Our bookstore now ships internationally. Free domestic shipping $50+ →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Renewal of Education
GA 301

XII. Teaching History and Geography

7 May 1920, Basel

When you have taught the children in the way I have indicated, at around the age of twelve you will see they are mature enough to comprehend history on the one hand and to learn about geography, physics, and chemistry on the other. At that age they are also mature enough to prepare for genuinely practical life. Today I would like to give you an outline of this.

Children are not mature enough to understand history before the age of twelve. You can certainly prepare them for learning about history by telling stories or by giving them short biographical sketches, or even by telling them stories with a moral. They become mature enough to learn history through learning about botany and zoology as I have described it. You can achieve a great deal in regard to history if, in botany, you have presented the earth as a unity and shown how the various plants grow upon the earth’s surface during the different seasons of the year, and if they understand the human being as a synthesis of various groups of animals—that is, if you have presented each of the animal groups as something one-sided which then harmoniously unites with the others in the human being. When children move through such ideas, you prepare them for learning history.

When we begin to teach children history, it is important that we use it to develop and support certain forces of human nature and, in a certain sense, to fulfill the longings of human nature during this period of life. If we present history in the ordinary fashion, however, we encounter considerable resistance. Today’s usual presentation of history is actually only the narration of certain events or the summarizing of those events or cultural forms from a particular causal perspective. It essentially emphasizes the superficiality of what occurred. If you remain objective about it, you will feel that this form of history fails to properly describe what really lies at the basis of human development.

We often hear that history should keep from talking about wars or other external events, and that it should instead present the causal relationships of cultural events. It is very questionable whether we are justified in assuming such causal relationships as, for example, that what occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century resulted from what occurred in the first half, and so forth. We could certainly express the basis of human historical development in a quite different way. In teaching history, it is important not to let ourselves go and try to teach in such a way that we ourselves understand only very little. Of course, we assume that we all learned history at the university, that we understand history as a whole, but that is not what I am talking about. What I mean is that when we begin to teach a particular history class, we normally just start somewhere and assume that what follows the given period will be properly taken up at a later time. That is why history is generally taught as just a series of events in time.

Teaching this way does not actually take into account the forces that emanate from human nature. And yet that is what we must do. We should, for example, be clear that the most important thing is what we, as human beings living in the present, experience as history. If we take the children back to Greek history in an abstract way, even if they are at a college-preparatory level, it leads only to an abstract placement in an earlier time. The children will not concretely understand why modern people need to know anything about the Greek era. They will immediately understand what is important, however, if you begin by describing how we experience the effects of the Greek period in the present. Therefore we first need to give the children a picture of these effects, which we can do in various ways. We could have prepared that previously, but in teaching history, we must begin by describing how what existed at a particular historical time still exists in the present.

An objective survey of our culture will easily show you the following. If I were to describe in detail what I now wish to outline, it would take too much time, but each of you can do that for yourself. Here I want only to indicate the general guidelines. Everything we have as comprehensive and universal ideas, that is, everything we live by in terms of ideas, we essentially have inherited from the Greek period. Certain feelings about art that occupy our souls are only a result of the Greek period. Take any of the most common examples, things we work with every day, for example, the concept of cause and effect, or even the concept of the human being itself. The Greeks developed every universal concept we have. They even developed the concept of history. Thus if we look at our entire life of ideas, we will find we have inherited it from the Greeks.

We can describe our entire universe of ideas and concepts for students at a quite elementary level without even mentioning that they arose in Greece. We can speak completely from the perspective of the present and leave it at that for the time being. We could then attempt to do something dramatic or lyrical with the children, so that we indicate, for instance, how a drama is divided into acts, how the drama is built up, leading to a climax, which is then resolved. In that way we can develop an elementary concept of catharsis. We do not need to develop any complicated philosophical ideas in children, but we can provide them with the concept of catharsis by showing how a certain feeling of tension is developed in the drama, how we are led into a feeling of sympathy or fear, and then how we can learn to have a balance in our feelings of fear or sympathy. Then we can tell them how the Greeks developed all these as the most important aspects of drama. This is all possible when we have properly prepared the children for what they are to learn around the age of twelve. We can then show the children some Greek work of art, say, a figure of Aphrodite, and explain how beauty is revealed in it. We could even go so far as to explain the artistic difference between what is at rest and what is in movement. We can also give them some ideas about public life if we discuss the basic political ideas during the Greek period in connection with modern public life.

After we have discussed all of these things, we can try to present the basic character of Greek history to the children. We should try to make it clear to the children how the Greek city-states worked, and that people with a certain character lived in Greece. Our main task, therefore, is to show that these things we are discussing are still alive today and that they arose with the Greeks, for example by showing how sculpture developed during the Greek period or how cities developed and so forth. Begin with what still exists today, then go on to show the children how such things first developed and took control of human development during the Greek period. That will give the children a very concrete idea of everything the Greek period gave to the development of humanity.

Through such a presentation, the children should get the idea that historical life is not something that endlessly repeats itself. Instead a specific period achieves something quite specific for humanity, something that then remains. The children should also learn how later periods achieved other things, which also remain. In that way they can gain a firm footing in the present and can then say to themselves that their own period of history has something quite specific to achieve for eternity. Such a presentation of history has a genuine effect upon the soul and excites the will. How you give such a presentation is extremely important. Through the presentation you have the opportunity to give the children a large number of ideas and impressions and to show that it was the Greeks who introduced such things into human life.

You can also speak to the children about things that happened a long time ago and are still living but do not contain any Christian aspects. When we speak about the ancient Greek culture in such a way that it is perceived as living, we are working with material that contains nothing of Christianity. However, it is precisely in awakening ideas in the children that have remained alive over a long period of time, and are neutral in relationship to Christianity, that we have the possibility of clearly presenting the effects of the event of Golgotha and the rise of Christianity. After we have presented Greek history by characterizing the entirety of Greek culture, we can go into the details. If we have covered Greek history this way, we will have properly prepared the children for an awakening of a feeling for Christianity.

Many of you may say, with a certain amount of justification, that my suggestion to avoid discussing the details of history at first and instead discuss the great movements and tendencies in ancient Greece is not the proper method because we would not begin with specific events and then put them together to form a picture of Greek history in its entirety. Here we come to an important question of method that we cannot answer out of our own desires and prejudices but instead should answer from a complete understanding of life. I would ask you in turn if the whole of life is always formed from individual events. If you were to make that demand of normal perception, you would have to teach people how to form a human head out of its individual parts, the brain, and so forth. In normal life, we look at the whole directly. We can gain a living relationship to life only when we look directly at the whole. We should never study the individual parts of the whole in some random fashion. Instead we need to characterize as a whole those things that occur as a whole. The Greeks themselves lived in a given decade and experienced as individual human beings the impressions that arose during that decade. The part of ancient Greece that is alive today is a summary. It forms a whole that the children will look past if we do not begin by characterizing what was alive within the entirety of Greek culture.

This also resolves another more practical question. I have experienced time and again what it means in a specific situation when the teacher does not complete the required material in a given grade. It can lead to complete nonsense in two ways. In the first case, you are not finished, which is simply silly. In the second case, you do finish, but you pile things together so much in the last weeks that all the work is for nothing. However, if you first present the material as a whole, you will have covered the period of history that you want to teach the class. In that way you don’t do nearly so much harm when you skip over some of the details in your discussion. If you have an overview of the subject, it is very simple later to look up the details in an encyclopedia. Not to have learned the overview is, under some circumstances, a lasting loss. You can get a proper overview of a subject only under the guidance of a really lively person, whereas you can learn the details yourself from a book. We will discuss how to divide the material throughout the curriculum and among the grades later.

In examining teachers, what is important is to get an impression of their worldviews and then leave it up to the individual teachers to determine what they need to know in order to teach on a daily basis. Teachers’ examinations that test for details are complete nonsense. What is important is to gain a summary impression of whether someone is suited for being a teacher or not. Of course, we should not carry such things to an extreme. However, what I just said is true in general.

We can consider everything I have just described as living today as a kind of transition into Greece. We could then go on to those things living today that were not yet living in ancient Greece. You could certainly give a lively presentation about such concepts as general human dignity. You could discuss such concepts as individual human consciousness, of course at an elementary level. The Greeks did not yet have the concept of human dignity. They did have the concepts of the polis, of a community to which individuals belonged, but they were divided into groups, the masters and the slaves. The Greeks did not have a fundamental conception of the human being, and you should discuss that with the students. You could also discuss the concept of what is human, a concept that is not very alive because we are not nearly Christian enough in modern times, but that can be very alive for the children through their studies of natural history.

You can awaken the concept of what is universally human in the following way. Describe Leonardo’s Last Supper and what he wanted to achieve with that picture—it is actually there only in a sense, there are only some little specks of color left in Milan. Today, unless you can see clairvoyantly, you cannot understand what he wanted to achieve, but the thought of the picture still exists. You can enliven your presentation by placing the picture in front of the children. You can make clear to the children that there are twelve human beings, twelve people pictured by the artist as the twelve apostles surrounding the Lord in the middle, in their positions with various attitudes, from the devoted John to the traitorous Judas. In a certain sense, you can develop all human characters from these twelve pictures. You can show the children how different human characters are, and then indicate how the Lord in the middle relates to each of the individuals. You can then have the children imagine someone coming from another planet. Of course, you do not need to say it that way, but say it in some way so it is clear to them. If you imagine someone from a foreign planet coming down to earth and looking at all the pictures on earth, that being would need to look only at these twelve people and the transfigured face in the middle to know that that face has something to do with what gives the earth its meaning.

You can explain to the children that there was once a time during which the earth underwent a developmental preparation, followed by another time that had been awaited and that, in contrast to the preparatory period, provided a kind of fulfillment. You can show them that all of earthly human development is connected with that event of Golgotha, and that the earth’s development would have no meaning if that event had not occurred. That is something that is also alive today and that we can very easily enliven, at least to the extent that it has withered during our half-heathen times. In short, it is important that you explain this second age of humanity. It is an age that developed through the rise of Christianity, through the rise of what is universally human. In contrast, the central purpose of the previous period was the creation of concepts and artistic perception, which could be developed only by an aristocracy, and has remained in its entirety as our inheritance.

When you take up Roman history, you can show how it has a tendency toward something that has hardly any significance as such. It would be clear to an objective observer of Roman history how great the distance is between the Roman people and those of Greece. The Greeks gave both the Romans and us everything that has endured. The Romans were actually students of the Greeks in everything of importance to humanity, and as such were a people without imagination. They were a people who had prepared themselves for the Christian concept of humanity only through the concept of the citizen. At this age you can teach children about the effects of Christianity upon Roman culture. You can also show them how the old world declined piece by piece, and how Christianity spread piece by piece in the West. In that way, the first millennium of Christianity acquires a kind of unified character, namely, the spreading of the concept of universal humanity. When you teach the children such a living, intense concept as the importance of Christianity in human development, then you also have the possibility of describing the whole modern age for these young human beings.

After the first thousand years of Christian European development, something new slowly begins. Something I would call very prosaic for us clearly begins to enter the development of humanity. Things will look quite different for those who follow us in a thousand years, but today, of course, we need to teach history for our period. We look back at ancient Greece and at something that may be heathen, namely, art and the life of ideas, and so forth. Then we look at the first thousand years of Christian development and find that the feeling life of Europe had just developed. What we find when we then look at what occurred after the first thousand years of Christian development is the development of European will. We see primarily that the activities of economics become an object of human thinking as well as a source of difficulties. Earlier times took care of these activities in a much more naïve way. In connection with that, you can attempt to show how the earth has become a level stage for human beings due to the voyages of discovery and the invention of printed books. You can also attempt to show that this latter period is the one in which we still stand. You will no longer be able to give a broad overview in the same way that you did for the Greek and Christian Roman periods, and their effects upon life in Central Europe. You will need to more or less allow everything that occurred from the eleventh or twelfth century forward to fall into the disarray of details. However, in doing this you will be able to awaken in children the proper feeling for the rise of national will during that period of history.

What do we accomplish when we do this? We do not teach causal history or pragmatic history or any of the other wonderful things people have admired at various times. Causal history assumes that what follows is always the result of some event preceding it. However, if you have a surface of water and you look at the waves, one following the other, can you say that each wave is the result of the one preceding it? Would you instead not need to look into the depths of the water to find the reasons, the general cause of the series of waves? It is no different in history. People look past what is most important when they look only for cause and effect. They look past the depths of human developmental forces that bring individual events to the surface in the course of time. We simply cannot present those events from the perspective of cause and effect. What occurs in one century is not simply the result of what occurred in previous centuries. It is, in fact, independent and only secondarily an effect. In my opinion, what occurs is brought independently to the surface out of the depths of the stream of human development.

We can give children an impression of this, and we should do so at this stage of their development. If people do not develop an awareness for these patterns during childhood, they can remain obstinate in their belief of pragmatic or causal history. They remain fixed in their understanding of history and later have little tendency to accept anything that has a real future. In contrast to all other presentations of history, we could call our presentation symptomatological history. Those who try to view history symptomatologically do not believe it is necessary to look at each individual event and describe it for itself. Instead, they see such events as symptoms of deeper development. They might say to themselves that if Gutenberg1 lived and invented the art of printing books during a particular historical time, that was connected with what existed in the depths of humanity at that time. The invention of printing is only an indication that humanity at that time was mature enough to move on from certain simple concrete ideas to more abstract ones. If we come into life during a time that is held together more through printing than through direct and basic content, then we live life in a much more abstract manner.

The way life became more abstract during the course of historical events is seldom taken into account. Think for a moment about a simple example. I can say that my coat is shabby. Everyone can understand it when I say that my coat is shabby, but no one actually knows what that really means. What it means was originally connected with moths, with small insects.2 At that time people hung their coats in the closet and did not brush them properly. These little insects lived in them and ate the cloth. The coat then had holes in it, and the word shabby arose from the destruction of coats by moths. There you have the transition from the concrete to the abstract. Such transition continually takes place and is something we should take note of. In the area in Austria where I grew up, the farmers spoke about “sleep in their eyes.” For them, the sleep in their eyes was not something abstract in the way we think of it today when we say the sleep is in our eyes. The farmer rubbed his eyes, and what he rubbed out of the corners of his eyes in the morning, that specific excretion, he called “sleep.” Those farmers do not have any other concept of sleep; they must first be taught the abstract idea of sleep.

Of course, such things are now dying out. Those of us who are older can remember such things from our youth, if we did not grow up in the city. We can remember how everything was concrete, but with the close of the nineteenth century, such things more or less died out. I could give you a number of such examples, and you would hardly believe that people in the country thought in such a concrete way. You can experience many curious things in the country. There is an Austrian poet who wrote in dialect and wrote a number of beautiful things that are admired by all the city people. But only city people admire them; country people do not understand them. He used words the way city people use them—abstractly. People in the country do not understand his poetry at all because they have specific things in mind, so everything has a very different meaning. I recall, for example, that one of his poems speaks about nature. It is completely incomprehensible for farmers, because a farmer does not have the same concept of nature as an educated person. A farmer understands the word nature to mean something very concrete. In the same way, I can find examples everywhere that would show how the transition from the concrete to the abstract occurs throughout human development, and how a whole wave moving toward abstraction crashed in upon humanity with the rise of book printing. In a way, people began to filter their concepts through the influence of book printing.

It would not be bad to teach children some concepts of modern history that would make them more objective about life. There would be, for example, much less discussion about battling capitalism and so forth if the people who said such things did not speak as though they had never heard anything about capitalism, and had no idea that to simply angrily attack capitalism has absolutely no meaning. It has nothing to do with what people today really want; it only shows that such people do not properly understand the significance of capitalism. My books such as Social Renewal seem so unintelligible to them because they were written about life and not about the fantastic ideas of modern agitators.

A truly living consideration of history requires that people understand external events as symptoms of something hidden within, and they need some idea of what considering those symptoms means. When you consider history from a symptomatological perspective, you will slowly realize that first there is an ascent, then the highest point of a certain event is reached, and then a descent follows. Take, for example, the event of Golgotha. If you look at that part of history and see the external events as symptoms of an inner process, you rise above the purely historical into the religious. The historical thus deepens into the religious. Then, you will find a way that will lead you through feeling into an understanding of what we can teach children at an early age, for instance, the Gospels or the Old Testament. However, we cannot give them an inner understanding of such things, nor is that necessary. You teach them in the form of stories, and when the children have a living, historical feeling for the stories, the material in the Bible takes on a new life. It is good when certain things gain their full liveliness only in stages. Primarily though, considering history symptomatologically deepens a desire for religion, a feeling for religion.

I said before that we should prepare children for learning history by teaching them about nature and that we should proceed in the way I characterized earlier. At the same time, we prepare children for life on earth by teaching them about botany in the way I described. We can then go on to geography at this stage of childhood. We should base geography upon stories describing various areas, including far distant places, for example, America or Africa. Through our descriptions of natural history, thathave presented the plant realm as part of the entire earth, the children are prepared by about the age of twelve to understand geography. At this time it is important to show in geography that everything in history depends upon all the things that come from the earth—the climates, the formations, the structures of the earth in various places. After giving them an idea about the connection of land, sea, and climate to ancient Greece, you can move on to what we can portray as a symptom of the inner development of humanity in the characteristics of ancient Greece. It is possible to find an inner connection between our geographical picture of the earth and historical developments. Actually, we should always make inner connections between our descriptions of various parts of the earth and our descriptions of historical developments. We should not, for example, discuss American geography before we have presented the discovery of America in history. We should certainly take into account the fact that the human horizon has extended in the course of development, and we should not try to bring human feelings to some firm absolute point.

Nor is it good in so-called mathematical geography to begin dogmatically with a drawing of the Copernican solar system. Instead we should begin by describing for the children, at least as a sketch, how people came to such a perspective. In that way children do not learn concepts that are beyond the level of their human development. Of course, people taught children the fixed Ptolemaic concepts when the Ptolemaic view of the world predominated. Now we teach them the Copernican perspective. It is certainly necessary to give children at least some idea about how people determined the positions of the stars in the sky and, from a summarization of those positions, came to some conclusion that then became a description of the planetary system. We do not want the children to believe, for example, that such a description of the planetary system came about by someone sitting in a chair outside of the universe and simply looking at the planets. When you draw the Copernican system on the blackboard as though it were a fact, how can a child imagine how people came to that view? Children need to have some living idea about how such things develop; otherwise they will go through their entire lives with confused ideas, which they believe are absolutely certain. That is how a false belief in authority develops, something that does not occur when you develop a proper feeling for authority between the ages of seven until fourteen or fifteen.

In the same way it is good to recognize that it is not only significant for the development of the children’s souls to teach them the proper ideas at the proper moment, but that it also has a significance for the entire human being, including healthy physical functioning. Try to think for a moment what it means to teach a child between the ages of seven and twelve exactly the amount of material he or she can remember, or to not do that. Try to understand what it means when you misuse the so-called good memory of a child. You should not work to strengthen the memory of a child who has a good memory. Instead you should be careful to see that the child often receives new impressions that erase earlier impressions. If you emphasize memory too strongly, the child will grow stocky and not as tall as he or she would if you worked with memory in the proper way. The restrained growth you can see in people is due to an improper working with their memory. In the same way people who are incapable of controlling their facial expressions, or who have a certain fixed expression, did not receive sufficient artistic or aesthetic impressions around the age of nine.

Particularly during childhood, the effects upon the physical body of properly working with the soul are enormous. It is enormously important that you try to see that children speak clearly and with full tones and, as I described before, that they speak well-roundedly, in full sentences and with full syllables. In human beings, proper breathing depends upon proper speaking; thus the proper development of the human chest organs depends upon proper speaking. In this regard it would be interesting to take a survey about the currently common chest illnesses. We could ask to what extent tuberculosis is the result of too little attention to proper speaking while attending school or too little attention to proper breathing while speaking. We should remember that speaking does not begin with breathing, but the other way around. Children should therefore speak properly. They should acquire a feeling for proper speech, for long and short syllables and words, and their breathing will develop accordingly. It is pure nonsense to believe that we should first train breathing in order to then come to proper speaking. Breathing, proper breathing, results from a proper feeling for speech, which then brings about proper breathing. In just this way, we should look more thoroughly at the connections between the physical body and the development of the spirit-soul.

I would now like to turn to a question I have often been asked, which has some significance, the question of left-handedness and ambidextrousness.

Right-handedness has become a general human habit that we use for writing and other tasks. It is appropriate to extend that by making the left hand more dexterous, in a sense. That has a certain justification. When we discuss such things, however, our discussion will bear fruit only if we have some deeper insight into the conditions of human life.

When we move into a period when the entire human being should be awakened; when, in addition to the capacities for abstraction that are so well developed today, developing the capacities for feeling as well as for doing plays a role, we will be able to speak quite differently about many questions than we can now.

If education continues as it is today and does not help us understand the material through the spiritual, so that people are always stuck in abstractions (materialism is precisely being stuck in abstractions), then after a time you will realize that teaching people to use both hands for writing traps them in a kind of mental weakness. This results in part from how we are as modern human beings, how we presently use the right hand to a much greater extent than the left. The fact that the whole human being is not completely symmetrical also plays a part, particularly in regard to certain organs. Using both hands to write, for example, has a deep effect upon the entire human organism.

I would not speak about such things had I not done considerable research in this area and had I not tried, for example, to understand what it means to use the left hand. When people develop a capacity for observing the human being, they will be able to see through experimenting what it means to use the left hand. When human beings reach a certain level of independence of the spirit and the soul from the physical body, it is good to use the left hand. But the dependence of modern people upon the physical body causes a tremendous revolution in the physical body when the left hand is used in the same manner as the right, for example, in writing. One of the most important points in this regard is that this stresses the right side of the body, the right side of the brain, beyond what modern people can normally tolerate. When people have been taught according to the methods and educational principles we have discussed here, then they may also be ambidextrous. In modern society, we may not simply go on to using both hands; however, these are things that can be said only from experience. Statistics would certainly support what I have said.

If you want an idea of how strongly the effects of the spirit-soul act in parallel with the physical body of the child, then we need to look to the spiritual world. That is why I find eurythmy so promising in educating children, because eurythmy is an ensouled movement and thus increases the activity of the will, in contrast to the normal passivity of the will, which is what normal gymnastics primarily trains.