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 ...

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