What do beauty, prayer, imagination, and teaching have to do with one another? This piece explores the connections through reflection on a prayer and some related ideas from the great Didactic by John Amos Comenius (as well as some metaphors for nursing). It also continues my series of posts on Comenius in this, the 350th anniversary of his death. (You can read the first post here.) This article was published in The Other Journal, issue 15 (a themed issue on aesthetics), May 26, 2009.


Beauty1

Do Thou, therefore, O Lord our God, give each one of us a joyful heart to serve Thy glory as best he may [. . .] Let Thy work appear unto Thy servants, and Thy glory upon their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish Thou the works of our hands upon us (Psalm xc. 16). In Thee, O Lord, have I trusted, let me never be confounded. Amen.2

The discourse is devotional, the sentiments, biblical; the context is educational. The prayer comes from the final page of an enormously influential treatise on school reform penned in the mid -seventeenth century by the Moravian educator, pastor, philosopher, literary pioneer, and general jack-of-all-trades, John Amos Comenius. After a weighty collection of chapters ranging in topic from the profundities of moral and spiritual education to the practicalities of organizing grade levels and textbooks, Comenius closes with a prayer for beauty. For God ’s beauty. That it be upon us. “Us” being in this case primarily those who teach the young.

“Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us”—the phrase is quoted from Psalm 90:16 but has an unfamiliar ring. Those taking the trouble to check the reference will find that recent translations have taken a different tack. “Favor” says the New International Version. “Friendship” appears in the 1912 German update of Luther. “Kindness” says the Modern King James Version. Comenius was of course working with older versions—“decor” (beauty, grace) says the Latin Vulgate, and that’s the word Comenius echoes.3 I am in no position to adjudicate translations of ancient Hebrew, and doing so is not my goal here. Moreover, I suspect that Comenius may have been unruffled by the thought that beauty and kindness could be interchanged. Call it an intriguing resonance or a creative mistranslation, what interests me here either way is what it might mean to think of teaching and learning as beautiful. This suggests a wider question: how do we imagine education, and what does that imagining do for how we practice it?

Works of Imagination—Hospitals, for Instance

A recent medical forum discussed the metaphors that doctors and patients commonly use to talk about cancer. One participant told of a six -year-old girl who was visiting a cancer clinic for treatment. As the attending doctors and nurses tried to carry out the needed procedures, this girl would lash out, kicking and hitting those around her. Was this fear? Willfulness? Resentment? A nurse finally figured out the cause of her behavior: the girl’s mother had repeatedly told her daughter that she must “keep on fighting” in order to “beat the cancer.” In an attempt to cooperate with her treatment, the girl obeyed the image, thinking that she was doing what her mother wanted her to do. When her mistake was explained to her, the behavior stopped.4

We might easily put this down to a childish literalism that those old enough to read online journals have long since outgrown. But recall that the topic under discussion at this forum was how adult professionals and patients think about disease. One oncologist comments: “We have inundated our language with bellicose metaphors.” He notes that in immunology “lymphocytes are ‘deployed’ or ‘mobilized,’ the protagonists are ‘killer’ cells, and the images are all of ‘battles’ for supremacy and survival.” This battle imagery is more than picturesque; it has effects upon both patients and medical professionals. Most do not kick and punch, but it seems that thinking in battle images can help some patients retain a sense of dignity and control, whereas for other patients such imagery arouses fear, and for still others it can create a sense of guilt and defeat as the disease progresses and they are left feeling that they did not fight hard enough. Battle imagery can influence treatment choices—one participant in the forum speaks of a “seduction that aggressive treatment is better.”5

In the nineteenth century, the migration of military metaphors to the profession of nursing helped create an ethos built on ranks and uniforms, nursing stations, the giving of shots, and an expectation that patients would obey orders, submit to hardship, and not ask questions. While we tend to think of works of the imagination more in terms of hexameters than hospitals, our metaphors leave discernible traces in our practices and institutions. The six-year-old cancer patient, in her childish simplicity, acted out her metaphor rather vividly and directly. We adults act out our metaphors in more subtle and complex ways. But we do tend to act them out. The images that texture our thinking affect how we see, relate to, and behave in the world around and in us.

—and Schools

Schools too are works of the imagination, in this regard more like poems than rocks, less brute objects than creative constructs. It is both instructive and sobering to dip into the history of how we have imagined schooling. An image that recurs over several centuries of Western education is the Nuremberg funnel. A volume from around 1650 by Georg Philipp Harsdörffer famously illustrates the idea: a learner lies prostrate, his hands raised in helpless surrender, while learned men labor to force various mechanical objects representing the seven liberal arts through a funnel placed in his mouth.6 Learning here is force-feeding, followed by ritual regurgitation at exam time. Later versions of the figure have the funnel inserted directly into the brain, rendering the learner even more passive and disengaged, and presenting teaching as a kind of chemical experiment.7 In this imaginative tradition, education basically consists of filling up empty vessels with as much knowledge as will fit. It is something that is done to learners, inflicted upon them by force.

Comenius was well aware of this image and the experiences that funded it. In his allegorical work The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, he describes the schools of his day in terms of the trials that must be undergone in order to attain erudition. As would-be scholars enter the gate of learning, they are examined by guards: “If the head were of steel, the brain inside it of mercury, the buttocks of lead, the skin of iron, and the purse of gold, they praised the person and readily conducted him further.”8 The learner needs not only money, but a durable rear end and a thick skin, and the appraisal of learners as a collection of metals suggests a vision of education as the beating and shaping of malleable, inanimate objects whose only calling is to endure. And indeed:

Some even tried to bore holes in their heads and pour something into them. [. . .] Then I looked and saw how much these poor wretches had to pay for their education. [. . . T]hey were often struck with fists, pointers, rods, and canes on their face, head, back, and seat until they shed blood, and were almost completely covered with stripes, scars, bruises, and callouses.9

The prospect causes many of the learners to flee; Comenius himself submits to discipline: “Desiring to enter this profession, I too underwent this education, although not without difficulty and bitterness. ”10

Though physical beatings are less to be expected in most of today’s schools, reductive images of learners persist. Magazine advertisements for electronic learning devices offer to reprogram your mind for success as you download information into your memory. And there is no shortage of intellectually weightier material that shares the underlying image of the mind as a programmable computer which processes information inputs in order to generate future output, the latest version of persons -as-machines.

Another modern image for schooling pictures learning in economic terms, with students or parents as consumers, schools as factories, and curriculum or credentials as product. Here’s an example from language learning, this time from a scholarly article:

[I]f learners invest in a second language, they do so with the understanding that they will acquire a wider range of symbolic and material resources, which will in turn increase the value of their cultural capital. Learners will expect or hope to have a good return on their investment—a return that will give them access to hitherto unattainable resources.11

Learning is now a form of investment, to be evaluated in terms of its profitability for the investor. We persist in imagining learning in ways that seem hard to call beautiful.

Gardens of Delight

Comenius, at the end of his treatise on learning, prayed for beauty, God’s beauty, to be upon our efforts to educate. He was clear that this was in tension with visions of learners as empty vessels, malleable metals, or cash customers. A learner, Comenius wrote, “is not a block of wood from which you can carve a statue [. . .] he is a living image, shaping, misshaping, and reshaping itself.”12 On the first page of the same work, Comenius introduced another image, one he returned to frequently to guide his own thinking about schools. Our first calling, he writes in the preface to his work, is to be gardens of delight for our God; alas, instead we have become wild and horrible wildernesses. Genesis 1 clearly lurks in the background of this description, but so do the Hebrew prophets. “The LORD will surely comfort Zion,” writes Isaiah, “and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the gardens of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing” (Is. 51:3). In various places (see, e.g., Is. 5:1-8; 58:11-12; Ezekiel 36:35; Joel 2:3) the prophets talk of the garden of Eden (which, translated literally, is the “garden of delight”) as a place of ruins restored, relationships healed, justice pursued, crops harvested, joys celebrated, and peace secured. For the prophets, the Garden of Eden was not an image of bucolic nostalgia for pre -cultural origins, let alone a source of cute cartoons with strategically placed foliage; it was an image of the just, thriving, well-ordered community.13

We need new schools, Comenius urges, in “imitation of the School of Paradise, where God revealed the whole choir of His creatures for man to behold.”14 Schools, he argues, should become gardens of delight.

He means many things by this, but for present purposes I will just pick up one strand: schools as gardens of delight will foster a peculiar combination of pleasure and service. We are placed on earth, Comenius writes, “that we may serve God, his creatures and ourselves, and that we may enjoy the pleasure to be derived from God, from his creatures and from ourselves.”15 Although the idea of a seventeenth-century bishop telling us that the purpose of life is pleasure may startle a little, he seems to be riffing here on Proverbs 8:30-31, where God’s personified Wisdom is described as “filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in humankind.” Schooling should foster this threefold delight, says Comenius.

First, there is delight in God. Comenius insists at every opportunity that any kind of learning that tries to separate what he calls erudition, virtue, and piety, or what we might call the intellectual, the moral, and the spiritual, is not genuine education—it has reduced learning in such a way as to misrepresent its true nature. Piety, Comenius says, means “that (after we have thoroughly grasped the conceptions of faith and of religion) our hearts should learn to seek God everywhere [. . .] and that when we have found Him we should follow Him, and when we have attained him we should enjoy Him.”16 We are to learn to refer all things to God with the ultimate aim of learning to delight in God; then we’ll have a right to call it learning.

Second, there is delight in creation. Rather than stacking up multiple-choice information about the world, we have to develop a taste for disciplined absorption in the intricacies of creation. We are also to take creation’s delight as our proper concern. Comenius laments our misuse of creation and urges that we educate in such a way that as we learn to treat other creatures well, “all creatures should have cause to join us in praising God.”17

Third, and perhaps most unexpectedly, we are to learn to take pleasure in ourselves. Comenius is careful to distinguish this pleasure from what he calls “mere amusement”; the imaginative tradition of the garden of delight shapes his sense of what that delight means. The pleasure in self that Comenius has in mind is “that very sweet delight which arises when a man [sic], who is given over to virtue, rejoices in his own honest disposition, since he sees himself prompt to all things which the order of justice requires.”18 There are moments when we catch ourselves breaking free from preoccupation with our own status, performance, or self-satisfaction, and we find that somehow we did something right, something healing, something just. Comenius is correct, there is a “very sweet delight” in catching oneself every now and then aligning with the order of justice and bringing delight into the world through actions as various as works of mercy or well-timed puns. Schools should teach us to seek these pleasures. True to the prophets, this connection of the garden of delight with justice points the focus out beyond the well-being of the individual soul and toward the ways we build or destroy social well-being. All are called to realize their humanity in such a way that they not only become gardens of delight themselves, but in doing so contribute to the realization of the garden of delight as a wider social and ecological reality. The aim of education is not the competitive success of the individual, but rather that “the entire world will be a garden of delight for God, for people, and for things.”19

Comenius’s reflections bring to mind some more recent comments from Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, found amid his reflections on Christian higher education and how it should be oriented to a vision of pursuing shalom. Wolterstorff writes:

There can be no shalom without justice [. . .] In shalom each person enjoys justice [. . .] Shalom goes beyond justice, however. Shalom incorporates right relationships in general, whether or not those are required by justice: right relationships to God, to one’s fellow human beings, to nature, and to oneself. The shalom community is not merely the just community but is the responsible community, in which God’s laws for our multifaceted existence are obeyed. It is more even than that. We may all have acted justly and responsibly, and yet shalom may be missing: for the community may be lacking delight [. . .] shalom incorporates delight in one’s relationships. To dwell in shalom is to find delight in living rightly before God, to find delight in living rightly in one’s physical surroundings, to find delight in living rightly with one’s fellow human beings, to find delight even in living rightly with oneself.20

Comenius would have nodded along.

Learning to Hear Other Languages

Reconceiving schooling is a popular and often quixotic pastime. It is also a major undertaking, not to be achieved in a brief reflection such as this. An example, however, is perhaps owed at this point—just an example, and a simple one at that. Comenius devoted a great part of his immense energy to the reform of language education, writing several language textbooks that remained in use for centuries after his death. Comenius writes in the Panegersia:

Bias towards persons, nations, languages, and religious sects must be totally eliminated if we are to prevent love or hatred, envy or contempt, or any other emotion from interfering with our plans for happiness [. . .] How utterly thoughtless [. . .] to hate your neighbor because he was born in another country or speaks a different language [. . .]21

Language education was for Comenius a part of the creation of the garden of delight, one of the tools that might help us toward peace between cultures. Such aspirations have not been uncommon among language teachers—it has often been a general hope of the profession that teaching the languages of others might contribute something to international peace and understanding. However, as Osborn and Reagan have pointed out in their recent study of foreign language education in the United States, the assumption that foreign language learning somehow automatically contributes to tolerance and peace is false. As they point out, “[I]t is […] evident that bilingualism all too often accompanies bicultural chauvinism rather than broad cultural tolerance and understanding.”22 It is quite possible to become fluent in another language and to remain hostile toward speakers of that language. It is even possible to use one’s language skills to work against the best interests of another community or to use one’s partial cultural knowledge to perpetuate stereotypes. One might add that language learning materials have often tended to focus on de-contextualized grammar structures, or a series of consumer transactions involving meals, rail tickets, and hotel rooms, or perhaps a series of reports in the target language about my hobbies, my likes and dislikes, my pets, and so forth. There is often little overt concern with whether what students are saying is, for instance, truthful or humble, as long as information is successfully transmitted and utterances are well formed.23 We have at times seemed all too capable of taking the task of learning the languages of others and turning even that (to the extent that we have bothered at all) into another way of talking about and to ourselves.24

With these musings in mind, I had my own intermediate German students read (in German) the passage from Deuteronomy that begins “Hear, O Israel” (6:4). I commented briefly that this kind of hearing is the opposite of autonomy and that it is basic to Israel ’s identity; it’s a hearing that implies waiting on another’s word for wisdom and direction, giving up the drive to control one’s own reality. One of my aims for my students, I told them, was that they should learn to hear others who do not speak their language. That was why, for instance, we were working with oral narratives and family photos from Germans and not just with tourist dialogues. There has been a big emphasis on speaking and getting your message across, I told my students, in recent language education, but you are not in my class just so that you can bless more of the world with your opinions. You are here to learn to hear what others want and need to say to you. I said this, moved on, and forgot that I had said it.

Over a year later, I received a phone call from Matthew, a student who had been in that class and who was now bursting with excitement. He was in Germany, studying for a semester in Marburg. That morning he had boarded a bus, sat down, and noticed that the German man sitting next to him seemed dejected. Matthew struck up a conversation and discovered that the man had just lost his job. “I remembered what you said in class,” Matthew said (what did I say in class, I wondered), “about hearing people instead of just speaking, and I just listened to him talk. By the end, he seemed really relieved to have been able to talk to someone about it. I offered some words of encouragement, and he thanked me for listening. I just got home and I had to call you.” I was left with a small glimpse of a garden of delight in which a young American uses his language skills while traveling overseas to console an unemployed German.

Beauty Redux

Comenius closes with a prayer for beauty. For God’s beauty. That it be upon us. He imagines schools as capable, by grace, of becoming gardens of delight, places where shalom grows, where we learn to dream of, live in, lament the lack of, and work for a well-ordered world. Perhaps he would not have been too surprised to think that beauty and kindness might not be so far apart.

Do Thou, therefore, O Lord our God, give each one of us a joyful heart to serve Thy glory as best he may [. . .] Let Thy work appear unto Thy servants, and Thy glory upon their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish Thou the works of our hands upon us (Psalm xc. 16). In Thee, O Lord, have I trusted, let me never be confounded. Amen.

Notes

1. Portions of this piece are drawn from a lecture given in various Canadian cities as part of the Worldview Lecture Series sponsored by the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto ( www.icscanada.edu), and I am grateful for their invitation to deliver that lecture series. One section was originally delivered at the Second Symposium on Comenius in Seoul, which was organized by the Korea-Czech Comenius Society in 2004.

2. These are the closing words of Comenius’s Didactica Magna, cited from M. W. Keatinge, The Great Didactic of John Amos Comenius, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Russell & Russell, 1967), 302.

3. “decor tuus.” See Klaus Schaller, ed., Johann Amos Comenius: Ausgewählte Werke, vol. 1 (Hildesheim, GR/New York, NY: Georg Olms Verlag, 1973), 119.

4. Richard T. Penson, Lidia Schapira, Kristy J. Daniels, Bruce A. Chabner, and Thomas J. Lynch Jr., “Cancer as Metaphor,” The Oncologist 9 (2004): 708-716, p. 711. Downloaded from www.TheOncologist.com on December 17, 2008.

5. Ibid., 709; 712.

6. See Figure 26 at http://ftp.math.uni-hamburg.de/spag/ign/xyz/ca00-v5.htm#tthFrefACI (Retrieved Tuesday, May 5, 2009).

7. This image can be viewed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuremberg_Funnel (Retrieved Tuesday, May 5, 2009).

8. Howard Louthan and Andrea Sterk, ed., trans., John Comenius: The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (New York, NY/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998), 94.

9. Ibid., 94-95.

10. Ibid., 95.

11. Bonnie Norton Peirce, “Social Identity, Investment, and Language Learning,” TESOL Quarterly, 29:1, (1995): 9-31, p.17.

12. Vladimir Jelinek, The Analytical Didactic of Comenius (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 24.

13. I have told the story in more detail elsewhere of how the Christian theological and educational tradition moved from placing Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden to making humans themselves gardens of delight and thence to gardens of delight being the normative setting for learning. See David I. Smith, “Biblical Imagery and Educational Imagination: Comenius and the Garden of Delight,” in The Bible and the University, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey and C. Stephen Evans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 188-215.

14. A. M. O. Dobbie, Comenius’ Pampaedia or Universal Education (Dover, UK: Buckland, 1986), 29.

15. Keatinge, Didactic, 72.

16. Ibid., 218.

17. Dobbie, Pampaedia, 26.

18. Keatinge, Didactic, 73.

19. Dobbie, Pampaedia, 29.

20. Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Teaching for Shalom: On the Goal of Christian Collegiate Education,” in Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education, eds. Clarence W. Joldersma and Gloria Goris Stronks (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 23, emphasis original.

21. John Amos Comenius, Panegersia, or Universal Awakening, trans. A. M. O. Dobbie (Shipston-on-Stour, UK: Peter I. Drinkwater, 1990), 70.

22. Timothy G. Reagan and Terry A. Osborn, The Foreign Language Educator in Society: Toward a Critical Pedagogy (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002).

23. David Smith, “Communication and Integrity: Moral Development and Modern Languages,” Language Learning Journal 15 (1997): 31-38.

24. For some more concrete proposals for heading in a different direction, see David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality and Foreign Language Learning (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000); David I. Smith, Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009). For further resources on faith and education, see www.pedagogy.net.

Leave a Reply