Between Rigidity and Arbitrariness

Lecture by Christof Wiechert, 10th World Teachers' Conference, in: Journal Midsummer No. 57

In his remarkable publication The Beautiful Risk of Education Gert Biesta describes the ideal of a modern education system according to the Anglo-Saxon concept. It is strong, safe, predictable and free from any risks. Biesta uses this as the basis for his own presentation, which is supported by a number of education philosophers, explaining that this approach would, in fact, be the end of teaching and could at best result in programming. Concerns about the “trivialization” or “infantilization” of teachers and educators have also been expressed. School as the loss of meaning: what is all-important now, instead of the contents that need to be taught and learned, is the most efficient way of finishing education and passing exams.

If we look at how our times are being perceived – for instance in sociology – we find a number of very diverse views. The Brazilian sociologist Sigiswald Baumann, for example, describes our time as “fluid modernism”: nothing is fixed, everything is possible. The Franco-Chinese philosopher François Cheng speaks of the “in between”. Relationships, he points out, arise between the ‘I’ and the ‘You’. Adding to this the wonderfully precise description by Peter Sloterdijk (in his book “You Must Change Your Life”) of how our inner reality mirrors all that is essential, we arrive at an entirely different picture.

These polar opposite perceptions of reality are characteristic of our time. Shortly before the birth of Waldorf Education, Rudolf Steiner gave a series of lectures on pedagogical questions (“Education as a Force for Social Change” GA 296), predicting the polarity just described in quite a remarkable way. He said that the soul forces would become emancipated from each other.  If we did not manage to hold them together through our identity, or ‘I’, the soul forces “would go their own ways”, they would “disintegrate”.  The thinking, once it has separated itself, becomes mechanized; the feeling life will no longer mirror what we feel as we meet the outside world, but begin to focus on itself (Steiner speaks of the soul “becoming sleepy and vegetatious”). The will, when left to itself, will no longer express itself through the initiative we take in the world, but through violence (“animalization of the body”). 

The conclusion that suggests itself is that it is the mission of the art of education to keep the identity, or ‘I’, and the soul forces together and to strengthen them so that we can retain our humanity and human dignity.

Is this disintegration noticeable in schools today? Let’s start with the thinking. Wherever we look in the world, teaching is being subjected to an incredible and increasing need for structure: rules, procedures, strategies and all kinds of stipulations (penalty scales!). No teaching goals, and not even the teaching methods, are safe from this urge for rationalization. Like the claws of a dragon, it threatens to stifle the freedom of choice in the way teachers shape their lessons. And there are, of course, always good reasons, such as the need for quality assurance.

The soul life is impotent in the face of this overwhelming wish to have everything under control. The will is beginning to show signs of paralyzation. We also find these tendencies also in Waldorf schools. It is time for us to ask about the relationship between impulse and form.

Rudolf Steiner refers to this problem in the very first chapters of “How to Know Higher Worlds”, a book written as an educational tool for humankind: Spirit needs form if it is to become effective in the world.

The question is: does the spirit (or impulse) seek a suitable form, or are the forms, or structures, that have been made available devoid of spirit?

It may sound theoretical, but this difference is very important for what happens in a school’s organism.

If form, structure, order and procedures determine the processes in a school, the thinking will inevitably become mechanized, and the teaching goals will also change. They will focus on results and achievements while the content will only be of minor interest.

The education sciences are examining how education can help to keep young people safe from radicalization.

It is obvious: If the life of a school is informed by structures rather than by contents and spiritual impulses, the environment that is created will encourage radicalization. Radicalization, in this sense, is the logical consequence of mechanized thinking – not even computers are needed for this to happen.  

The German teacher and politician Kurt Edler, a member of the German Society for Democratic Education (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Demokratiepädagogik) has compiled a list of non-desirable versus desirable effects of education:

1. Blind obedience to structures                         

- self-finding

2. Subordination to the (school) system             

- being able to be oneself

3. Being suspicious of everything                       

- trust

4. Silence, “inward immigration”                        

- openness

5. Keeping a distance, not connecting                

- commitment

6. friend/foe mentality                                         

- diversification in looking at the world

7. Dualistic view of the world: evil - good         

-  diverse, individual images of the world                           

Not only schools are responsible, however, for this tearing apart of the soul forces that results in the ‘I’ no longer being able to take hold of the organization. This loss of the ‘I’ turns young people into small wheels in a big machine and mere objects of the intentions of others.

But radicalization is not only a political process. A young person who is defencelessly exposed to social media also becomes radicalized – in that he or she no longer experiences the world as real but as virtual.

It is significant that mainstream research be increasingly interested in family socialization, with good cause. Researchers are asking about the experiences children and adolescents are having:

1.  Do young people have a basic sense of life security?

2.  Have they experienced violence and traumatization in their homes?

3.  Have they displayed signs of perpetrator identification as a result (imitation)?

4.  Are the values conveyed to them false or unethical?

5.  Is violence perceived as fascinating or is it being glorified?

6.  Do the children or pupils experience very different and mutually exclusive parallel worlds, home and school, for instance, or school and friends?

7.  Have the children suffered at school or been excluded, for instance because they failed to achieve?

It would be wrong to think that things “are different in our schools”. There are voices that accuse Waldorf Schools of serving only the ‘educated’ classes. That may be. Yet we notice a loss of pedagogical values and actions at all levels of society, whatever we may call them.

The post-modern lifestyle is not exactly child-friendly. Children are often seen as a burden. That bringing up children could ask certain denials or even sacrifices of us, is something that is alien to our lifestyle.

This analysis is not meant to encourage a pessimistic outlook; it wants to show what education needs to achieve today. The aim of education today goes far beyond the acquisition of knowledge and skills that can be tested in exams.

If we look at the powerful impulse that Waldorf Education has given us, we are struck by the realization that its immense richness is just what our time needs. This Art of Education must be seen as a living being, however, which needs to be constantly renewed, refreshed and kept alive in the teacher or educator.

Let us pick some elements from the catalogue of preventative measures aimed at protecting young people from the lures of extremism and radicalization.

Teachers today are advised to develop three new qualities:

1.  A lively interest in the student’s personality

2.  A new attitude of friendliness towards pupils

3.  Time for the children or pupils

What makes these recommendations so striking is that they were not given in the context of Waldorf education. We are all aware of the potential impact of this advice: if it is heeded it will lead to the growing of school communities. For it is obvious: the first recommendation is about seizing the many opportunities we have to come to a real understanding of the child or pupil. It is a spiritual approach.

The second, a new “friendly attitude towards pupils” – is that not the same as the self-education of the soul? Can I rise above myself and become a place where the child’s soul likes to be because it is safe and reliable? How easily we are tempted to say, ‘This does not apply to me…’

The increasing structuring of life (in schools, for instance) is resulting in people having less and less time. No one has time, certainly not for important things: time to listen to pupils, a chat in the playground or, for older pupils, the offer to make time in the afternoon (“How about a short meeting this afternoon? Why don’t you come to the teachers’ room, I’m sure we’ll find the time...”)

In the various situations we encounter in the life of the school we realize that there is hardly a culture of conversation that goes beyond school-related topics.

If we combine these three qualities with the seven virtues of the teacher that Rudolf Steiner presented in 1919, we can get an idea of how powerful Waldorf education can be – an education created not for the past, but for the present and the future.

translated by Margot M. Saar