The Great Didactic: Teachable Animal

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

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.


We are a teachable animal.

“The seeds of knowledge, of virtue, and of piety are… naturally implanted in us but the actual knowledge, virtue and piety are not.”

You must get them from prayer, education and action.

A human being is not actually a person unless they have learned to act like one and behave as a member of society. Just like a stone needs to be cut to become a useful building materials a human must be educated to become a useful person.

We see this from examples of children raised by animals in the wild.   We must learn social interactions and language from others.  The children raised in the wild do not have the ability to speak, nor can they be an active and useful member of society. These things are not just there inside us waiting to come out when the time is right, but rather must be learned.

Education is necessary for those of all abilities.  Those who are “stupid” need to overcome their “dullness” and the “clever” need to use their powers for good, because a “clever” person without education will use their powers for evil.

Or in other words

“What are the rich without wisdom but pigs stuffed with bran?  What are the poor who have no understanding of affairs but asses laden with burdens?  What is a handsome though ignorant man, but a parrot adorned with feathers, or, as has been said, a golden sheath in which there is a leaden dagger?”

My take on it

I kind of wish I could read the original text and not a translation to see if when the word “person” is used  it has the same connotation as it does now.  When I was reading the text for the first time I got my back up over the word.  How dare you say that a human being lacks personhood!  Educated or not they still deserve the rights and privileges that come from personhood.  … But the second time I read it I caught onto something different.

I think that the whole person thing was not about being a person at all.  I think it was more about the nature of how we learn.  If I am not mistaken it was once thought that a child would develop language and social norms just like a girl develops breasts in puberty.  When the time is right these things just emerge and there is little need for any outside influence to make it happen.  I believe Comenius is trying to say that this does not happen.  We must learn these things.  When he says the seeds are there I believe he means that we have the ability to learn, with a natural innate curiosity, but that will only take us so far.  We need to actually do something to learn.

This is not a revelation to us in the 21st century, but I think it might have been something that was still being hashed out in the 17th.

Though I must admit the whole personhood thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Now onto a little bit of my own prejudice: I do firmly believe one of the most important things in life is to be an educated person.  Knowledge helps lift you up when you are down.  Keeps you humble when you are flying high.  Helps you find beauty and wonder in the world.  So on a final note I do agree with Comenius that all people, rich, poor, intelligent or those with learning difficulties should be educate to the extent to which they are able.

Next Up: Chapter 7 – A man can most easily be formed in early youth, and cannot be formed properly except at this age.

Featured image “Graduated after climbing the stairs” by Anura Peiris.

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

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