body, clothes, books, the house, utensils, &c.
Let them be suffered also to imitate the Pictures by hand, if they will, nay rather, let them be encouraged, that they may be willing: first, thus to quicken the attention also towards the things; and to observe the proportion of the parts one towards another; and lastly to practise the nimbleness of the hand, which is good for many things.xviii
Comenius’s student-centered focus on the learning process and his encouragement of unrestricted play and experimentation on the part of the child have inspired educators for centuries. Part of that inspiration has come from the efficacyof the method. In other words, it works. Indeed, Comenius’s suggestions for the use of his book were not the result of mere armchair theorizing. At the point of the Orbis’s publication, Comenius had been recognized as a gifted classroom teacher and school leader for decades in educational institutions across Europe. The Orbis, accordingly, represents the application of a teaching philosophy of a mature educational theorist and practitioner.
But the seemingly simple power and intuitive appeal of Comenius’s method had social effects that went beyond good pedagogy. As we noted above, Comenius’s Orbis was a document that represented Comenius’s overarching philosophy of the cosmos and the place of human beings within that world. This he called ‘Pansophia’ (‘All-encompassing Wisdom’). In Comenius’s broader worldview, the reasonlearning could be so joyful was because God meantfor us to learn about the world in a lifelong (and societal) journey toward salvation. This vision for education gave Comenius’s teaching projects a missionary dimension. Ultimately, Comenius hoped his ‘universal teaching’ would help lead more people (including children) to salvation through Christianity.
- How does Comenius encourage educators to introduce and use the Orbis Pictus with children?
- Think of your own introduction to educational texts and resources. Were you introduced to them in a way that was joyful and encouraged exploration? Why or why not? If you were to venture a guess, what do you think were your teachers’ underlying philosophies for education?”?
- Do you think Comenius is right when he says that children will naturally delight in learning if they learn in the way he describes? Why or why not?
Pansophia: Omnes Omnia Omnino “All Knowledge for Everyone Thoroughly”
Comenius’s overarching philosophy of education—called ‘pansophy’ or ‘pansophism’—and his belief that every person deserved lifelong education fit into larger utopian, mystical movements in seventeenth-century European Protestantism. Some of these thinkers and believers, sometimes called ‘millenniarists’, hoped for a utopia in this world before the final judgement of Jesus Christ. A dizzying array of mystical sects arose in century after the Lutheran Reformation, among them the Rosicrucians, Philadelphians, Pietists, and Boehmian theosophists. Comenius, the last bishop of the Hussite Moravian Church (founded in the modern-day Czech Republic), corresponded with prominent metaphysical mystics of the day, and was influenced by the writings of Lutheran mystic, Jakob Böhme (whence Boehmenism). Böhme’s emphasis on the role of the single, striving, learning human individual in a grand cosmological scheme deeply impressed Comenius.
Like Böhme, Comenius too believed that there was a deep similarity and siblinghood among all human beings, despite the appearances of our ‘fallen’ state in this world. Divine meaning underpinned everything—including the information about the world we gathered through our senses. Better yet, our physical senses could help awaken our inner spiritual sense and knowledge of divine realities. Further, apparent multiplicity of humankind, when properly analyzed, could show underlying oneness and simplicity.
For Comenius, this apparent confusion and division in human languages and customs was the evidence of the episode of the Tower of Babel in the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 11:1-9, human beings unite as one people after the Great Flood of Noah, found a city, and build a tower that stretches toward Heaven. In the story, God confuses this ancient unity by giving human beings different languages and sending them across the world in different directions. Comenius’s methods in the Orbis Pictus and his other great language-learning textbook, Ianua linguarum reserata (‘The Gate of Languages Unlocked’), supposedly showed the underlying ‘divine name’ of sensible objects in the world, giving evidence of the essential similarity of all human languages (confused after the fall of the Tower of Babel).
This is where Comenius’s educational project—to educate everyone thoroughly in everything (omnes omnia omnino)—connects with the utopian Christian ideals and experiments of colonial America. As Patrick Erben discusses in his A Harmony of Spirits (see Selected Sources), early Quaker settlers of Pennsylvania (including William Penn himself) along with missionary arrivals to the colony from Comenius’s own Moravian Church saw as part of their purpose the project of educating the Indigenous Americans with whom they came into contact according to the above Comenian scheme—to educate everyone thoroughly in everything (omnes omnia omnino).
This meant engaging in extensive translation projects (mainly to translate the Christian scriptures into Native languages) and simple linguistic analysis of Native languages. Despite the intentions of some missionaries working in New England, most of this work failed to honor the existing peoples’ knowledge as knowledge in its own right and their languages as worthy of intentional preservation. Instead, these Comenian educational projects occurred at the same time as settlers displaced these Native peoples from their ancestral lands. Ultimately many colonists assumed a condescending, anti-Indigenous, and racist Euro-centric stance toward Native peoples’ ability to contribute to the ‘pansophia’ Comenius laid out as the foundation of his educational system. Within this framework, Native Americans could not truly add knowledge to a universal system of thought; rather, their beliefs, languages, stories, and cultures were systematically mined for evidence that the Christian pansophic worldview was in fact correct.
- Comenius’s belief in universal education followed from his religious beliefs and cultural background. What could be other foundations for a belief in universal education?
- What does Comenius’s influence in New England show us about the possibilities and the dangers of ‘universal education’?
- Is the idea of a ‘pansophia’—knowledge for which all humanity should strive—relevant in a diverse, multicultural, multiethnic world? How could an attempt at “universal” knowledge diminish, erase, or ignore multiple modes of learning, teaching, and experience?
- What role does the invention of the internet play in achieving Comenius’s vision for universal education? Is it, in fact, the tool through which universal schooling might be achieved? Why or why not?
Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus is a book that aims to answer the questions of young people as they learn about our endlessly fascinating and complicated world. It was explicitly arranged for young children, making use of pre-fabricated woodcut images in a way few books had done before. In this way, it can be thought of as the first successful picture book. And yet, despite its playful façade, it raises deep questions for us as twenty-first century citizens about the nature of education and the projects of universal schooling and lifelong learning.
About the Author
Evan Dutmer, Ph.D., is Instructor in Latin, Ancient Mediterranean Cultures, and Leadership Education at the Culver Academies, a boarding school in Culver, Indiana. He received his PhD in Ancient Philosophy from Northwestern University in 2019. He has published several peer-reviewed academic articles and is a frequent contributor to public-facing classics and philosophy online journals. He was shortlisted for the 2021 Cambridge University Press Dedicated Teacher Awards and was the 2020 Indiana Classical Conference Teacher of the Year, Rising Star. A frequent instructor for Teacher Programs at the Newberry, Dr. Dutmer’s interest in Comenius began in the Latin classroom, where Comenius’s Orbis Pictus makes for excellent comprehensible input in the Latin language for beginning Latin learners.
Atwood, C. (2009) The Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Erben, P. (2012) A Harmony of Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Goris, W. et al. (2015) Gewalt sei ferne den Dingen!: Contemporary Perspectives on the Works of John Amos Comenius. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.
Sadler, J.E. (2007 repr.) J.A. Comenius and the Concept of Universal Education. New York: Routledge.