This summer, dissatisfaction over America's education system has been in the news. James Dobson has repeated his public appeal to parents to pull their kids out of public school, and the idea of vouchers has continued to run its political and legislative gauntlets. No one has expressed the stakes involved in schooling our kids more vividly than Jan Amos Comenius, a 17th-century Protestant bishop and the man universally recognized as the "Father of Modern Education."
Comenius, a member of the persecuted Unity of the Brethren—precursor of the Moravian church—saw the schools of his day as "slaughterhouses of the mind," places made dull by rote memorization and frightening by draconian discipline.
But he didn't just talk. He did something. Even as he and his Protestant sect ran for their lives—exiled from their homeland as a result of the Thirty Years War—he launched his lifelong efforts at educational reform.
He divided children's schools by grades, invented the illustrated textbook, and followed the inductive method of Francis Bacon in making experience and discovery part of the classroom environment. He insisted that girls were fully as capable of learning at the highest levels as boys, and that schools should teach all realms of knowledge, including those of morals and piety. His reforms were both praised and implemented all across Europe, with over half of European schools eventually using his textbooks. The Massachusetts Puritans offered him the presidency of Harvard (but he turned it down).
In short, with striking prescience, Comenius shaped the future of education. His ideas have been so widely accepted that many of them are commonplace today. And—most important—his insights arose out of his Christian faith.
Comenius had much to say about what is at stake in the education of our children. What follows is an excerpt from Comenius's 1631 book The School of Infancy, a study of the first six years of a child's life and education "at the mother's knee." It is addressed "to Godly Christian Parents, Teachers, Guardians and all who are charged with the care of Children":
When God speaks of His love towards us, he calls us children as if there were no more excellent name by which to allure us. …
The Son of God when manifested in the flesh not only willed to become as a little child, but thought children a pleasure and a delight. Taking them in His arms as little brethren and sisters, He carried them about and kissed and blessed them. He severely threatened anyone who should offend them, even in the least degree, and commanded that they be respected as Himself.
If one seeks to learn why He is so delighted with little children, one will find many causes. First, if the little ones at present seem unimportant, regard them not as they now are, but as God intends they may and ought to be. You will see them not only as the future inhabitants of the world and possessors of the earth, and God's vicars amongst His creatures when we depart from this life, but also equal participants with us in the heritage of Christ: A royal priesthood, a chosen people, associates of angels, judges of devils, the delight of heaven, the terror of hell . …heirs of eternity. …
Philip Melanchthon [Martin Luther's associate and the premier systematizer of Luther's theology] once addressed the scholars assembled in a common school with these words:
"Hail, reverend pastors, doctors, licentiates, superintendents!
"Hail, most noble, most prudent, most learned lords, consuls, praetors, judges, governors, chancellors, secretaries, magistrates, professors!"
When some of the standers-by smiled, he said, "I am not jesting. My speech is serious. I look on these little boys not as they are now, but as the Divine mind purposes, on which account they are delivered to us for instruction. Assuredly such leaders will come forth from them, though they may be mixture of chaff among them as among wheat."
Why should we not with equal confidence declare a glorious future for children of Christian parents since Christ who revealed the eternal secrets said that "of such is the Kingdom of God."
Christians concerned about current trends in education, including those who have chosen the home-schooling route, need to read Comenius. A good place to start is the book just quoted, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press at Chapel Hill in 1956 (unfortunately, it's now out of print). His masterwork on education was The Great Didactic, the full description of his method for setting up and running schools.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Spurgeon on Jabez | What history's most prolific preacher said, in 1871, about the Prayer of Jabez (Aug. 23, 2002)
History in a Flash | A new CD-ROM offers quick access to the facts of church history, plus interactive quizzes. (Aug. 16, 2002)
How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife (Aug. 9, 2002)
Divvying up the Most Sacred Place | Emotions have historically run high as Christians have staked their claims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Aug. 2, 2002)
Legacy of an Ancient Pact | Why do Christians still chafe under restrictions in some Muslim nations? It all started with Umar (July 26, 2002)
Big Church Revival | Christian gyms and shopping malls may be new, but full-service megachurches are positively medieval. (July 19, 2002)
Phantom Saints | Juan Diego could soon join a long line of pious, exemplary, and quite possibly imaginary Catholic heroes. (July 12, 2002)
2002 Is Not 1789 | Before trying to figure out what the framers of the Constitution really thought, remember that they were from a wildly different country—the past (July 5, 2002)
Between Extremes | Church leaders didn't like Pelagius's ideas about free will, but they've never been able to avoid them completely (June 28, 2002)
Severe Success | Bernard of Clairvaux was a tough act to follow—yet thousands of Christians walked his path. (June 21, 2002)
Coming to America | Commentators who call proposed INS policies an unprecedented invasion of privacy forget what foreign visitors were asked 80 years ago, and why. (June 14, 2002)