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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Roots of Education
GA 309

Lecture Two

14 April 1921, Bern

The Goal of Waldorf Education

You have seen that education must be based on a more intimate knowledge of the human being than is found in natural science, although it is generally assumed that all knowledge must be grounded in natural science. As we have seen, however, natural science cannot come even close to the reality of the human being, and it doesn’t help to base our knowledge on it.

The world is permeated by spirit, and true knowledge of the world must be permeated by spirit as well. Anthroposophy can give us spiritual knowledge of the world, and, with it, spiritual knowledge of the human being, and this alone leads to a true art of education. But don’t make the mistake (which is easy to do) that those who consider themselves anthroposophists want to establish “anthroposophic” schools that teach anthroposophy as a worldview in the place of other contemporary worldviews, regardless of whether such views are inspired more by intellect or feeling. It is important to understand and reiterate that this is not at all our intention. What we are examining is mainly concerned with matters of method and the practice of teaching. Men and women who adhere to anthroposophy feel — and rightly so — that the knowledge of the human being it provides can establish some truly practical principles for the way we treat children.

At the Waldorf school in Stuttgart we have been able to pursue an art of education based on anthroposophy for many years; and we have always made it clear to the rest of the world that anthroposophy as such was never taught there. Roman Catholic children receive religious instruction from a priest and Protestant children from a Protestant pastor. Only those children whose parents specifically request it receive religion lessons involving a freer religious instruction based on anthroposophy. Thus, our own anthroposophic worldview as such really has no place in the school work itself.

Moreover, I would like to point out that the true aim and object of anthroposophic education is not to establish as many anthroposophic schools as possible. Naturally, some model schools are needed, where the methods are practiced in detail. There is a need crying out in our time for such schools. Our goal, however, is to enable every teacher to bring the fruits of anthroposophy to their work, no matter where they may be teaching or the nature of the subject matter. There is no intention of using anthroposophic pedagogy to start revolutions, even silent ones, in established institutions. Our task, instead, is to point to a way of teaching that springs from our anthroposophic knowledge of humankind.

Understanding the Human Being

As you know, we need to gain a more intimate observation of human beings than is customary today. In fact, there are some areas where people are learning a very exact kind of observation, especially in regard to visual observation — for example, using a telescope to observe the stars, for surveying, and in many other realms of knowledge. It arises from a sense for exact, mathematical observation. Because of the scientific mindset that has ruled for the past three centuries, nowhere in contemporary civilization do we find the kind of intimate observation that sees the fine and delicate changes in the human soul or body organization. Consequently, people have little to say about the important changes that have occurred in the child’s whole physical organization, such as those that happen at the change of the teeth, at puberty, and again after the twentieth year. And so, transitions that have great significance in terms of education — such as the period between the change of teeth and puberty — are simply ignored.

These changes are mentioned, it is true, but only as they affect the actual physical body of the child or are expressed in the soul’s more superficial dependence on the physical body. This would require much more delicate observations. Anthroposophy begins by viewing the world as an expression of spiritual forces, which is seldom acknowledged today; it provides exercises that train a person’s soul to acquire direct insight into the spirit world. There are some whose destiny has not yet brought them to the point of seeing the spiritual facts for themselves, but anthroposophy has such power that merely beginning such exercises in itself helps people to learn a much more delicate and intimate observation of the human being. After all, you must remember that our soul and spirit is the part of us that, as we have seen, descends from a pre-earthly existence and unites with the inherited physical body. And spiritual research depends on this higher, supersensible part of us; we have supersensible eyes and ears — soul organs such as the eyes and ears of our physical body — so that we can arrive at certain perceptions independently of the body.

Cosmic and Human Cycles

Each night while asleep, a person is unconsciously in a condition that is similar to what is needed for spiritual investigation. When falling asleep, the human soul and spirit leave the physical body, and re-enter it when the person awakes. While awake, people use their eyes and ears and move their limbs, and the forces for this come from the spirit and soul aspects of the human being. Genuine knowledge of nature — which doesn’t exist yet — would also show that while awake, people’s physical actions are controlled by soul and spirit, and that sleep is only an interruption of this activity. Here again, the difference is too subtle to be perceived by modern scientific methods — upon which today’s education is based, even when directed toward the earliest years of childhood. A sleeping person is completely surrendered to the activities of the organism to which plant and mineral are also subject.

Anthroposophy or Spiritual Science, on the other hand, strive for precision and accuracy, and it would not be true, of course, to say that while asleep a person is a plant. In a human being, mineral and plant substances have been raised to the level of animal and human. The human organization is not like that of a plant, since a plant has no muscles and nerves, and the human of course has both muscles and nerves, even while asleep. The important thing, however, is very simple; the vegetative function of the plant has nothing to do with nerves and muscles, but it is different for a human being. Activity in a person is related to muscles and nerves, and thus transcends the physical; even human sleep activity is not merely vegetative. (In a certain sense this applies also to animals, but we cannot address this matter now.) Although we find the same impulses in the plant as in the sleeping human being, nevertheless something different happens in a sleeping person.

It may help us to form an idea of this process if we think of it this way: when we are awake, the soul and spirit are integrated with the human organism. The soul and spirit, in turn, have a certain similarity to the cosmos, the whole universe — but keep in mind that it is only a similarity. And careful observation of plant development will show us that in spring, when the snow has melted, we see plants spring out of the earth and unfold their being. Until now, plant growth was controlled by the Sun forces within the Earth, or the stored sunshine of the previous year.

In spring the plants are released, so to speak, by these earthly Sun forces and, as they shoot out of the soil, they are received by the outer sunlight and guided through the summer until the seeds become ripe. Plant growth is again given over to the Earth. Throughout the summer, the Sun’s forces gradually descend into the Earth to be stored there; thus, the Earth is always permeated by these accumulated sun forces. We need only remember that millions of years ago Sun forces shone on the plants, which then became coal within the Earth; thus, sunlight is in reality now being burned in our stoves. Likewise — though for a much shorter time — the Sun’s forces are preserved in the Earth from summer to summer. Throughout the winter, plants absorb the Sun’s forces found in the earth, and during summer, the Sun pours its rays upon them right from the cosmos. So there really is a rhythm in the life of plants — earthly sun-forces, cosmic sun-forces, earthly sun-forces, cosmic sun forces, and so on. Plant life swings from one to the other as a pendulum on a clock.

Now let us turn to the human being. When I fall asleep I leave behind in my body everything of a mineral and plant nature, though, as we have seen, the plant nature in the human being — in contrast to an actual plant — is organized so that spirit and soul can dwell within it. What is left behind in sleep is thus wholly surrendered to its own plant-like activity. It begins to blossom and sprout, and when we go to sleep it is really springtime within us. When we awaken, the plant forces are driven back, and it becomes autumn within us. As soul and spirit arise on awakening, autumn enters us.

Viewing things externally, it is often said that waking is like spring and sleeping like autumn. This is not true, however. Genuine spiritual insight into human nature shows us that during the first moments of sleep, spring life sprouts and blossoms in us, and when we awaken autumn sinks into us like the setting Sun. While awake, when we are using all our faculties of soul, it is winter within us. Again we see a rhythm, as in plantlife. In plant growth we distinguish between earthly activity and the Sun’s activity. In the human being, we find essentially the same activity imitating the plant; falling asleep — summer activity, awakening — winter activity, and around again to summer activity, winter activity; but here it takes place in only twenty-four hours. Human beings have condensed a yearly rhythm into a day and a night.

These rhythms are similar but not identical, because for a human being the life of the soul and spirit does not have the same duration as the life of spirit in the realm of nature. A year is only a day in the life of the spirits who pervade the cosmos and permeate the whole course of the year, just as the soul and spirit of human beings direct the course of their day.

As we consider this, we arrive at this hypothesis. (I must warn you, by the way, that what I am about to say may seem very strange to you, but I present it as a hypothesis to demonstrate more clearly what I mean. Let us suppose that a woman falls asleep, and within her is what I have described as summer activity. Let us suppose that she continues to sleep without waking up. What will happen then? The plant element within her — the element not of soul and spirit — would eventually become the rhythm of the plant realm. It would go from a daily rhythm to an annual rhythm. Of course, such a rhythm does not exist in the human being. Thus, if the physical body were to go on sleeping as described, the person would be unable to tolerate the resulting yearly rhythm and would die; if the human body were all plant activity, it would be organized differently. The physical body would separate from the soul and spirit, assume a yearly cycle, and take on purely vegetative qualities. When we view physical death, which leads to the body’s destruction, we see that by being born out of the cosmos, the human being passed from a grand cycle to a small cycle. If a human body is on its own and cannot animate the spirit and soul in itself, it is destroyed, since it cannot immediately find its place in the cosmic rhythm.

Therefore, we see that if we can develop a more delicate faculty for observation, we can gain true insight into the essence of human existence. This is why I said that those who have entered the path of spiritual knowledge, though they may not yet have attained spiritual vision for themselves, will nevertheless feel forces stirring within that lead to spiritual insight. And these are the very forces that act as messengers and mediators of all the spirits at work in the cosmos. Spirit is active in the cosmos where we find the beings who guide the life cycle of the year. This is a new realm to us, but when we observe a human being we can see the presence of soul and spirit in all human life, and here we are on familiar ground. For this reason, it is always easier to exercise a fine faculty of perception in regard to the human soul and spiritual qualities than it is to perceive spirit activity itself in the world.

When we think in ordinary life it is as if thinking, or forming mental images, continually escaped us. When we bump into something or feel something with our fingers — a piece of silk or velvet, for example — we immediately perceive that we have encountered that object, and we can feel its shape by touching its surface. Then we know that as human beings, we have connected with our environment. When we think, however, we do not seem to touch objects around us in this way. Once we have thought about something and made it our own, we can say that we have “apprehended,” or “grasped” it (begreifen). What do we mean by this? If external objects are alien to us — which is generally true for our thinking — then we do not say we have grasped them. If, for example, a piece of chalk is lying there, and I am standing here moving my hand as one does when speaking, one does not say, “I have grasped the chalk.” But if I actually take hold of the chalk with my hand, then I can say, “I have grasped it.”

In earlier times, people had a better understanding of what thinking really was, and out of such knowledge, words and expressions flowed into the language that expressed the real thing much better than our modern abstractionists realize. If we have had a mental picture of something, we say we have grasped it. This means we have come into contact with the object — we have “seized” it. Today we no longer realize that we can have intimate contact with objects in our environment through the very expressions in our thinking life. For example, there is a word in our language today that conceals its own meaning in a very hypocritical way. We say “concept” [Begriff in German, from begreifen]. I have a concept. The word conceive (to hold or gather) is contained within it [greifen, to grasp, or seize]. I have something that I have grasped, or gathered into myself. We have only the word now; the life has gone out of its meaning.

Examples such as these from everyday life demonstrate the aim and purpose of the exercises described as anthroposophic methods of research in my book How to Know Higher Worlds, and in the latter half of An Outline of Esoteric Science, and in other works. Consider the exercises in mental imagery. Certain thoughts are held in the mind so that concentration on these thoughts may strengthen the soul life. These exercises are based neither on superstition nor merely on fantasy, but on clear thinking and deliberation as exact as that used for mathematics. They lead human beings to develop a capacity for thought in a much more vital and active way than that found in the abstract thinking of people today.

Thinking and the Etheric Body

People today are truly dominated by abstraction. When they work all day with their arms and legs, they feel the need to sleep off their fatigue, because they recognize that their real being has been actively moving arms and legs. What they fail to understand, however, is that when we think, our being is just as active. People cannot see that when they think their being actively flows out and takes hold of the objects of their thinking; this is because they do not perceive the lowest supersensible member of the human being, the etheric body, living within the physical body, just as the physical body lives within the external world.

The etheric body can in fact be perceived at the moment when — by practicing the exercises I referred to — a person develops the eye of the soul and the ear of the spirit. One can then see how thinking, which is primarily an activity of the etheric body, is really a spiritual “grasping,” or spiritual touching, of the objects around us. Once we have condensed and concentrated our thoughts by means of the exercises mentioned, we experience spirit in such a way that we no longer have the abstract feeling, which is so prevalent today, that objects are far from us. We get a true sense of them that arises from practiced, concentrated thinking. Thinking too will then bring fatigue, and especially after using our powers of thought we will want to have our sleep.

The presence of materialistic ideas is not the worst product of this age of materialism in which we live; educators must also consider another aspect. As educators, we may feel somewhat indifferent to the amount of fatigue caused by people’s activities; eventually, people return to their senses, and things even out. But the worst thing for an educator is to watch a child go through years of schooling and receive for the soul only nourishment that bears the stamp of natural science — that is, of material things. Of course, this does not apply only to school science classes; all education today, even in the lowest grades, is based on scientific thinking. This is absorbed by children, it grows up with them, and it penetrates the whole physical organization so that in later years it appears as insomnia.

What is the cause of the sleeplessness of our materialistic time? It is due to the fact that if we think only in a materialistic way, the activity of thought — this “grasping” or “handling” of our environment through thought — does not allow the corresponding organs of the etheric body to become tired since it has become too abstract. Here, only the physical body becomes tired; we fall asleep — the physical body falls asleep — but the etheric becomes nervous and restless and cannot sleep. It draws the soul and spirit back into it, and this condition will necessarily develop gradually into an epidemic of insomnia. This is already happening today. Only by considering such matters can we understand what this materialistic time signifies. It is bad enough that people think materialistic, theoretical thoughts; but in itself this is not really that serious. It is even worse that we experience the effects of materialism in our moral life and in our economic life. And the worst thing is that through materialism, all of childhood is ruined to the point that people can no longer come to terms with moral or spiritual impulses at all.

These things must be known by everyone who recognizes the need to transform our teaching and education. The transitions we have mentioned, such as those that occur at the change of teeth and at puberty, can be understood only through intimate observation of the human being. We must learn to see how a person is inwardly active, so that people experience their etheric just as they feel their physical body; they must recognize that when they think about any object, they are really doing in the etheric what is otherwise done in the physical human body. If I want to know what an object is like, I feel it, I contact it, and thus gain a knowledge of its surface. This also applies to my etheric body. I “feel” etherically and supersensibly the object I want to “grasp,” what I wish to conceptualize. The etheric body is just as active as the physical body, and correct knowledge of human development can come only from this knowledge and consciousness of the etheric body’s activity.

The Child’s Imitative Nature

If we can activate our thinking in this way and, with this inwardly active thinking, watch a very young child, we see how every action performed in that child’s environment and every look that expresses some moral impulse (for the moral quality of a look contains something that passes into the child as an imponderable force) flows right into the child and continues to work in the breathing and the circulation of the blood. The clearest and most concrete statement we can come to regarding a child is this: “A child is an imitative being through and through.” The way a child breathes or digests in the more delicate and intimate processes of breathing or digesting reflects the actions of those around the child.

Children are completely surrendered to their environment. In adults the only parallel to such devotion is found in religion as expressed through the human soul and spirit. Religion is expressed in spiritual surrender to the universe. The religious life unfolds properly when, with our own spirit, we go beyond ourselves and surrender to a spiritual worldview — we should flow out into a divine worldview. Adult religious life depends on emancipating soul and spirit from the physical body, when a person’s soul and spirit are given up to the divine spirit of the world. Children give up their whole being to the environment. In adults, the activities of breathing, digestion, and circulation are within them, cut off from the external world. In children, however, all such activities are still surrendered to their environment, and they are therefore religious by nature. This is the essential feature of a child’s life between birth and the change of teeth; the whole being is permeated with a natural religious element, so to speak, and even the physical body maintains a religious mood.

But children are not surrounded only by beneficial forces that inspire religious devotion in later life. There are also spiritual forces that are harmful, which come from people around children and from other spiritual forces in the world. In this way, this natural religious element in a child’s physical body may also be exposed to evil in the environment — children can encounter evil forces. And when I say that even a small child’s physical body has a religious quality, I do not mean that children cannot be little demons! Many children are little demons, because they have been open to evil spiritual forces around them.

Our task is to overcome and drive out such forces by applying methods appropriate to our time. As long as a child is an imitative religious being, admonitions do no good. Words can be listened to only when the soul is emancipated to some extent, when its attention can be self-directed. Disapproving words cannot help us deal with a small child. But what we ourselves do in the presence of the child does help, because when a child sees this it flows right in and becomes sense perception. Our actions, however, must contain a moral quality.

If, for example, a man who is color-blind looks at a colored surface, he may see only gray. An adult looks at another person’s actions also in this way, seeing only the speed and flow of the gestures. We see the physical qualities but no longer see the moral qualities of the person’s actions. A child, on the other hand, sees the moral element, even if only unconsciously, and we must make sure that while in the presence of children, we not only never act in a way that should not be imitated, but never think thoughts that should not enter their souls. Such education of the thoughts is most important for the first seven years of life, and we must not allow ourselves to think any impure, ugly, or angry thoughts when in the company of little children. You may say, “But I can think what I like without altering my outer actions in the least; so the child sees nothing and cannot be influenced by what cannot be seen.” Here it is interesting to consider those very peculiar and rather stupid shows given at one time, with so-called thinking horses — horses that could count, and other animals performing tricks demonstrating “intelligence.” These things were interesting, though not in the way that most people believed.

I once saw the Elberfeld horses. (I want to speak only of my own observation). I saw the horse belonging to Mr. von Osten, and I could see how he gave answers to his master. Von Osten gave him arithmatic problems to do — not very complicated, it is true, but difficult enough for a horse. The horse had to add and subtract and would give the correct answers by stamping his hoof. Now you can look at this either from the perspective of a modern scientist — for example, the professor who wrote a whole fat book on the horse — or you can view it from an anthroposophic standpoint. The professor began by repudiating all non-professional opinions on the matter. (Please do not think that I intend to say anything against natural science, because I am well aware of its value.) In the end, the professor concluded that the horse was able to perceive very delicate movements made by the man — a slight twitch of an eyelid, the most delicate vibrations of certain muscles, and so on. From this, the horse eventually learned what answers corresponded to certain vibrations, and could give the required number of stamps with his hoof. This hypothesis is very clever and intelligent. He then arrives at the inevitable question of whether these things have actually been observed. He asks this question himself, since people are indeed learning to be very conscientious in their research. He answers it, however, by saying that the human senses are not organized in such a way that they perceive such fine delicate movements and vibrations, but a horse can see them. In fact, all he proves is that a horse can see more in a person than a professor can.

But for me, there was something else important — the horse could give the correct answers only when Mr. von Osten stood beside him and spoke. While he talked he kept taking lumps of sugar and placing them in the horse’s mouth. The horse was permeated by a taste of sweetness all the time. This is the important thing; the horse felt suffused with sweetness. In such a condition, even a horse can experience things that would otherwise not be possible. In fact, I would put it this way: Mr. von Osten himself constantly lived in the “sweetened horse,” the etheric horse that had permeated the physical horse. His thoughts were alive and diffused there, just as they were in his own body; his thoughts lived on in the horse. It was not because a horse has a finer perception than a professor, but because it is not yet as highly organized and thus more susceptible to external influences while its physical body continually absorbs the sweetness.

Indeed, there are such influences that pass from person to person, aroused by things almost — if not wholly — imperceptible to contemporary human beings. Such things occur in the interactions between humankind and animals, and they also occur very much when the soul and spirit are not yet free of the body — that is, during early childhood. Small children can actually perceive the morality behind every look and gesture of those around them, even though this may be no longer possible for those who are older. It is therefore of the greatest importance that we never allow ourselves to think ugly thoughts around children; not only does this live on in their souls, but works right down into the physical body.

There is no question that much is being accomplished these days in many medical or other dissertations, and they reflect the current state of scientific knowledge. But a time will come when there will be something very new in this area. Let me give you a specific example to demonstrate what I mean. A time will come when a person may write a doctoral thesis showing that a disease, perhaps during the forty-eighth year of a person’s life, can be traced back to certain evil thoughts in the environment of that person as a child of four or five. This way of thinking can bring us to a genuine understanding of human beings and the capacity for seeing the totality of human life.

We thus have to learn gradually that it is not so much a question of inventing from our own abstract thoughts all kinds of things for little children to do, such as using rods and so on. Children do not spontaneously do things like that. Their own soul forces must be aroused, and then they will imitate what the adults do. A little girl plays with a doll because she sees her mother nursing the baby. Whatever we see in adults is present in children as their tendency to imitate. This tendency must be considered in educating children up to the seventh year.

We must bear in mind, however, that what we educate is subject to change in the child’s organism; in children everything is done in a more living and animated way than in adults, because children are still a unity of body, soul, and spirit. In adults, the body has been freed from the soul and spirit, and the soul and spirit from the body. Body, soul, and spirit exist side by side as individual entities; in the child they are still firmly united. This unity even penetrates the thinking.

We can see these things very clearly through an example. A small child is often given a so-called “beautiful” doll — a painted creature with glass eyes, made to look exactly like a human being. These little horrors are made to open and shut their eyes and do all sorts of other things. These are then presented to children as “beautiful” dolls. Even from an artistic perspective they are hideous; but I will not enlarge on that now. But consider what really happens to a child who is presented with a doll of this kind, a doll that can open its eyes and so on. At first the child will love it because it is a novelty, but that does not last.

Now, compare that with what happens to a child if I just take a piece of rag and make a doll out of that. Tie it together for a head, make two dots for eyes, and perhaps a big nose, and there you have it. Give that to a child and the rest of that doll will be filled out by the child through imagination in soul and spirit, which are so closely connected with the body. Then, every time that child plays with the doll, there is an inner awakening that remains inwardly active and alive. By making such experiments yourself, you will see what a difference there is between giving a child playthings that leave as much as possible to the power of imagination and giving finished toys that leave nothing for the child’s own inner activity. Handwork for small children should only indicate, leaving much for the child’s own imagination to do. Working in set forms that can easily be left as they are does not awaken any inner activity in the child, because the imagination cannot get past what is open to the senses.

Physical and Psychical Effects

This shows us what kind of teachers and educators we should be if we really want to approach children in the right way. We need an art of teaching based on a knowledge of human beings — knowledge of the child. This art of education will arise when we find a doctor’s thesis that works with a case of diabetes at the age of forty by tracing it back to the harmful effects of the wrong kind of play in the third or fourth year. People will see then what we mean by saying that the human being consists of body, soul, and spirit, and that in the child, body, soul, and spirit are still a unity. The spirit and soul later become freed of the body, and a trinity is formed. In the adult, body, soul, and spirit are pushed apart, as it were, and only the body retains what was absorbed by the individual during early development as the seed of later life.

Now this is the strange thing: when an experience affects the soul, its consequences are soon visible, even when the experience was unconscious; physical consequences, however, take seven or eight times longer to manifest. If you educate a child of three or four so that you present what will influence the soul’s life, then the effect of this will appear in the eighth year; and people are usually careful to avoid doing anything with a child of four or five that may affect the soul life in an unhealthy way during the eighth or ninth year. Effects on the physical body take much longer to manifest, because the physical body must free itself of the soul and spirit. Therefore, something that influences the soul life at four or five may come to fruition in the physical body when that person is seven or eight times as old — for example, in the thirty-fifth year. Thus, a person may develop an illness during the late thirties or early forties caused by ill influences that affected that soul while at play as a child of three or four.

If you wish to understand the whole human being, you must also realize that the freeing of the body from soul and spirit in the adult, as opposed to a child’s unity of body, soul, and spirit, is not merely abstract theory, but a matter of very specific knowledge, for we are speaking of very different calendars. The time that the body requires to work something out is increasingly lengthened compared to the time needed by the soul. The physical body works more slowly, and harmful influences manifest much later there than in the soul.

Thus, we often see that when we transgress against a little child in the very early years, many things turn out wrong in the teenager’s soul-life. This can be corrected, however. It is not very difficult to find ways of helping even seemingly unmanageable children during their teens. They may even become very good and respectable, if somewhat boring, citizens later on. This is not very serious. But the body develops more and more slowly as life goes on, and in the end, long after all the soul difficulties of early youth have been overcome, the physical effects will gradually emerge, and in later life the person will have to contend with arthritis or some other illness.

Real, experiential knowledge of the human being is of the greatest importance. Truly concrete knowledge of the human being, with the power of seeing right into the person, is the only possible basis for a true art of education — an art of education whereby persons may find their place in life and, subject to the laws of their own destinies, fully develop all their powers. Education should never work against a person’s destiny, but should help people achieve the fullest possible development of their own predispositions. Often today, people’s education lags far behind the talents and tendencies that destiny implanted in them. We must keep pace with these forces to the extent that the human beings in our care can attain all that their destinies will allow — the fullest clarity of thought, the most loving deepening of feeling, and the greatest possible energy and capacity of will.

This can be done only through an art of education and teaching based on a real knowledge of the human being. We will speak more of this in the next lectures.