The Great Didactic: All the young of both sexes should be sent to school

Chapter 9 – All the young of both sexes should be sent to school

I was going to clean up my language when I published this post.  I wrote the original a week ago and then set it aside.  During that time my anger subsided and I really was going to cut out the cursing, but then as I was preparing this post I reread the quotes and I got angry again.  So needless to say there is some not safe for work language. <Update… If you are a person who does not read the comments please do so for this post, especially the one by dxman  (updated 7/30/2014)>

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. Sorry about that.

Early in this series I recognized that this book, which was written in the 17th century, was going to have some issues, the over reliance on the Bible as a source of evidence being the most prominent. The fact that, while I disliked the god crap, Comenius’s arguments had been sound and logically consistent was what kept me going with this series.  Well really it was logical arguments and the title of this chapter.  This was clearly something different for the time.  In western civilization outside of convents there was really little chance of a girl getting a formal education, but in this book it said right there in a title that we should. I read this chapter with a sense of anticipation, and at the start I was not disappointed, but all my hopes came crashing down when I read the second half of page 220.  The rage I felt as I read those two paragraphs is the reason why this is my last post on this series.


I feel that I cannot be suitably unbiased in this chapter so I will summarize it through a series of quotes which should highlight Comenius’s key points and the reason for my rage.  Warning: while I did reduce some of the god language I needed to keep some of it in order for certain sentences to make sense.  If you see “…” within a quote take it as a given that the original text says something roughly along the lines of “god is great, yay god”, or “Man is made in god’s image yay man”.

 On why all men should be educated

“…All who have been born to man’s estate have been born with the same end in view, namely that they may be men, that is to say, rational creatures….  All, therefore, must be brought on to a point at which being properly imbued with wisdom, virtue, and piety, they may usefully employ the present life and worthily prepared for what is to come.  God himself has frequently asserted that with Him there is no respect of persons, so that while we admit some to the culture of the intellect, we exclude others, we commit an injury not only against those who share the same nature as ourselves, but against God Himself…” (pg 218)


“Now we do not know to what uses divine providence has destined this or that man; but this is certain, that out of the poorest, the most abject, and the most obscure, He has produced instruments for His glory.  Let us, therefore, imitate the sun in the heavens, which lights, warms, and vivifies the whole earth, so that whatever is able to live, to flourish, and to blossom, may do so.” (pg 218-219)

On the need for special education

“Nor is it any obstacle that some seem to be naturally dull and stupid, for this renders more imperative the universal culture of such intellects.  The slower and the weaker the disposition of any man, the more he needs assistance, that he may throw off his brutish dullness and stupidity as much as possible.  Nor can any man be found whose intellect is so weak that it cannot be improved by culture” (pg 219)


“There have, besides, been many instances in which those who are naturally stupid have gained such a grasp of the sciences as to excel those who were more gifted.” (pg 219)

On the Education of Women Pt 1

“Nor can any sufficient reason be given why the weaker sex (to give a word of advice on this point in particular) should be altogether excluded from the pursuit of knowledge (whether in Latin or in their mother-tongue).  They are endowed with equal sharpness of mind and capacity for knowledge (often with more than the opposite sex), and they are able to attain the highest positions, since they have often been called by God Himself to rule over nations, to give sound advice to kings and princes, to the study of medicine and of other things which benefit the human race, even to the office of prophesying and inveighing against priests and bishops.  Why, therefore, should we admit them to the alphabet, and afterwards drive them away from books?  Do we fear their folly?  The more we occupy their thoughts, so much less will the folly arise from emptiness of mind find a place.” (pg 219-220)

Now you should be sitting there saying to yourself, why is Jennifer angry?  I mean besides the florid, archaic and to a modern ear insulting language there is nothing to be angry about.  So far what Comenius has said was that all people rich or poor, male or female should be educated, not only that, but people with intellectual disabilities should also be educated to the best of their abilities.  Radical thoughts for the time, and very modern sentiments, but you see Comenius did not stop there.

Why I am pissed off.

“… For we are not advising that women be educated in such a way that their tendency to curiosity be developed, but so that their sincerity and contentedness may be increased, and this chiefly in those things which it becomes a woman to know and to do; that is to say, all that enables her to look after he household and to promote the welfare of her husband and her family.” (pg 220)

Fuck you Comenius,

I have read through your god shit for 10 chapters.  I disagreed with your premise, but throughout the entire endeavor I saw that while you lacked scientific knowledge you were logically consistent.  I respected you for it, but now on the same god damn page you contradict yourself.

Sir, last time I checked “the sun shines on me”.  If you want to be like the sun as you claim I should be given full access to education because I have an “equal sharpness of mind and capacity for knowledge” as any person.  You say that a woman may be called to be a leader, or to be an advisor or other positions that require knowledge and wisdom and that we cannot know the path that any child will take, and yet you don’t want “my tendency for curiosity” to be developed?

Again fuck you.

Here is another little bit of contradiction in paragraph 6 on page 220 right before curiosity-gate, you say that women should read books that promote virtue and piety, but no mention of knowledge.  Earlier you said that the only way to get to heaven is through knowledge, virtue and piety.  So what no girls allowed in heaven?

The End

What I had thought would be a little jaunt down the history of educational philosophy and reform has turn into a stomach turning god fest, in which it has been advised that

my natural curiosity should be curtailed and I should only learn womanly things.  Well, at least in this Comenius has partly succeeded.  I started out curious and now as I look over the titles of the later chapters of the Great Didactic I have no desire to read his  thoughts on anything.  I am done with the “Great Didactic”.

I think I’ll go and spend my time learning about more “womanly things”.  Maybe I’ll follow in the footsteps of “proper women” like Florence Nightingale who was a nurse during the Crimean War, but saved more lives with her mathematics then she ever did with her nursing.

Featured Image “‘Learning’ in Boston Common” picture byTony Fischer original statue by Arcangelo Cascieri and Adio Biccari

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


  1. July 22, 2014 at 3:24 pm —

    I salute your perseverence through these 10 chapters! I had seen the title of the next chapter in your last piece, and thought “uh oh” and indeed Comenius did not disappoint. To allow all to be educated just so they fit in their godslots without complaint…

  2. July 22, 2014 at 5:49 pm —

    I would worry about your blood pressure if reading Darwin’s opinions on the differences between men and women! And he was quite the enlightened humanist for his day, deeply influenced by many women in his life. The bad news, I suppose, is how easy it is to accept a widely-held cultural truth as being undeniably true. The good news is that human culture, with many a backslide, is overall progressing to a more enlightened state. I wonder what in a hundred years or so people will scratch their heads about and say, “Did they really all believe that in 2014?”

    • July 22, 2014 at 7:27 pm —

      In this case I do not think that it is just that I disagree with Comenius’s opinions, which I do, but rather his logical inconsistency. I read a lot of his opinions on teaching and education and the one thing that kept me going is that his arguments flowed from a premise. I saw the premise and I saw his conclusions based on his premise. The premises were often incorrect, but I could see why he drew the conclusions he did. I might have disagreed with the conclusion, but at least they were well thought out and logically consistent. In the case of women the chain of logic failed. Perhaps it is because I consider myself a human being and on equal terms with every other human beings, and he never explained why women were not part of the “human estate” as he put it. He argued that all members of the “human estate” should be educated to the best of their ability. I was actually blind sided by the notion that I was not considered a part of the human estate.

      I have not read Darwin’s opinions on the differences between women and men, but I would at least hope that his arguments are based on the scientific knowledge known at the time and logically consistent… but if they are not then there is always the Pauling Principle: Never publicly speak outside you area of expertise.

      • July 22, 2014 at 8:04 pm —

        Darwin basically looked around and saw that the great scientists, mathematicians, artists, poets, etc were almost all men. He drew the obvious conclusion that the cultural outcome reflected the underlying biology. Since Darwin we’ve slowly done the proper ‘experiment’ of generally leveling the playing field and lo and behold women are as intellectually accomplished as men. But I could see where Comenius being embedded in a culture where everyone agrees that men are intellectually superior would also jump to the obvious conclusion that men and women need to be educated differently and towards different outcomes. My gut feeling is that if Darwin could magically reappear in today’s world, he would completely rewrite his tracts on human differences. Comenius – not so sure about that.

        • July 22, 2014 at 9:20 pm —

          The quotes Jennifer pulled show Comenius knew women were intellectually equivalent to men. Darwin may or may not have believed such, but there is ample evidence that he was as prejudiced as any man of means of his time and yes, I believe if he were confronted with the evidence of intellectual equivalence among all genders he would have publically said as much. What’s Comenius’ excuse besides god?

          • July 22, 2014 at 10:07 pm

            Well, God has been a pretty darn good excuse for a pretty long time for lots of societies. But that does beg the question, since I believe God is a human creation. Why was it so necessary for humans (men?) to keep creating such misogynist entities?

          • July 23, 2014 at 2:24 pm

            I left it out of my review but Comenius does give three pieces of evidence as to why women’s education should be different from men’s.
            1) 1 Tim 2:1-2 “I permit not a woman to teach”
            2) A line from Juvenal’s poem the Sixth Satire “See that thy lawful wife be not a chatterbox, that she express not the simplest matter in involved language, nor be deeply versed in history”
            3) A line from Euripides’s play “I detest a blue-stocking”

            I look back at this today and think what a weak argument and not really on par with Comenius’s previous arguments. Usually he would have a Bible passage, maybe something from classical literature and an example from nature. Here there is no example from nature, no analogy. It is possible that the two paragraphs that promote the difference in male and female education were a way to appease other people so that his book could be published and not completely controversial. Or as Peter says he could have been completely blinded by the cultural norms so much so that he did not even see the contradiction. Unless someone can read 17th century Czech and has access to the original we will probably never know.

            As to Peter’s question about why misogynist entities exist – I think is the same reason any xenophobic belief happens. It is tribal. These are members of my group and they are like me, therefore they deserve the same rights and privileges as me. These other people are not like me and therefore may not even be people. Something that I see that is positive in this world is that for the most part the members of “my group” are expanding with the expansion of knowledge and education. People regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation are beginning to be given the same rights and privileges as the mainstream group. We are by no means finished, but we are a long way from when a Native American had to go court to prove that they are human and deserve the same rights as white folk. (This example came to mind since I just saw it yesterday on Aerial Nebraska)

          • July 29, 2014 at 12:10 am

            “Unless someone can read 17th century Czech and has access to the original we will probably never know.”

            That and a time machine or a necromancer. If he did disagree with the common “morality” of his time, he isn’t likely to have left clear writings about it. Sometimes, though, people did code their opposition…

            It’s a surprisingly progressive view for a man of his time, regardless.

  3. July 30, 2014 at 8:56 am —

    Just to add a note as a bilingual Czech-English dude who just looked up and read the chapter in question, in the 1892 version:

    1) Komenský actually rejects the three quotes “against women learning” in his piece. He is writing this as a defence to expected complaints he expects people to make citing those quotes.
    2) I can’t be sure this mirrors the first old Czech (handwritten) or latin (first printed) originals, but the word “curious” here in one version I read is a bad (or insufficient) translation. The word used in the 1892 version is “všetečnost” meaning curious in the sense of a busibody – someone who inquires too much into other people’s business, is annoyingly inquisitive. Of course this does play into the stereotype of a kind of Shakespearean “shrew”, but Komenský is arguing here that education doesn’t make women “inquisitive gossips”, that the kind of education he proposes is character-forming rather than the opposite. Even though other versions I looked at had “zvědavost”, I think it’s staying on pretty firm ground to consider we have a radically different view of curiousity today (finding out and experiencing new things) than in Komenský’s day – in this context curiosity was considered a vice for both men and women – an inescapable lust for the new (and oft forbidden/sinful).
    3) the paragraph under heading 6 is a general argument against the idea of young people reading “bad” books, where he aknowledges he would forbit this kind of literature from young men as well. In my reading it seems as he is assuming there will be a criticism: “women reading bad books will lead to women with loose morals”, which he is rejecting by his own proposition that in schools students are given good books, and that *all young people* should only have access to proper literature.
    4) In an odd twist of fate, the English “the welfare of her husband and her family.” contains a glaring omission! My version (and several others I checked) state: “jednak ku vzdělávání blaha vlastního i mužova i dítek i rodiny.” This literally means “also to the increase in wellbeing of herself and husband and children and family”. Komenský put the woman first in that sentence, the English translation omits her!

    Sorry if this comes off just as just be a bit of sexist apologetics, it’s obvious Komenský did fall pray to gender roles and stereotypes, but the original meaning does seem to come off a little different. I haven’t got my hands on any original manuscript scans (probably behind university system paywalls) and the latin original linked everywhere on google leads to a dead sight. Maybe I’ll check with a friend of mine with links to the Czech Studies department of

    • July 30, 2014 at 7:36 pm —

      dxman – Thanks so much! I was hoping someone could read and understand an earlier version especially a Czech version. Most if not all of my annoyance with this chapter stems from paragraphs 6 and 7, and the fact that in the English version I have access to they seemed to contradict his earlier arguments. Your translation of the word curious to mean not the positive quest for knowledge that Comenius advocated earlier but rather a more nosey, gossipy, negative curiosity changes the tone of the paragraph to something that matches with what he said earlier in this chapter and earlier in this book.

      The second thing that stuck in my craw was that in paragraph 6 in the English version is missing the word wisdom. Comenius advocated three things as being the ultimate goal of education wisdom, piety and virtue. In his world they were “the keys to salvation”, and as I translate into my world view “the most important thing”. For the word wisdom to be missing when talking about girls seems to me to be a wrong, another omission along the lines of what you stated in your point 4. So I am keeping my fingers crossed that you can find the word wisdom or see that it is implied.

      As I was reading this book I started to think of Comenius as an old grandfather type person. I actually pictured him in my mind as a cross between Dumbledore with the personality of old family friend, who I respect very much but is a Dominican priest. A person who I disagreed with about religion, but a fellow teacher. A person who occasionally uses the wrong word, for example “oriental” and I would correct them and say no the term “Asian” is preferred and they would say ok and then use the more appropriate word. When I read the English version of paragraph 7 the image of my old wizard friend was shattered. I could not forgive the sloppy logic and the contradictions. But you brought him back to me. 🙂 So I thank you … but I curse you a little bit because now I am going to have to read the rest. I hope you continue to read the series, because I hope to call on your language skills the next time Keatinge does a hack job of translation.

      • July 31, 2014 at 4:22 am —

        Another note on “všetečnost” = “curious” – the same word is used in paragraph 5, in the English this is translated as “folly”. It’s in the text you quoted: “Do we fear their folly?” as well as the next sentence.

        On “wisdom” – this is not mentioned in the 6th paragraph or later, but in paragraph 5 the Czech word for wisdom “moudrost” is already used, albeit translated as “knowledge” in the English: “the pursuit of *knowledge* [..] They are endowed with equal sharpness of mind and capacity for *knowledge*”. Komenský has already said women have the same capability to be wise as men (and often more) before paragraph 6, and “capacity for knowledge” is basically the same thing. The version I have also includes the adjective “jemná” in “k moudrosti jemnou”, so it is qualified some kind of “soft/subtle/refined wisdom” (I know, wince), but it’s definitely included as equal to the capabilities of men.

        I talked about this with my S.O. who has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and Czech and she mentioned another meaning of “všetečnost” as in “talkative” or “chatty”, and associated it with being an overbearing wife (talking over the husband). Definitely seen as negative at that time. She also pointed out how Komenský is often callled the “teacher of nations”, but actually didn’t teach, he was a philosopher and theoretician. And all of his “original” Czech manuscripts, including several supposedly significant unpublished works managed to burn in a fire, so the latin is probably about as far back as we can get.

        Hope you continue to enjoy the book!

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