Teachers should be moral exemplars

John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) is considered to be the “father of modern education.” This passage from his best known work, the Great Didactic, shows exactly why he is so highly regarded and remains ahead of this time, after so many centuries.
“The sun in the heavens teaches us the best form of discipline, since to all things that grow it ministers (i) light and heat, continuously; (2) rain and wind, frequently; (3) lightning and thunder, but seldom; although these latter are not wholly without their use. It is by imitating this that the master should try to keep his pupils up to their work. (i) He should give them frequent examples of the conduct that they should try to imitate, and should point to himself as a living example. Unless he does this, all his work will be in vain.

“He may employ advice, exhortation, and sometimes blame, but should take great care to make his motive clear and to show unmistakably that his actions are based on paternal affection, and are destined to build up the characters of his pupils and not to crush them. Unless the pupil understands this and is fully persuaded of it, he will despise all discipline and will deliberately resist it.” (John Amos Comenius, The Great Didactic, p. 252)

Here, Comenius shows up the fatal flaw in our present educational system, the fact that teachers are chosen for purely intellectual attainment, and not moral distinction. As a rule, teachers today do not even try to hold themselves up as moral exemplars; the result is disaster. As students enter into High School, they “catch attitude,” that is, they become rebellious and lose respect for authority. The disease is especially evident among boys.

I was talking to a father of a young child recently who was reluctant to send his child to public school for fear that this would happen to his son. Unfortunately, the private school option is not a choice at all, since the same criteria apply for the choice of teachers there. Private schools just breed a different sort of attitude, one tinged with elitism. Such a haughtiness is perhaps more pernicious than the blind rebelliousness instilled in public schools.

Until you find schools poaching the private sector for its most ethical leaders and workers, teachers and the teaching profession will continue to be held in contempt by students, parents and the public at large, and all the ideals that they stand for will continue to be ignored.



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Aristotle asks, “What does it take to be compatriots?”

“This is obvious; for suppose distinct places, such as Corinth and Megara, to be brought together so that their walls touched, still they would not be one city, not even if the citizens had the right to intermarry, which is one of the rights peculiarly characteristic of states. Again, if men dwelt at a distance from one another, but not so far off as to have no intercourse, and there were laws among them that they should not wrong each other in their exchanges, neither would this be a state. Let us suppose that one man is a carpenter, another a husbandman, another a shoemaker, and so on, and that their number is ten thousand: nevertheless, if they have nothing in common but exchange, alliance, and the like, that would not constitute a state. Why is this? Surely not because they are at a distance from one another: for even supposing that such a community were to meet in one place, but that each man had a house of his own, which was in a manner his state, and that they made alliance with one another, but only against evil-doers; still an accurate thinker would not deem this to be a state, if their intercourse with one another was of the same character after as before their union. It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families and aggregations of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life. Such a community can only be established among those who live in the same place and intermarry. Hence arise in cities family connections, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together. But these are created by friendship, for the will to live together is friendship. The end of the state is the good life, and these are the means towards it. And the state is the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honorable life.”  (http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.3.three.html)

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Aristotle’s pot luck theory of crowd sourcing and wisdom of the crowd

The Great Haystack  The Servers read to serve the masses.

Many thinkers think better than one, or even some.

“The Principle that the multitude ought to be in power rather than the few best … For the many (hoi poloi), of whom each individual is not a good (spoudaios) man, when they meet together may be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse. For each individual among the many has a share of excellence (arete) and practical wisdom (phronesis), and when they meet together, just as they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses, so too with regard to their character and thought. Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part and some another, and among them they understand the whole. There is a similar combination of qualities in good (spoudaioi) men, who differ from any individual of the many, as the beautiful are said to differ from those who are not beautiful, and works of art from realities, because in them the scattered elements are combined, although, if taken separately, the eye of one person or some other feature in another person would be fairer than in the picture. Whether this principle can apply to every democracy, and to all bodies of men, is not clear.” (Aristotle, Politics, Book 3.11, 1281a39-b17, quoted in Rebecca Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, n101)

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Beyond Monolithic Power

The Homo Universalis Plan

October 01, 2010

By John Taylor; 2010 Oct 01

John Amos Comenius proposed that we consciously make power structures diverse and inherently decentralized, in accordance with the dictum of Christ to “call no man master” or father, only our Father in heaven. Otherwise, power is unrestrained as a cancer; it becomes an idol by arrogating to itself the absoluteness of God. And, as we saw in Plato’s teaching last time, absolute or disproportionate power inevitably results in corruption. Because of this constant danger, we must see ourselves as servants to all humanity, remove all emphasis on individual, charismatic leaders and subsume narrow loyalties to universal ones.


Comenius would have all educated comprehensively, trained as world citizens comfortable with each of the big three human needs, our need for contact with nature, for contact with others and contact with God. Each must learn to balance them in all phases of life. No matter how wrapped up in friends, family or work, we still keep a hand in politics, religion and philosophy — science is too narrow a term, since it does not cover non-natural philosophy and the art of teaching.

“Philosophy deals with books and knowledge and the reasons for things for the purpose of enlightening mankind. Politics deals with rule and authority for the purpose of keeping mankind in order. Religion deals with God and conscience for the purpose of kindling in mankind the flame of faith, charity and hope (or keeping it alight).” (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 13, para 12, p. 205)

This places a heavier burden on individuals than what is expected of us today. Everyone must become, in effect, a Renaissance Man. Instead of being either a “man of faith” or a “man of science” or a “man of action,” a Comenian world order lays all three responsibilities on our shoulders. What is more, every individual initiative or group enterprise requires all three, knowledge (science), volition (faith) and action (politics).

It would be impossible for everybody to excel at all three — by definition. However, we have a duty at least to keep a hand in each; parents and teachers should make each generation more competent and concerned with them than the generation that came before. Otherwise, corruption will set in. Leaders and experts will be prone to becoming unbalanced, narrow, parochial and overspecialized. The general public will be susceptible to fanaticism, fundamentalism and distorted worldviews.

The Abdication of Homo Universalis

I called an early draft of this chapter, “The Plan of a Renaissance Man,” but moderns are uncomfortable with the generic sense of “man” that was fashionable in Comenius’ day. Today, “man” is commonly misunderstood as excluding women and children. So I looked up the term, “Renaissance Man.” Various synonyms turned up, including “jack of all trades,” “generalist,” “polymath” and “Homo Universalis.” “Polymath” and the others describe someone who achieves prominence in several areas of knowledge; it describes a kind of knowing that is more technical than what Comenius had in mind for the world citizen. The most comprehensive term seems to be “Homo Universalis,” which does not have sexist overtones. It is also a Latin term, and that is appropriate since Comenius wrote mostly in Latin, although he himself would probably have preferred his own Latin neologism, “pansophism,” or universal wisdom. He believed that only by concentrating upon on wisdom in its most universal guise can we strike the needed balance. Still, I will use the term “Homo Universalis” because it is more widely understood today than “pansophist.”

The ideal of Homo Universalis is all but lost in modern times. Individuals tend to guard their rights jealously, forget social obligations and remain content if government keeps out of their hair. To us, that is what good government means. It is difficult to picture anything else. As a result of this abdication, we are used to living under a monolithic state where politicians jealously guard their own bailiwick.

Politics is the sole, central power and others are dependents. They make the big decisions, and all taxes go to them. Even in a democracy their power is, if not absolutist, at least predominating. In religious matters, the state either withdraws completely from ethics and faith concerns, allowing groups to dissipate their energy by fighting with one another, or it interferes, setting the rights of one religion over all others. Every other expression of human nature, even essentials like science, economics, education and the arts, must go hat in hand to government for financial support.


Tripartite Governance

The distinctive object of Comenius’s proposal is to break up the monopoly of the monolithic state by dividing it into at least three parts. This in my opinion is a stroke of genius as revolutionary for human governance as what Copernicus, Darwin or Einstein did for our scientific worldview. Rather than a single world body, a global constitution would institute three parliaments. In accordance with the triple duties of Homo Universalis, these parliaments address each of the three main concerns of human life, enlightenment, ethics and peace.

One parliament he called the “college of light;” its members are charged with the reform of science and education. The second parliament, the “holy consistory,” acts as a parliament of religions. Its job is to encourage cooperation among religious groups while removing fundamentalism and interfaith conflict. A third parliament, the “dicastery of peace,” addresses the basic purpose of politics, laying the groundwork for peace on earth.

“These will serve as three universal antidotes to the plagues which have afflicted us in the past… For the college of light will purify the light of understanding … The holy consistory with intent to maintain the zeal for piety will salt … against elements of moral corruption (such as impiety and hypocrisy). Lastly, the dicastery of peace will keep the whole political world in order, so that no power either succumbs in face of danger to its possessions or degenerates into tyranny by destroying the possessions of others.” (Panorthosia, Chapter 25, p. 142)

Thus, in a Comenian democracy all three houses would be independent and equal, yet cooperating closely with the others — as the “call no man master” principle demands. Each body is elected and raises taxes independently. Constitutional stipulations assure equality and balance among them. Firm legal protections keep one from lording it over the others. In this way, with power divided externally, citizens can be robust, balanced and unified within themselves and society. Homo Universalis will walk through the broad gates of Cosmopolis Earth.

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