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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Practical Course for Teachers
GA 294

VI. On the Rhythm of Life and Rhythmical Repetition in Teaching

27 August 1919, Stuttgart

You will not only have to be teachers and educators at the Waldorf School, but if things go well you will also have to be protagonists of the whole Waldorf School system. For, of course, you will know far more exactly what the Waldorf School really means than can be conveyed to the neighbouring or more distant outside world. But to be the true protagonists of the aims of the Waldorf School and of its aims for civilization in general you will have to be in a position to conduct your defence against prevailing opinion wherever this shows itself antagonistic or even merely demurring. Consequently, I must introduce into these pedagogical-didactic reflections a chapter which will quite naturally connect with what we have already so far analysed in our discussions on method.

You know that in the sphere of educational theory, as well as other spheres, much is expected at the present time from the so-called experimental psychology. Experiments are carried out on people to determine an individual's gift for forming ideas, for memorizing, even for willing, although this can naturally only be ascertained by a detour. The will fulfils itself in sleep, and the electrical apparatus in the psychological laboratory can only indirectly discover an individual's experiences during sleep, just as these cannot be observed directly by way of experiment. Such experiments, indeed, are carried out. Do not imagine that I object to such experiments as a whole. They can be valuable as tendrils of science, as offshoots of science. All kinds of interesting things can be learnt from such experiments and I have decidedly no desire to condemn them, lock, stock, and barrel. I should like everyone who is attracted to work of this kind to have the means of acquiring such psychological laboratories and of carrying out their experiments there. But we must consider for a moment the rise of this experimental psychology in the form in which it is especially recommended by the educationist, Meumann, 1See Dr. C. v. Heydebrand, Gegen Experimentalpsychologie und Pädagogik. who is really one of the Herbartian school.

Why is experimental psychology practised to-day? Because people have lost the gift of studying man directly. They can no longer rely on the forces which inwardly bind one man to another — or, to the child. So they try to discover by external devices, by external experiments, what should be done with the growing child. Clearly our principles and methods of teaching take a much more inward course. This is, moreover, urgent and vital for the present day and the immediate future of mankind. Granted, then, on the one hand, the urge to experimental psychology, on the other hand, as a result of this experimental psychology, we get the misconstruction of certain simple facts of life. Let me illustrate this by an example.

These experimental psychologists and educationists have lately been particularly interested in what they call the process of comprehension; for instance, the process of comprehension in reading, in the reading of a given passage. In order to ascertain this process of comprehension they have tried to work with “subjects,” as they are called. If we summarize the steps taken in great detail, this is the procedure. A “subject,” a child or an adult, is given a reading passage, and the investigation is now directed as to which is the most effective method for the child, for instance, to adopt, in order to arrive at the most rapid comprehension. It is discovered that the most effective method is first to “dispose” the reader to the reading passage, that is, first to introduce the person concerned to the meaning of such a reading passage. Then, after numerous tests, the “subject” carries out what is called “passive comprehension.” After having dealt with the meaning, by making “scheme” or plan, it is supposed to be passively comprehended. For through this passive assimilation of a reading passage there should occur what is called “learning to anticipate”: repeating once more in free spiritual activity what has just been worked out in scheme or plan and then passively assimilated. And then follows, as fourth act to this drama, the filling in of all that until now has remained uncertain, that is, of all that has not penetrated completely into the life of the human spirit and soul. If you let the subject carry out, in correct succession, first the process of familiarizing himself with the meaning of a reading passage, then of passive assimilation, then of learning to anticipate, then of returning to the as yet incompletely assimilated parts, you then see that a given reading passage is most effectively grasped, read, and remembered. Do not misunderstand me: I mention this procedure because it must be mentioned in view of the fact that people talk to-day so much at cross-purposes, for they may want to imply the same thing with diametrically opposed words. Accordingly, the experimental psychologists will say: “A scrupulously faithful method like this reveals exactly what should be done in education.” But those who have a profounder understanding of the life of the whole being know that this is not the way to true education — any more than you can put together again a living beetle from its separate parts after it has been dissected. It cannot be done. Nor can it be done by trying anatomy on the human soul-activity. It is interesting, of course, and in another connection it can be extremely valuable for science, to practise anatomy on the activity of the human soul — but it does not make educators. For this reason there can proceed from this experimental psychology no new true building up of education; this can only proceed from an inner understanding of man.

I had to say this for fear lest you should misunderstand me when I make a statement which will naturally cause annoyance to a supporter of modern opinion. The statement is one-sided in its way, and its one-sidedness must, of course, be counterbalanced. What do the experimental psychologists get, when they have split up into atoms like this the soul of their subject and have made a martyr of him — this process is not pleasant if it is inflicted on you — what good do they get out of it? According to them they have obtained an extraordinarily valuable result, which is constantly being impressed by italics in educational textbooks as a conclusion arrived at. This statement, translated into decent German, runs roughly like this: You can remember a reading passage better when you have understood the meaning than when you have not understood the meaning. It has been “determined by research” — to use scientific jargon — that it is useful firstly to understand the meaning of a reading passage if you want to learn it easily. And here I must make the heretical declaration that, in as far as this theory is correct, I could have known it before, for I should like to know what person with a normal human intelligence does not know for himself that a reading passage can be remembered better when its meaning has been understood than when this has not been understood. Every single one of the conclusions of experimental psychology is an appalling platitude. The platitudes printed in the textbooks of experimental psychology are sometimes of such a kind that only those people can have anything to do with them who have already trained themselves in the pursuit of science to submit to intense boredom for an occasional striking point. You are easily trained to do this by the drill of the school-system — for even the elementary school has this defect, although it is less conspicuous here than at the universities.

This heretical statement is meant particularly for the educationist: It is to some extent self-evident that one must first understand the meaning of a thing which is to be remembered. But there is this to consider: that what has been assimilated by understanding the meaning, only affects the observation, only affects thought-perception, and that this elevation of the human being to the level of sense-comprehension educates him one-sidedly to a mere observation of the world, to a thought-perception. And if we teach simply and solely in accordance with this theory we shall get nothing but weak-willed people. The statement, then, is in a sense correct — and yet not conclusively correct. It ought, as a matter of fact, to be further expressed in these terms: If you want to do the best possible thing for the thinking perception of the individual you can do it by analysing the meaning of everything that he absorbs. And, in fact, if we were to analyse merely the meaning of things, we could go very far in educating human observation of the world. But we should never educate a man's will — volitional man — for the will cannot be forced by simply throwing the light on the meaning of a thing. The will likes to sleep, and it does not wish to be fully awakened by what I should like to call the perpetual unchaste laying bare of the meaning. And the point is, that the very inevitability of life breaks in upon this simple truth of the value of revealing meanings, so that with the child, too, we must study subjects which do not lay bare the meaning. Then we shall educate his will.

The mischievous effects of the one-sided application of the principles of explaining the meanings have been particularly active in movements like the Theosophical Movement. You know how much I have protested for years against a certain mischievous influence in Theosophical circles. I have even had to see Hamlet, for instance, a pure work of art, explained in terms of theosophical cant like this: “This is Manas, this is the Ego — that is the astral body. This character represents one thing — that one another.” Such explanations were particularly in favour. I protested against them because it is a sin against human life to interpret symbolically what is meant to be taken directly, in its elements, as art. It leads to a mischievous reading of a meaning into things, and this is dragged to the level of mere observation to which it should not be dragged. This all arises from the fact that the actual Theosophical Movement is a decadent movement. It is the furthest-flung offshoot of a declining culture; in its entire attitude it has nothing to do with Anthroposophy. Anthroposophy aims at being the opposite: at being an ascending movement, the beginning of an ascent. That is a radical difference. That is why so much is written in the field of Theosophy which is really an extreme symptom of decadence. But that there exist people at all who contrive to interpret Hamlet symbolically, character by character, is the result of the appalling way in which we have been educated only to look for meanings.

Human life makes it indispensable that we should not only be educated in terms of the meaning, but from what the will experiences in the sleeping life: by rhythm, measure, melody, harmony of colours, repetition, in fact all spontaneous activity which does not seek to comprehend. When you let the child repeat sentences which he is far from understanding because of his tender age, when you encourage the child to take in these sentences just by memory itself, you certainly do not influence his comprehension — because you are unable to enter into their meaning, for that must only dawn later — but you influence his will, and that is what you should do; that is what you must do. You must try first of all to acquaint the child with things which are first and foremost artistic: music, drawing, plastic art, etc.; but on the other hand you must also give the child things which can have some abstract form of meaning in such a way that he does not, it is true, understand this at once, but only later in life. Then he will understand it because he has assimilated it by repetition, and can remember, and later understand, with his greater maturity, what he could not understand before. There you have worked upon his will. And quite especially you have worked upon his feeling — and you should not forget this. Just as feeling — this can be observed of the soul as well as of the spirit — lies between willing and thinking, so does the education of feeling lie midway between the methods of educating the thinking and those of willing. For the thinking knowledge or thinking perception we must definitely practise subjects concerned with revealing meanings: reading, writing, etc.; for action inspired by will we must cultivate everything which does not aim at a mere interpretation of meanings but at a direct impression through the whole being, for instance, of artistic subjects. What lies midway between the two (i.e. thought and will) will chiefly influence the development of feeling, the formation of its disposition. You can produce a strong effect on the education of the feeling nature when the child is made to assimilate something first of all only by rote, uncomprehended, without tampering with its meaning. For only after some time, when he has matured through other processes, and remembers it, can he understand what he absorbed earlier. This is a subtlety of education which must absolutely be respected, if we are to educate people with inner feelings. For feeling plays a peculiar role in life. In this sphere, too, people should make observations. But they do not observe rightly. I will indicate an observation which you can easily, with a little industry, make for yourselves.

Suppose you are trying to get a clear idea of the state of Goethe's soul in 1790. You can do this by studying a selection of the works composed by Goethe in the year 1790. You find, of course, at the end of every edition of Goethe a chronological index of his poems, in their order of composition; so you take out the poems written in 1790 and the plays written in 1790 and study them. You remember that in precisely this year he finished the beautiful essay, Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen (“The Metamorphosis of Plants”); you recall that just at that time he conceived the first idea of the Farbenlehre (“Theory of Colour”); you imagine from all this the state of his soul in 1790 and ask yourselves: “What were the influences active on Goethe's psychic life in 1790?” You will only be able to answer this question if you cast a critical glance on all Goethe's previous experiences from 1749 to 1790 and on what followed after this year — of which Goethe at the time was still unaware, but which you now know — during the period from 1790 to 1832, that is, to his death. Then there emerges the remarkable realization that the actual state of his soul in the year 1790 was a combination of what was to come later, the conquests remaining for the individual to make, and those he had already experienced. This is an extraordinarily significant discovery. People only avoid it because it leads into provinces which they quite naturally do not like to enter for observations of this kind. Try to extend your observations in this way to the soul-life of an individual who died recently and whom you have known for some time. If you train yourself to a more careful study of the soul you will then find this: A man, a friend of yours, died, let us say, in 1918. You have known him for some time, so that you can ask yourselves: “What was the state of his soul in 1912?” If you consider everything that you know of him you will find that the state of his soul in 1912 was such that the preparation for his approaching death was unconsciously reflected in his psychic disposition at that time; it was unconsciously reflected in his feelings. Taken as a whole I call the life of the feelings the psychic disposition, “Mood of Soul” (Seelenstimmung). A man who is soon to die has a quite different inner disposition from one who has still long to live.

You will now understand that people do not like to study these things, for it would create a very unpleasant impression — to put it mildly — if we were to observe the signs of approaching death in people's psychic disposition. These, however, can be observed. But in everyday life it is not wise for people to notice these things. That is why they are usually hidden from this life just as the will is withdrawn, as a sleeping power, even when we are awake, from the waking consciousness. But the educator must, after all, take up a position outside ordinary life to some extent. He must not be afraid to take up his stand detached from his usual life and to absorb truths for his teaching which are rather disturbing, rather tragic, for everyday life. In this connection there is lost ground to cover in the educational system of Central Europe. You know that especially the teachers in the universities in the early decades of this Central European system of education and teaching were people on whom the actual man of the world rather turned up his nose in scorn. Unworldly, pedantic fellows, who could not adapt themselves properly to the world, who always wore long, black frock-coats and never evening dress; these were the former educators of youth, especially the teachers of more mature youth. In these days things have changed. The university professors have begun to wear correct evening dress and to adapt themselves to worldly custom, and it is considered a great mark of progress that their former state is at last a thing of the past. It is a good thing. But it must be a thing of the past in other senses, too; it must in future be a thing of the past to the extent that the detachment from life does not merely consist, as it did formerly, in the teacher's wearing the invariable long pedantic frock-coat when other people did not. The detachment from life can remain to some extent, but it must be bound up with a profounder conception of life than that of people who wear evening dress for dinner. I am only speaking figuratively, of course, for I have nothing against “evening dress.”

An educator must be able to study life more profoundly, otherwise he will never give appropriate and fruitful attention to the growing child. Consequently, he will have to accept, among others, such truths as I have just mentioned. Life itself, to a certain extent, demands the presence of mysteries. We need no diplomatic secrets in the near future. But for education we need the knowledge of certain mysteries of life. The old Mystery teachers withheld such secrets of life esoterically because these could not be revealed directly to life. But in a certain degree every teacher must know truths which he cannot impart directly to the world, because the world would be confused in normal progress, if it had access to such truths all the time. But you do not fully understand how to treat the growing child if you cannot estimate the influence on him of something imparted in such a way that he does not fully understand it at the time. He will understand when it is returned to later, and when he is told, not only what he then realizes, but what he had assimilated earlier. This makes a profound impression on the feelings and disposition.

For this reason the custom should be followed in every school as faithfully as possible — wherever possible — of the teacher retaining his same pupils; of taking them over for the first form, of keeping them the next year in the second form, of going up with them again in the third year, etc., as far as this is possible in conjunction with outside regulations. The teacher, after finishing with the eighth class, should then begin anew with the first class. For one must sometimes be able to come back years later in a positive way to what was instilled into the children's souls years before. In any case, the formation of the disposition or feeling life suffers greatly when the children are passed every year to a fresh teacher who cannot himself develop what he instilled into children in earlier years. It is part of the teaching method itself that the teacher should go up with his own pupils through the different school-stages. Only in this way can we enter into the rhythm of life. And in the most comprehensive sense life has a rhythm. This manifests itself even in everyday decisions, in the rhythm of day to day itself. If you have accustomed yourself, for instance, only for a week, to eat a buttered roll every day at half-past ten in the morning, you will probably feel hungry for the buttered roll at the same time in the second week. The human organism conforms as closely as this to a rhythm. But not only the external organism, but the whole being, is rhythmically organized. For this reason, too, it is a good thing throughout life as a whole — and that is what we are concerned with when we educate and teach children — to be able to attend to rhythmical repetition. For this reason we do well to think that even every year is not too often to return to quite definite educational themes. Therefore select subjects for the children, make a note of them, and come back to something similar every year. Even in more abstract things this method can be followed. You teach, let us say, in a way suited to the child's disposition, addition in the first school year; you come back to addition in the second, and teach more about it, and in the third year you return to it in the same way, so that the same act takes place repeatedly, but in progressive repetition.

To enter like this into the rhythm of life is of quite particular importance for all education and teaching — far more important than continuously repeating: Do build up your lessons according to the principle of meaning — thus inartistically pulling to bits whatever you deal with. You can only divine what is demanded here by gradually developing a feeling for life itself. But you will then part company very markedly, precisely as educationists, from the external experimental aims so frequent to-day even in education. Again, not to condemn, but to correct, certain tendencies which have proved detrimental to our spiritual culture, do I emphasize these things. You can embark on modern textbooks of education where the results are worked out which have been obtained through experiments on memory. The “subjects” — people experimented upon — are treated in a strange way. Tests are made on them to show how they can remember something of which they have understood the meaning; then they are given words written one after the other with no connecting sense, and they have to learn these, etc. These experiments for ascertaining the laws of the memory are practised very extensively to-day. Again a result has been obtained which is committed to formulae in scientific form. Just as, for instance, in physics, the Law of Gay-Lussac, among others, is formulated, people are anxious to formulate such laws in experimental education or psychology. You find, for example, very learnedly expounded, the gist of conclusions about a certain scientific yearning which is quite justified, namely, to prove the existence of types of memory. Firstly, the quickly or slowly assimilating memory; secondly, the quickly or slowly reproducing memory. So a “subject” is tormented to furnish evidence for the fact that there are people who memorize easily and people who memorize with difficulty; then other “subjects” are tormented to prove that there are people who can call back to mind easily, and people who can call back to mind only with difficulty, what they have once learnt. Now it has been determined by research that there are such types of memory; those showing a rapid or a slow assimilation, and those showing an easy or painful recollection or reproduction of what was assimilated. Thirdly, there are also types of memory which can be called “true and exact;” fourthly, there is a comprehensive memory; fifthly, a retentive and reliable memory, in opposition to the type which easily forgets. This answers very satisfactorily to the craving of modern science to systematize. The scientific result has now been obtained. We can ask: “What has been discovered scientifically in exact psychology about the types of memory?” And we learn: firstly, there is a type of memory which assimilates easily or laboriously; secondly, a type which reproduces easily or laboriously; thirdly, there is a true or exact memory; fourthly, a comprehensive memory, that is, there are people who can remember great passages of prose in contrast to those who can only remember short ones; fifthly, a retentive memory, which has perhaps remembered things from years ago, in contrast to the kind which forgets quickly.

This scientific method of observation scrupulously and very conscientiously maltreats innumerable victims, and sets to work most ingeniously to obtain results, in order that education, too, after having tested the children in experimental psychology, may know what various types of memory are to be differentiated. But with all due respect for such a science, I should like to make the following objection. Anyone endowed with a little sound common sense must know that there are people who commit things to memory easily or with difficulty; there are also those who easily or laboriously recall things once known, and again there are people who can recount things truly and accurately, in contrast to those who muddle everything they try to tell. There are people with an extensive memory, who can remember a long story, in contrast to those who can only remember a short one; and there are also people who can remember a thing for a long time, even years, and people who have forgotten everything in a week! It is part, in fact, of the fairly ancient wisdom of sound common sense, but it is discovered again in a science which inspires us with respect, because the methods which it applies are so ingenious.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this: firstly, let us, above all, prefer to cultivate sound common sense in education and teaching, rather than expend it on such experimenting, which will, it is true, develop ingenuity very considerably, but which will not bring the teacher in touch with the quality of individuality in the child. But we can also draw a second conclusion: our age is actually in a sorry plight if we have to assume that the people who are going to become our teachers and educators have so little healthy human intelligence that they can only learn in this roundabout way that there are the different kinds of memory which we have just mentioned. Moreover, these things must undoubtedly be considered symptoms of the state of our present spiritual standard.

I had to draw your attention to these things. For people will say to you: “Well, you have let yourself be appointed at this Waldorf School. It is only a dilettante institution; the people there don't even want to know anything about the greatest conquest of our time: about the methods of experimental psychology. The study of this experimental psychological method is for experts, but the methods of the Waldorf School are quackery in comparison!” You will have to realize that you will sometimes have to acknowledge the connection of science — which must not be respected any the less for that — with what remains to be built up by us on an inner educational theory and method, but which, compared with the external relations which are set up by experiment, inspires an inner loving attentiveness towards the child. Certainly this quality has not completely disappeared; it prevails even more than is realized. But it definitely prevails in opposition to the ever-encroaching aims of scientific educational theory. To a certain extent it is true that the pursuit of science can destroy a good deal in modern life, but it has not the power to drive out all healthy human intelligence. This healthy human intelligence or sound common sense should be our starting-point, and when this is properly cultivated it will produce an inner connection with the ideals of teaching. We must realize, of course, that we live at the beginning of a new age, and we must completely master this fact. Down to the middle of the fifteenth century the surviving traditions of the Greek and Latin-Roman times were preserved. After the middle of the fifteenth century these are only the clattering after traditional repetition. But the people whose life is in this “clattering” still feel, in certain sub-regions of their consciousness, the craving to return to the Graeco-Latin age, which we can admire profoundly in its place, of course, but whose persistence into our age is no longer a living thing. Just think for a moment how self-satisfied the person is in these days, who has learnt something and can descant on it in the following terms: “A good teacher must not merely bring out the rhythm, and the rhyme in a poem; he must comment technically on the text; he must introduce the meaning, and only when he has unravelled the meaning will the pupils absorb it as an inner activity.” After such a person has long held forth on the importance of starting with the meaning, he concludes with: “As the old Latin said: rem tene, verba sequuntur, if you have understood the question, words will follow of themselves.” These are tactics which you will frequently find in people who imagine that they have learnt a great deal, that they have gone far beyond dilettantism in enunciating something first as a piece of sublime contemporary wisdom, and then following it up with, “as the old Latin said. ...” And, of course, he has only to say it in Greek for people to believe implicitly that it is something quite extraordinary. For the fourth post-Atlantean period of civilization, this attitude was desirable; it is unbecoming in our age. The Greek did not introduce his children, first of all, to old grammar schools where they could learn, let us say, ancient Egyptian; he made them learn Greek. But to-day we begin by introducing people to ancient tongues before their own. That is a fact which must be realized.