Comenius and the Idea of General Education

General public education is in Europe nowadays something obvious: Every of us went or even still goes to school and our children will do likewise. And when we talk about education, we mostly debate only about which school is better or best, what the school should be like, or whether schools should devote themselves to this or that subject, whether they should generally pay more attention to teaching or to artistic cultivation and/or their natural development etc. But we don’t usually get the slightest air of the fact that it needn’t be so at all. And yet, the times are not yet very far, when it was considered for oneself a privilege to get to school, which means that conditions then were similar to those, which we can see nowadays – if we have the will to look so far away – in the third world countries.

General public education was introduced in the countries of the former Austrian Empire by force of the General Code of Schools and Education issued by the Empress Maria Theresa on 6 Dec 1774. Approximately at the same time, similar regulations were adopted in lot of other European states. Public administration had thus carried out an idea, which was first put forward already in the middle of the 16‑th Century by Jan Ámos Komenský – Comenius, but in a way, on which its proponent would surely look with a considerable concern. The idea of universal edification, of general education was dear to men of the enlightenment period, since their minds were occupied by an idea of a perfectly functioning state as the climax of all human striving and to achieve such a noble goal, it seemed to be necessary to eliminate every possible hindrance or a weak point, at which the smooth functioning of the state machine could stumble. The main concern of these people never was to level up everything and everybody, so that nobody could depart from the standard, although such an idea is often – and wrongly – attributed to them. This remains reserved for the French revolution and especially for all kinds of modern totalitarianism. They wanted to build an effective state and to that purpose, they needed to have subjects who were not that poor and haunted by diseases that they would have had to concentrate all their efforts to bare survival. Their aim was to bring the people at a certain minimal (nowadays we would say: profitable) level of economy and education and after achieving this goal to leave everything up with personal capacities of each individual: a prosperous farmer was in their eyes as worth as an design engineer, or even worthier, because there was not always enough food in Europe at the end of the 18-th Century, mainly due to various campaigns, which the sovereigns were very fond of then. Therefore also for them, the idea of general education sounds as great as it did resound in the thought Comenius, although their motivations were different. In order to be able to discern the difference, we must first turn our attention to that, what Comenius had come up with.

It had been really the idea of general education, but in a slightly varied sense, than how it was present with the men of the enlightenment period. Komenský’s main concern was that all people, being illuminated by the light of Supernal mind, which cannot be denied to anyone if only they should find their path to it, should a) come to Salvation in heaven b) build up an ideal society on the Earth. He published the first concept of such a thought already in his Via Lucis, which was written in London in 1642. He fully developed his idea afterwards in the seven volumes of his Consultatiocatholica de emendatione rerum humanarum, which he began during his stay in Sweden and continued working on it later in Sárospatak; it was partly burnt during the conflagration of Leszno and he finished it in rough form shortly before his death. This project of his is a good deal more far-reaching beyond the mere idea of general education – something of its depth can be felt from the quotation, by which we close this article – but the gist of Comenius’ ideas in the field of education can be summarised by the following motto: to teach everybody (omnes) – to partake of all knowledge (omnia) – in a versatile manner (omnino), which would involve all human capacities and profitable them. Sketches to such a project can be found already in the Via lucis, but the full elaboration thereof is contained first in the said Comenius’ seven-volume pansophic manual. Even though the profoundness of thought expressed there is larger, we shall limit ourselves for the purpose of the present article and in order to be acquainted with what Comenius really stipulated to passages from Via lucis. They are as follows:


… if we suggest, that all  should take part in this ultimate light, we do not wish for artisans, peasants and women to devote themselves entirely to books, but that no one of these should be inattentive to those which is necessary to all. E.g that nobody should that no one be foolishly ignorant of himself, of creation, and of God; apart from this, that everybody should be educated for his particular deal, that those who rule can rule and steer, and those who are their subjects can be ruled and steered. But I say that all must be taught the matters of humanity, because they are humans, the divine things, because they are the image of God, eternal things, because they are in expectation of eternity. Otherwise it would be certainly better to be born as beasts, since a thing that has been perverted by itself, becomes worse than naturally bad things. Nor the school of this world will be able to be brought back to order congruous to God’s design, unless all who have been sent there begin to do what have they been sent there for. But they will never be able to begin, if they remain in their darkness; and the right conditions, so that they may open their eyes, will not be rendered to them by those, who know nothing of them, even not the little which we – thanks to Gods illumination – can see through…

XIV, 1 nn(1-6)

1.       Let us define better, what should be understood under the words everything, all, in every way (omnes, omnia, omnino – see above), lest we deemed to attempt at something impossible, useless or even wrong.

2.       By the word everything we understand what either has been revealed or will be revealed to people by God in this very school of life; be it eternal things or perishable, spiritual or fleshly, heavenly or earthly, natural or artificial, theological or philosophical, good or evil, general or particular.

3.       People must be instructed in eternal things for being destined for eternity, they cannot be ignorant of their purpose without peril of eternal damnation. Simultaneously they must be instructed of the perishable things, since they constitute the way to those eternal ones.

4.       People must be instructed about spiritual things, because they are themselves spiritual in their better part and they must know themselves as the creation of God. But they must know even those things disposed to our ordinary needs, since we dwell in flesh and while alive we sustain ourselves we live out of material things, lest some ignorance deprived them of their fruit, or wrong cognition improper mastering of something did harm to them.

5.       They must be instructed about heavenly things, since heaven is our home and there is the house of our Father, where dwellings are being prepared to us…

6.       And it is also necessary that they are instructed in natural things, since these represent an outward mirror of the invisible majesty of God and a key  to many mysteries of the Holy scripture and ideas, forms and rules  for our labours, so that they turned wise. We should always have in view these three things useful for the creation, so that no doubt should arise that the ultimate light of the last days will shine principally through these torches of God.

It looks like unfruitful theory, but let’s try to realise what the message of such thoughts nowadays is. For example, we often hear that people should be educated, so that they might do well in the society, that they should learn only useful things and everything which does not lead to an immediate gain should be excluded from the curriculums. But what is the aim of education by Comenius? To do well before God and before ourselves. The motivation is totally different. And so the education at which we aim with such motivation will be different. Moreover, all these efforts (which for Comenius involve also creating a common universal language!) have their profound and far-reaching purpose:


“Be it true that they are still many things hidden, which none has known hitherto, it must be evenly true that God is willing to reveal all these… And then will be fulfilled what has been foretold; that time will come, when people will no more be instructed by people (that is: they will not be deceived by earthly authorities − Jer 31,34), but will start being really instructed  by God. (Jes 54, 13), that is they will observe the very works of God, words and inspirations by Him and they will follow them, since God’s books will be laid open, so that everyone who can read in them understood them too. So it will happen that people will not only believe the mysteries of God (which was sufficient to blessedness in previous ages, according to the words of Christ Blessed are those who believed J 20,29), but they will also understand them