AtheismEducationReligionSpecial Education

The Great Didactic: Who’s Fault is it? Teachers Fault (kind of)

Chapter 5: The seeds of these three (learning, virtue, and piety) are naturally implanted in us.

Recently I was thinking about the foundation of our education system and its philosophical underpinnings.  As I was doing this it dawned on me that I have only ever really read about this philosophy and I never read the original texts.  One of my summer goals is to sprinkle a little knowledge into the mix of my fluffy summer novel reading, so I am reading The Great Didactic by John Amos Comenius and I thought I’d bring you along with me.

Chapter 5 is where Comenius begins to ease up (just a little) on his god obsession, and starts to talk about the nature of knowledge and importance of education.


You are great because you are made in god’s image.  As god is omniscient and we are made in his image we can learn about everything.  So too as god’s knowledge is vast and limitless your mind is also vast and limitless.  It is through gaining knowledge that we become closer to god and achieve heaven.

Your mind is so powerful that with perfect reason you can figure everything out.  The mind is like a seed that has a tiny complete and perfect tree inside it that we cannot yet see.  (We know it is there because the tree grows out of it.) Just like the seed and the tree, man has everything needed to understand the universe already inside him.  It is just rolled up and all it needs is to be unrolled, exposed and stress needs to be placed on each element for the mind to understand. (Kind of like unfolding the child’s toy the cootie catcher.  As it unfolds new information is revealed.*)

But alas perfect reason like so much else in the world was corrupted when man was kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  Reason is now a bit muddy and imperfect, and that is where the senses come in.  They are our scouts in this imperfect world.

“Since there is nothing in the visible universe which cannot be seen, heard, smelt, tasted or touched…it follows that there is nothing in the universe which cannot be compassed by a man endowed with sense and reason”

Your brain is like wax and as tools are used to shape the wax your senses shape your brain.  The greater the impact of something seen or heard the deeper the memory, just like pushing really hard on soft wax leaves a deeper imprint.  Like the artist who uses their skill to shape the wax it is the skill of the teacher that shapes the mind.   It is not the fault of the wax if the artist fails to make something beautiful, and it is not the fault of the student (“unless there is an inherent defect”) if they fail to learn, but rather the fault of the teacher.

It is through knowledge, virtue and piety that a Christian can go to heaven.  Since the “Fall” and the corruption of perfect reason teaching helps Christians achieve that goal.  In other words it is important that all Christian children, “little brothers and sisters of Christ”, be educated so that they may go to heaven

*this is my example not Comenius’s

My take on it

I have given the man a break on his misunderstanding of how seeds work as the microscope had not yet been invented.

There is still a great deal of god to wade through when reading this chapter and as I began reading it  I feared that like chapters 1-4 it would be another one without the mention of teaching.  Luckily this was not the case.  As I slogged through the religious arguments two things struck me: 1) It is not the fault of the student if they fail to learn, but rather the teacher 2) The explicit inclusion of girls when talking about the importance of educating children

It is surprising to me that in the 17th century the concept that “when a student (of normal intelligence and without other outside issues) fails to learn it is due to the teacher’s lack of skill” was around.  With the current state of scapegoating teachers I would think that this concept was more recent than that.  A modified version of this statement is a key component of my personal teaching philosophy.  I firmly believe that children learn best from a skillful teacher, and I work hard at improving my skill.  I do also agree that “inherent defects” can limit what a person can learn.  The brain is not as Comenius proposed limitless, there is a certain amount of memory space available, and that space can vary from person to person.  There are many ways in which the senses can be confused and information can be imperfectly stored, as well as many ways where there is difficulty in retrieving information.  There are also many social and physiological factors that can impact memory and learning not the least of which is hunger and nutrition.  It is up to the person, their families, the school and society to minimize the impact of these issues (keeping in mind the personal liberties of both family and student) and, when there is a need to, adjust the educational outcomes so that a child can grow up and live as safely and independently as possible.  Ideally if all things were equal and we could compare apples to apples it would be the teacher’s fault if a student did not learn, but we do not live in an ideal world.  In the real world the teacher is just one factor that impacts on how well a student learns.

There have been many early educational writers that would have classed being born female as an “inherent defect” making it impossible/difficult/unseemly to educate girls and women, so it was with a sense of relief that I saw the explicit inclusion of the word “sisters” when talking about the children who should be educated.  Granted it was only Christian girls and not all children, but since Comenius’s argument is thoroughly based in Judeo-Christian philosophy this is not surprising.  It did strike me as ironic that in the religious climate of today, where education is seen by many fundamental Christians as a path to hell, a theologian thought the exact opposite.  He believed that it is through education and learning about the world and the universe that a person can be saved, because it is only by knowing about god’s creation that we can know god.

I am an atheist and a recovering Roman Catholic and like many atheists who were raised in a religious household I had to learn a great deal about religion before I was able to reject it.  It is because of this that I surprise many people of faith with my ability to make a sound religious argument for something that I value, like education.  So while I dismiss Comenius’s argument that education is a path to heaven I support the end of his argument that all people should be educated.  I get great pleasure in learning about new things and feel that education is the path to fulfillment. In the words of William Butler Yeats – Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

Next Up Chapter 6: If a man is to be produce, it is necessary that he be formed by education

Featured Image: Flickr Cootie Catcher by Sheila Sund

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Jennifer teaches science in a public school in Pennsylvania. She lives there with her husband and two dogs.


  1. June 30, 2014 at 5:11 pm —

    When you started this series, I was thinking of joining until you described the four chapters of god. Now I imagine I’d spend most of my reading time tossing the book away. I salute your perserverence. The next chapter compares men to cabbages though? (Produce is an archaic form there?)

  2. June 30, 2014 at 5:17 pm —

    Produce might make a better chapter. I’d look forward to a chapter that did not mention god, but talked about cabbage. It is actually produced.

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