On Komensky and Czech Education Ideals
Or how one shouldn’t forget to have a heart as well as a brain
By MARTIN REZNY
I think that Comenius had pretty much foreseen how an attempt at the institutionalization of his “wisdom” will get inevitably fumbled. Partly the problem is indeed that our education system has only adopted the methodology (poorly) and not the “heart” of what he suggested, but also the problem lies in the modernization of education itself in the sense of rationalist enlightenment that has jettisoned all spiritual aspects, or again the “heart”.
It’s very hard to explain to modern English-speaking thinkers, but the Czech enlightenment was very Christian at its core, but in a way fundamentally different from modern American Christianity. Czech Christianity was of the kind that sees knowledge and wisdom as divine, promoted by monk orders like the Jesuits or the Fransiscans, or the Czech orders like the Unity of the Brethren or generally the followers of Jan Hus. He was a notable church reformer before Luther that inspired a movement that succesfully defied the Catholic Church in a number of significant military victories.
Czech protestantism was actually very humanistic and progressive and still is at the core of what can be described as Czech nature or spirit. It combines skepticism toward wordly powers and established institutions, sharp sarcastic wit tempered by intellectual humility, compassion toward the downtrodden, and an imperative of conscience to do good without expecting a reward, all as it is layed out in our interpretation of Jesus’s message in the New Testament.
Jan Hus himself died on a stake for his beliefs, which was followed immediately by innovation in military technology and tactics and by the foundation of a much more egalitarian social order. This not only posed no contradiction to this form of Christianity, it was inspired by it, contributing to the foundations of what later became modern secular society everywhere.
Today, Czechs are one of the most atheistic countries in the world (in the top three, however you slice it), and yet, that is an incorrect characterization if you take into account that Czech culture is rooted in this form of Christianity. Most Czechs may not have a religion, but most do have this rather innocent subconscious worldview that makes them identifiably Czech, or smart in the way that Czech people are perceived to be almost innately smart.
Simultaneously, Czech modern institutions are every bit as insane as Komensky, or Kafka, observed them to be, especially the education system. As a recent example, take Kosmo, which is a new sitcom about the Czech Ministry of Education being forced through a mistake to create a space program and launch a mission to the Moon. That’s exactly how seriously we’re still taking it today, and how much competence we ascribe to bureaucrats.
In our view of the world, regular Czech “Hloupý Honza” (“Simple John”) is the ideal of intelligence — a mix of common sense, sense of humor, quick wit, and most importantly, good heart. No person, no “whole human being”, can be taught to be like that by any institution, and no form of being is more human. I believe these are the themes that Komensky was drawing from, and that’s what the modern education systems at best try and fail to imitate.
In the Czech culture since Komensky, the teacher has always had a special place, where other national cultures usually glorify warriors, nobles, celebrities, or businessmen. The ideal Czech teacher however is not a cog in a system, it’s the only teacher in a village who’s in a way a philosopher king in his own little domain, simultaneously a playwright, inventor, and priest, and the only weapon the people have against some foreign lord’s propaganda.
Teachers like that have won us our independence as a nation, and that’s not an exaggeration, which is why the dehumanizing modern education machine is so frustrating in the light of Komensky’s philosophy and such a crime against intelligence, especially when it claims to be Comenian. Some of us here know that that ideal is not a system and that it is not impossible to realize, or ineffective once something resembling it is put into place.
However, Czechs have never been in a position of power where we would be able to directly influence even the institutions of our own state to conform to this common, humane sense, let alone the rest of the world. While the world has decided to steal some of our ideas, it generally doesn’t really understand them. For example, scientists seem to think that Čapek invented robots because he wanted us to replace ourselves with machines. That too is the exact opposite of what the author meant, just like the enlightenment of Komensky being applied in modern education systems heartlessly.
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