Teacher’s Day – Czech Republic

March 28

The Czech Republic and Slovakia celebrate Teacher’s Day on March 28 to commemorate the 1592 birthday of:

  • a. Frederick Scantron, inventor of the multiple-choice test.
  • b. Dixon Ticonderoga, explorer and discoverer of the graphite mountain from which all pencils are hewn.
  • c. Jan Amos Komensky, teacher, pastor and writer who was expelled from his own country to spend 42 years in exile.
  • d. All of the above

If there’s anything I learned in junior high school, it’s “when in doubt, pick ‘C’.”

Komensky on the Czech 200 note
Komensky on the Czech 200 note

Today is the birthday of Jan Amos Komensky, better known by his Latin name Comenius.

M: Come, Boy, learn to be wise.
P: What doth this mean, to be wise?
M: To understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly all that are necessary.

So begins Comenius’s Orbis Pictus, a “Nomenclature and Pictures of all the Chief Things that are in the World and of Men’s Employments therein.” The first illustrated encyclopedia for children.

“…it differed from all previous text-books, in being illustrated with pictures, on copper and wood, of the various topics discussed in it. This book was universally popular. In those portions of Germany where the schools had been broken up by the “Thirty years’ war,” mothers taught their children from its pages. Corrected and amended by later editors, it continued for nearly two hundred years, to be a text-book of the German schools.”

— History and Progress of Education, by Philobiblius, N.Y., 1860, p. 210.

The Orbis Pictus covered subjects ranging from anatomy:

“The Head is above the Feet. below. the fore part of the Neck (which ends at the Arm-holes,) is the Throat, the hinder part, the Crag, The Breast is before; the back behind; Women have in it two Dugs, with Nipples…”

to Islam and Mohammad:

“His Followers refrain themselves from Wine; are circumcised, have many Wives; build Chapels, from the Steeples whereof, they are called to Holy Service not by Bells but by a Priest, they wash themselves often, they deny the Holy Trinity: they honour Christ, not as the Son of God, but as a great Prophet, yet less than Mahomet; they call their Law the Alcoran.”

to “Monstrous and deformed people“…

“…are those which differ in the Body from the ordinary shape, as the huge Gyant (1), the little Dwarf (2), One with two Bodies (3), One with two Heads (4), and such like Monsters. Amongst these are reckoned, The jolt-headed (5), The great-nosed (6), The blubber-lipped (7), The blub-cheeked (8), The goggle-eyed (9), The wry-necked (10), The great-throated (11), The Crump-backed (12), The Crump-footed (13), The steeple-crowed (15), add to these The Bald-pated (14)”

Deformed & Monstrous People, Orbis Pictus
Deformed & Monstrous People, Orbis Pictus

It’s inspiring that someone with Komensky’s childhood should have penned the primer by which all others would be judged. His father died when he was 10, his mother a couple of years later, followed by his sisters. “Comenius was thus left an orphan at an early age, and his guardians appear to have robbed him of any small fortune that his father had bequeathed.” [The Great Didactic, Introduction by M.W. Keatinge]

Referring to the schools of his youth as “slaughter-houses” of the young, it wasn’t until he entered Herborn University at age 19 that things turned around. He studied at Heidelberg, traveled to Amsterdam and Hungary, taught at his old Latinschool in Moravia, and became a teacher-pastor in 1618, at the outbreak of the Thirty Years War.

Things did not go well for Komensky during the war. As a member of the Brethren of the Unity, a Protestant group based on the the theology of Jan Hus, Komensky and his circle were persecuted. Spanish soldiers burned his village and most of his possessions, including his library and his own writings. His wife and two children died during an epidemic. And he was forced into exile.

Komensky’s exile would last the rest of the his life. Bad for Komensky, but good for Western education.

“Surrounded by the chaos and destruction of war, Comenius believed that guns were no way to restore order—what the world really needed was a revolution in learning. He envisioned a liberal-arts education that would create citizens, rather than specialists, and proposed a new teaching system based on the novel principle of ‘school through play.'”

Rick Steves, Prague and the Czech Republic

Emphasizing self-discipline as motivation for learning rather than physical punishment, he disseminated his progressive vision across the many lands he traveled while in exile, including Poland, England, Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Lithuania. He never made it to the Americas, turning down an opportunity to head up a new university called Harvard, in favor of an offer by the Swedish Ambassador. And in the 1650’s he supported the Sweden’s takeover of Poland, a move that led once again to the burning and destruction of all his property, this time by angry Poles. Decades of his writings went up in smoke.

Still, his Janua, Orbis Pictus, and The Great Didactic were among many works that survived to form the basis of elementary education in Europe. He is credited with redefining the curriculum and learning environment used in Western education for hundreds of years.

The Comenius Medal for education, established in 1992, is one of UNESCO’s most prestigious awards. And though he was never able to return to his homeland, the people of the Czech Republic and Slovakia honor Komensky on his birthday by celebrating the noblest of professions: Teacher’s Day.

Brief summary of Komensky’s contributions to education

International Students Day

November 17

“It is interesting that the press and the politicians are beginning to refer to the student body of our nation as one of those “aggressor enemies” that we have become all too familiar with in the past: the “Huns,” the Nazis, the Commies; and now it is our kids, virtually the entire generation of them…For make no mistake; a generation is speaking.”

–Murray N. Rothbard, The Student Revolution, 1969

The kids are alright.

–The Who, 1965


They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and at times the student body is as powerful as an army.

On the average day students are more interested in unlocking the secrets of their universe, or in securing that elusive A than in prompting massive social change. But at pivotal moments throughout history–from Jesus’ Disciples (Disciple come from the Latin discipulus, meaning ‘pupil’) to the demonstration at Tiananmen Square–students have been the first to vocally question and defy ruling paradigms, and the university has become the battleground for society’s deepest rifts.

Holidays we’ve documented this year that stem from student protests include:

Hungary’s Republic Day – October 23, 1956

South Africa’s Youth Day – June 16, 1976

International Mother Language Day – February 21, 1952

Panama’s Martyrs Day – January 9, 1964

But in the 20th century, perhaps no campus symbolized the havoc that ravaged the Western world than than that of Prague’s 760 year-old Charles University (Universitas Carolinas).

Charles University has never shied away from conflict. One of its first rectors, Jan Hus, translated the heretical writings of John Wycliffe into Czech and was rewarded by being burned at the stake by the Church in 1415, a full century before Martin Luther’s ’95 Theses’.

Five centuries later Charles University became a battleground of a different kind.

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ensured his subjects “Peace for our time” by trading Czechoslovakia’s heavily fortified Sudetenland for the German Chancellor’s signature. The following year Hitler annexed the remainder of now-defenseless Czechoslovakia anyway, splitting it into the Slovak State and the Nazi-occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

Jan Opletal
Jan Opletal

On October 28, 1939, the anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s foundation, anti-Nazi demonstrations broke out in Prague, during which a medical student named Jan Opletal was shot and killed by German police. After Opletal’s funeral on November 15, thousands of his follow students marched to protest the Nazi occupation. The Nazis responded on November 17, 1939 by arresting and executing 9 student leaders without trial and by deporting 1200 students to Saschenhausen concentration camp.

Today, November 17 is remembered as International Students Day.

Prague demonstration, 1939
Prague demonstration, 1939

But the story of Charles University’s students doesn’t stop there.

Following World War II, Czechoslovakia was absorbed into the Communist Soviet Bloc. On the 50th anniversary of the student executions and deportations, 15,000 Prague students and citizens led a non-violent protest against Communist rule, taunting riot police (not much older than the average demonstrator) with songs and placing flowers in their helmets. The demonstrators demanded passage to Wenceslas Square, where Czechs annually paid homage to the unofficial shrine of Jan Opletal, but riot police put down the demonstration with violence.

The police response sparked public outcry across the nation. By the end of the month approximately 800,000 people participated in anti-government rallies in Prague. Media outlets such as Federal Television and radio supported a growing national strike, and the Ministry of Culture agreed to uncensored anti-Communist literature. On December 29, just 6 weeks after the student march, the Federal Assembly elected anti-Communist writer Václav Havel as President of Czechoslovakia.

The events of November and December 1989 are referred to as the Velvet Revolution.

Youtube – Nežná revolúcia

Saints Cyril & Methodius – Slovakia

July 5

St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the two missionary brothers who gave birth to the written Slovak language, are celebrated by the Eastern Catholic Church in May. (The exploits of the Brothers are detailed here.) But in the early 20th century the Roman Catholic feast day for the saints, held on July 5, took on a new importance.

After the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Slovaks around the world struggled to defend their national identity. When the Czechs declared July 6 a public holiday, in honor of 15th century Protestant forerunner Jan Hus, Slovaks pushed for the feast day of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, July 5, as a national celebration as well as religious one. Today it’s celebrated in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Gettin’ Glagolitic with Cyril & Methodius